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Alex Stange

Does the Historic Places status mean the interior is protected from being gutted? Wow, I hope the winning bidder is someone who will open at least some of this great building to the public.

Although they're controlled by totally separate government agencies, it may be a more attractive property if paired with redevelopment of the central post office property across the street. The hotel or school would have been perfect because neither would require the parking capacity that I believe this site lacks. Realistically a corporate HQ is going to want more parking. I mean, even Wieden + Kennedy is sitting on top of a little garage, and across the street from a bigger one.

Anyway, an undignified new chapter in the saga of this great building, let's hope for the best.


I remember talking to Portland's most prominent architect about this building and he said it's got a lot of problems. Is the seismic refit the major cost?

Still, I'd love to see it saved. It'd be great for PICA, but doesn't it qualify for the $1 education price if acquired by a school or college? But I guess PNCA is already committed to (and working hard to pay off) its current facilities plus the contemporary craft museum. The UO has the White Stag. Any other edu institutions that might be interested and have the funds to refit? Where's the stimulus money when you need it?

Though it's from a different period of design, the situation reminds me a bit of the 1934 Nashville post office that was converted to a decent museum, the Frist http://www.fristcenter.org/site/about/building.aspx. Please do keep us apprised of developments on this, Brian. That location, plus the upcoming Post Office redevelopment, could be a key to completing the revival of that potentially great area of town.

Brian Libby

Good point about the advantages of an educational institution taking the building. What about Portland State? It's not on the main campus, but it's just down the MAX line now, and also on the Park Blocks. Plus PSU is continuing to expand. This would be a HUGE added presence for them.


And since they're emphasizing their green credentials, the greenest building is the one that's already built, assuming it can accept energy saving refurbs. In fact, this could become a demo project for how to do a green retrofit an old structure and repurpose it for 21st century uses. It would complement the brand new green Sustainability Center they're planning. But I think PSU is pretty much broke; even the current seismic refit for lincoln hall required a special legislative appropriation , didn't it?


Hey Brett, out of curiosity, just who IS Portland's most prominent architect? I've always wondered.

We (UO Portland Urban Arch. Center) had our thesis juries, and a raging all night party, in the already abandoned customs house some years back- my lousy garage rock grad student band played a show in one of the huge conference rooms. Ahh, memories... And what a great interior! If they were really thinking like online auctioneers, they'd part that puppy out! I'll take one of those vault doors off their hands for $5 for sure.

I do know that the UO lobbied hard for the customs house before settling for Venerable and the White Stag. The rumor was that the GSA dumped the University like a hot potato when the hotel developer came along, only to have the economy tank. It's worked out OK for the UO I suppose, but just imagine how much better it could have been! The building is very fussy (and utterly untouchable because of our absurd attitude towards embalming history in this country) for a contemporary architecture school, but at least it's significant and interesting, as well as brilliantly sited for an educational institution in an urban environment. Both are more than can be said for the White Stag.

Brian Libby

Daniel, if I may answer your question to Brett: Brad Cloepfil is definitely the most prominent current Portland architect, while historically the most prominent is Pietro Belluschi.

Douglas K.

I would be delighted if there was some way to turn this building into a museum of contemporary art or something similar to it ... maybe the City of Portland could buy it and use it as a permanent home for the Regional Arts and Culture Council's art collection (which has well over a thousand "portable" works of art). Add in shows curated by PICA and maybe some other local arts groups, art on long-term loan from other museums, maybe get corporate sponsorships to bring through major traveling contemporary art exhibitions...

It seems to me come kind of deal could be made to turn the building into a major public contemporary art center.

And if the City were to buy it and keep it as a public building, maybe the $20 million in seismic upgrading could be paid in large part through federal grants or even another round of stimulus spending.


Thanks for that, Brian! I was just giving Brett a hard time, I forget sarcasm often doesn't translate in print. Also, Bob Frasca is going to have his feelings hurt.


More than a year ago, I suggested the idea of using this building as the Oregon Sustainability Center and the idea was completely disregarded. Apparently, in the eyes of those running that show, a 100+ year-old building like this can't qualify as a "living" building. Absurd.

The GSA held an open house a while back and I was amazed that while there is a lot of acoustic tile that needs removing, there is also much intact, including massive interior doors and original big double hung windows that still work.

I was at the Frist in Nashville last fall and it is a great example of a federal building being turned into a gallery. Let's hope the right people step up to acquire this building and that it becomes another great publicly accessible space.


$5?! Forget about it!


The building should be rehabilitated and re-purposed with federal stimulus dollars.
The feds are spending $130 million to rehab
a building downtown. Amazing wastefulness
of tax money. Soon the government will be broke.


Okay DES, How's about $20?

The Sustainability Center idea is a really good one... maybe. The fundamental problem with the building is that the plan is really weird. It makes a great early 20th century customs house, but not much else. One wonders what the program looked like that spawned such an odd assemblage of spaces, accessed by such a labyrinthine circulation system. The grand staircase notwithstanding, the whole thing is really quite anti- Beaux Arts. Depending on the bay size it might make sense to gut it- but I suspect that even that might be problematic. Anyone who's been in there knows what I'm talking about- the spatial modules are very small. Sounds like a great challenge... for Portland's Most Prominent Architect! I bet AWA would just LOVE to renovate a tortured Victorian office building within the strict confines of Portland's Historic Design Review (there's that sarcasm again...)!


The General Services Administration (GSA) in the northwest has taken a very pro-active point of view in its previous dealings with local historic buildings. While they missed the boat several years ago when this property first came up for adaptive reuse proposals, the boutique hotel won over the proposal by the UO for its Portland Campus (the White Stag became the next consideration). In the recent past, the GSA had a Historic Building Preservation Plan (HBPP) developed for the Pioneer Courthouse and the Gus Solomon Courthouse before any action was taken for adoptive reuse. The HBPP is a tool that identifies the most character-defining-features (CDF) of a property and then breaks those CDF into six levels of significance such as a number score of one (highest) for the lobby of the Solomon and a number six (lowest) for the mechanical rooms etc. This process should also be by the GSA for the US Customs House in consultation with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The SHPO is aware of the current deliberations on the disposition of the property and they are aware, as is the GSA that a Section 106 review of the National Historic Preservation Act will need to be completed before a transfer of ownership is approved. This type of undertaking is not new for the GSA or SHPO and in the end it becomes the responsibility of the new property owner to comply with the federal regulations for historic properties (36 CFR Part 800 – Protection of Historic Properties). Therefore, while alterations to the interior of the building will need to be made to accommodate most any new uses, the CDF of the building should be preserved thus giving a new tenant the flexibility to work with history and make the spaces usable for new uses. Further, dependent on the final sale price, the adaptive reuse may be eligible for the 20% federal Investment Tax Credit and the states 15-year property tax freeze.
I find it somewhat galling that there is the public perception that any architect, whether the most prominent or amateur can take on a historic building and meet the letter and spirit of the preservation standard for rehabilitation. The architects I know that take on this issue are, for the most part, well versed in historic preservation and specialize in this discipline. If you believe that AWA is the right fit, wait until they begin their work on the 511 Broadway Building (US Post Office) for PNCA to judge their chops with historic preservation done right.
I agree with Val that the US Customs House would make a fine home for Oregon Sustainability Center, one that demonstrates, again, that the extant build environment is the least costly in terms of energy and materials consumption. As recently published in Metropolis magazine, June 2009 - Ultimate Client, Mr. Fedrizzi, CEO of the USGBC stated that; “The USGBC wanted an existing structure [for its new headquarters] both to save cash and because there’s something inherently right about recycling an old building….. In the new Washington, D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), corporate pomp is at high tide. It’s a testament to the organization’s fortitude and the resonance of its mission. If LEED is indeed the benchmark of green, and surely it is, then the council’s tailored digs signal a shift in green building itself. The new headquarters, housed in an undistinguished 1975 office building on L Street, ushers in a fresh era of discretionary architecture, in which renovated commercial interiors supplant from-the-ground-up construction—the ultimate act of recycling.


Oh, boy. I sure hope the feds use PayPal and don't agree to ship the building to anyone in the Ukraine.

Ms. Sherman

So do you think your average 3rd grader can get the power of a building designed by Brad Cloepfil?

I love the building he did in "my hood" but I would hate two of them on the same street. 2281 NW Glisan Building shows that a new building in a historic district can speak to the era in which it is built and not cause havoc to the historic district. Plus it works for the tenants.

Link has a few nice angles on 2281 NW Glisan (Portland, Oregon)

You already know that I think Belluschi and Doyel are overrated.

You're suddenly posting a lot on historic buildings. ;)

Brian Libby

Ms. Sherman,

As it happens, I actually went on a walking tour of Northwest Portland two weeks ago with a 3rd grade class, and showed them Brad Cloepfil & Allied Works' 2281 Glisan Building. Which they appreciated! I think they would be more than fine with two of these on the same street. Good is good!


Henry, you're a crack up. I love the way you satirize bureaucracy so pitch-perfectly.

Ms. Sherman


I think that you only get a 10 year state tax freeze now, not the fifteen. And some sorts of uses might not allow that break at all. For example, if the building had already had the state historic tax abatement for two cycles when the program had 15 year cycles.
Now with White Stage they rolled back the clock and restated the cycle under the old formula. This has gone on so long they missed the window of opportunity.


Ms. Sherman:
The Customs House has never been under the State Special Assessment or received the federal ITC benefits. The commercial and residential use will qualify but not a public institutional use such as the UO or PSU but a non-profit could not use the state tax benefit but it could "broker" the federal ITC to a for-profit entity. It was interesting to see the article in today's Big O on the interview with Bob Packwood and the reference to his 'greatest achievement" as the Tax Reforms of 1986. It was that reform that cut the ITC from 25% to the current 20% and related fall in ITC application.

Greg Williams

Does anybody know if you need to update the building if you keep it in the cirrent use?


What about all of us working together?
What I am suggesting is that the building was paid for by all of us through our taxes.
It is our building - The powers that be will donate the building for the right use.
With the embarassment that we Oregonians house the #2 City in America for "sex trade" -
This beautiful historic center could be used to rescue the young women and men that want a new chance at life.
With honest, hard working, ethical role models, these young men and women can become leaders. IF you and i will sacrifice our time and effort to out line the use of the building. The rest will fall into place. It should be a haven for Portland to enjoy. Botique shops, Coffee, Deli, yes, dormitory, education yes, music school equal to any in the country, yes, film and media, yes, a place to congregate and meet the future? Yes, I will guarantee you that all of us can make this facility glow with the heart and love of what Oregon was when I was a boy! Yes, I was on the streets, and I faced failure; but today by God's grace, I have 5 graduate degrees and 18 grandchildren.
Let's give the kids a chance that don't have a chance without us!
That building can restore sanity in our City that has kids shooting heroin in plain site beside the Wilamette River in broad day lite.
Aren't you fed up with the status quo?

Sharon Bair

I agree that the Customs House should be maintained as a historic landmark and think the idea of using it for public arts is ideal. Two questions: Does anyone know how the bidding system works? Does anyone know what the symbols under the windows stand for? I am particularly interested in the "H" hand-shape pointing heavenward. (I'm a teacher of the deaf.) Thanks.

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