Preservation in Portland
The owner's ability to opt a building out of the local landmark listing results from changes to Oregon law in the mid-1990s, when the legislature passed a statute preventing local jurisdictions from applying a historic designation to a property without the consent of the property owner. Starin points out that the same concept applies for privately owned properties on the National Register.
Portland can also count a number of encouraging recent and ongoing preservation successes, ranging from the downtown area's collection of terra cotta buildings to brick warehouses and early modern architecture.
When the twin stars of historic preservation and sustainability come together in a prominent public building, the stage is set for exceptional architecture. That's more or less what happened with the Portland Armory, originally called the First Regiment Armory Annex and built in 1891 from a design by architects McCaw and Martin. The building's Gerding Theater now houses the Portland Center Stage theater company.
Adapted by GBD Architects, the Armory was the first National Register-listed building to receive a Platinum LEED certification. As such, it exemplifies an increasing overlap between sustainable design and historic preservation, and between the communities that support them.
That also proved true during this year's battle over the fate of Memorial Coliseum. The letter sent to Portland Mayor Sam Adams by the regional Cascadia chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council identified reuse of existing buildings as a key principle of sustainable architecture.
Another successful renovation has happened at the circa-1909 Meier & Frank building, which was the first major commission for A.E. Doyle. Now officially called Macy's at Meier & Frank, the 15-story white terra cotta-faced building was remodeled, working from a redesign fashioned by local firm SERA Architects. A new high-end, 331-room hotel, The Nines, occupies nine floors. On the rooftop is a lounge designed by another local firm, Skylab.
The 1949 Portland Visitors Information Center is also looking toward the future with new life. Designed by John Yeon, a locally and regionally influential architect, the center is the sole building within the west side of Tom McCall Waterfront Park along the Willamette River. After languishing for years following the decline and then dissolution of a restaurant located there, the Visitors Center is now being renovated closer to its original design, and will serve as the new home for the city's Rose Festival Foundation.
A source of discord over the Visitors Information Center has been a neon rose affixed to the top of the building. City Councilmember Randy Leonard shepherded the neon rose through the permitting process, sidestepping the usual requirement of approval by the Historic Landmarks Commission.
"The good thing about the rose is it didn't permanently alter anything about the building," says Ballestrem of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation. "The bad thing is it opens the door for other people who want to put that stuff on their roof. You don't have to go back very far in Portland's history to see neon signs on just about every roof. Is that the direction we want to go again?"
The 1907 White Stag Building, a prime example of the cast-iron buildings that used to line the city's Willamette River waterfront, is among those buildings that already sport neon. In 2008, the University of Oregon moved its satellite Portland campus to the building, which now houses architecture studios and classrooms. The rooftop neon sign is likely to be altered for the university while maintaining the basic form and style.
Recent years have also seen numerous old warehouses and other less-glamorous old buildings renovated to house creative industries, such as architecture firms, web designers, and bicycle-frame builders. The Leftbank building in the Rose Quarter, for example has been restored to house a microbrewery and several small businesses; it also hosted the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art's annual Time-Based Art Festival in 2008.
A few miles south, Oregon's only former automobile plant, the Ford Building, which once produced Model T cars, now houses yoga studios, a men's suit maker, an art gallery, and a martial arts academy. And nearby, on the Willamette River just across from downtown Portland, the 1951 Holman Transfer building was renovated into the LEED Gold-rated RiverEast Center, with offices, retail space, and a kayak rental facility.
In Portland, a debate continues about the role and reach of the Historic Landmarks Commission.
In 2006, for example, the commission rejected a contemporary design for a mixed-use building designed by a prominent local firm, Holst Architecture, for a site in the Mississippi Avenue Conservation District. Months later, that same architecture firm saw another project rejected by the commission: a proposed Apple computer store in the Alphabet District.
At issue in both instances was the most appropriate means for contemporary buildings to honor their older architectural neighbors. Is a neo-historic style more appropriate because it is more similar to the historic buildings nearby, or is it patronizing to design a building that looks old but really isn't? There may be a changing set of values in this regard, seen in the outcry that came from the local architecture community in the wake of both commission rulings.
The City has also taken a new look at height restrictions in historic districts, weighing a proposal to allow some buildings in the Skidmore Fountain/ Old Town area to soar much taller than the cast-iron buildings of that neighborhood. This, too, has prompted a philosophical discussion: Does it dishonor historic buildings of just a few stories to have a skyscraper standing next door, or does such variety — of styles, materials, scales, and eras represented — create a vibrant cityscape?
"Preservation is a very subtle art," says Falsetto, the AIA Portland Historic Resources Committee chair. "It's not a hard science; it's a soft science. It's all about values. But everybody has different values." And he, Val Ballestrem, Rick Potestio, and their compatriots will continue to work for thoughtful preservation of a variety of significant buildings in Portland.
Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer who has also published in Metropolis, Architectural Record, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Times. More by Brian Libby
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