Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Buckman Historic District Needs Your Help!

If you follow my blog at all, you'll already be aware that I'm on the all-volunteer Buckman Historic Association, a group that is working towards the goal of establishing a National Historic District in Buckman. I've written about my personal interest in creating this district before, but this month the Southeast Examiner published an article that serves as a great overview of the progress of the effort to date. [Update: the Oregonian has reported on our efforts as well.] We're at the point of the project where we have to perform an Intensive Level Survey, where we need to document every building in the district. That's nearly 500 buildings that need a one- or two- paragraph description, and that's where we need your help!

Can you write a coherent paragraph or two about a building? Do you have a working architectural vocabulary? If you do, could you consider lending a hand? Maybe you could write the descriptions or just one or two buildings. Maybe you'll find it enjoyable and you'll even do a half-dozen!

Maybe you like the idea of creative writing, but just need a subject to push you along... in that case, why not take a shot at describing one of our buildings? Even if you don't think that your writing could help, it may help give us a framework to work with.

Here's an example from the Department of the Interior's thrilling, mile-a-minute text How to Complete the National Register Registrations Form:
The Edward Jones House is a 1 and 1/2 story, frame, Arts and Crafts style bungalow with a modified rectangular plan, an intersecting gable roof, and a front porch. The walls and roof are finished with wood shingles, and the foundation, chimneys, and porch piers are built of fieldstone. Above the front porch is an open-timbered end gable with Japanese-influenced joinery. The interior of the house reflects the Arts and Crafts style in the oak woodwork and built-in cabinetry. The house is in the Shadyside neighborhood, a middle-class subdivision with tree-lined streets and 50-foot wide lots. The house fronts west onto Oak Street and is set behind a modest, cultivated lawn which slopes slightly toward the street. Behind the house, a rock garden incorporates the stonework of the foundation and chimney and is enclosed by a stone wall. A garage, echoing the house in design and materials, is set at the northeast corner of the lot and reached by a straight driveway from the street. The property is in excellent condition and has had very little alteration since its construction.
Do you think you could help us out? Maybe you're friends or family with a civic planner, an architect, or a historic preservationist that you could send this along to. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, do you think that you'd be able to help us out in some other manner? We need to do outreach and fund-raising, and could use assistance with that. If you can even lend just a few hours of your time to this cause, I'd really appreciate it!

If you're able to help out, contact me either by email or give me a text or a call: 503.442.9703.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Some Antique Shop Scores

Heather and I went to one of our favorite antique malls today, the Monticello Antique Marketplace, and I picked up a couple of great things that I thought were worth sharing.


A picaresque photo postcard of Portland, featuring the old bus mall! The photo was taken at about SW 5th and Washington, looking northwest on 5th. The photographer was standing very near the original location of the sculpture Kvinneakt, which is better known as the statue in the"Expose Yourself to Art" photo. (Totally aside, I had know idea that this photo ever existed. Keep Portland Weird indeed!) One of the things that is bothering me about this photo is that I can't figure out the time period in which it was taken. My guess is the late 90s, but I think the answer probably lays in determining when that took that model of bus out of service (the school bus-colored bus in the background is the 19 Glisan at a Beaver stop (I really miss the nature icons that defined the stops!).) The most visible building in the background is the Oregon Trail Building, which was repainted somewhere around 2005, I think.

Anyway, I'll present the second one without comment (aside to say that I believe it's from the late 1930s. Anyone have a better guess?):Add Image

Make sure you read it carefully, it's not your ordinary missed phone call memo.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Buckman, Portland, Oregon and its future

Buckman, the neighborhood I live in, is developing rapidly, and in unexpected ways. It is for this reason that I'm a volunteer on the Buckman Historic Association, a group that is trying to designate an area from SE 12th to SE 20th and from Burnside to Belmont as a place recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. This part of the city has always been a middle-class suburb, and our goal is to maintain the space as such and preserve the character of the area. We're presenting our goal at the next Buckman Community Association meeting (Thursday, March 10th, Central Catholic High School), and hosting a panel of experts who will give short presentations and answer questions regarding the advantages and disadvantages of being in a district that's on the National Register of Historic Places. I encourage you to join us in order to advocate for this designation.

Five years ago, I was sitting at the B-Side and talking to a friend about the then-recent announcement of the Burnside Bridgehead development: a plan to build a retail and housing hub at the eastern foot of the Burnside Bridge. We were talking about how the lower part of Burnside - everything west of 12th Avenue, towards the river - was set to blow up. If we were developers, we surmised, we'd be buying lots up left and right. I suggested that the vacant lot behind the Plaid Pantry would be the first place to go, but I was wrong: the first big development came farther up, when construction started on the Burnside Rocket building. It took a couple of years before my suggestion of the vacant lot started being developed, and it came in the form of the BSide6. Around the same time, rontoms was being worked on. Our predictions seemed to be coming true.

But the Bridgehead was put off by the near-collapse of our economic system, and the assumed development didn't happen. Between then and now, however, something much more significant happened: the Burnside-Couch couplet became a reality. Burnside and Couch were turned into one way streets from the Burnside Bridge to 15th Avenue, and traffic lights were installed at every intersection.

I'd been following the progress of the couplet since around 2007, but apparently hadn't been paying enough attention: I was surprised when, during the construction, I noticed that traffic lights were going in at each intersection. I was fascinated. I mused (probably on multiple boring occasions) to my wife, Heather, about it: "It's like a small town downtown!" "Do you see how it's at every intersection? Next thing you know, there will be lights on Ankeny and Davis - they're preparing in advance!" "Man, this is going to blow up the neighborhood."

Indeed, the Burnside-Couch couplet is blowing up the neighborhood. I've been a big proponent of the project, as there is a lot of under-utilized space (read: parking lots) in this part of town, but for every action, there are unintended consequences. And these consequences came fast. In December, the owners of two 1900s-era apartment houses served eviction notices to their tenants in order to build a mixed-use building. In the same month, the owners of the Galaxy, at 9th and Burnside, submitted their proposal to demolish the existing structure in order to build a new one. And just this month, the owners of the Foursquare Church have proposed turning their parking lot into a new mixed-use senior center.

I opposed the demolition of the apartment building and the Galaxy (the latter of which I blogged about), because they destroy the existing historic elements of the neighborhood, but I'm generally supportive of the building proposed at SE 12th & Burnside, primarily because it is currently only occupied by a parking lot (a use that I am militantly opposed to). The proposed building at SE 12th & Burnside, however, has a request that the other two projects didn't have: a request for a height variance. The height limit in this part of the Buckman neighborhood is 45 feet, while portions of this building will reach 65 feet. That's a significant departure from the height of the rest of the buildings in this part of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood is blowing up, but not in the way I had imagined. For the one project that removes a parking lot, there are two that destroy structures that help define the present and the past tense of the neighborhood. This isn't going to change; indeed, it's going to accelerate. There's already talk of putting metered parking in the Central Eastside. There are many structures in the neighborhood that property owners may consider out-dated and ripe for demolition when they see the potential value of the lot that they sit on.

I'm pro-development and anti-NIMBYism, but I'm against development that ignores the environmental and historical benefits of re-using or re-purposing existing structures. Tearing a building down - even with the intent to recycle materials - is never as energy-efficient in the long term as maintaining the building. And when a building is demolished, or renovated beyond recognition, we're robbing future generations of that building. I personally have little appreciation for the Galaxy as an example of Googie architecture, but how do I know that it's not the next generation's Portland Public Market?

Lower Buckman - the region below 12th, the area that is being developed most rapidly - has had its character irrevocably altered over the years. Once a part of downtown East Portland, containing late 1800s and 1900s era mixed-use buildings and residences, lower Buckman succumbed to the automobile in the middle of the 20th century, with many of its lots being turned into auto dealerships and parking lots. It's easy now to imagine that a similar type of massive change couldn't happen to the existing residential area of Buckman, but there's no guarantee against it, especially when there is such an opportunity for financial gain on the part of property owners who may be more interested in money than they are in their community.

Update: Based on a conversation with Anne Richardson over on Facebook, I changed the description of Buckman as a "working-class enclave" to read "middle-class suburb".

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How to Read Local Landscapes at the Architectural Heritage Center

Yesterday I had the good fortune (seriously, I won tickets) to attend the presentation by professor Reiko Hillyer, "Marking Our Territory: How to Read Local Landscapes", which is part of the Oregon Humanities "The Conversation Project: A New Chautauqua" program. (I had to look up the meaning of Chautauqua). The title of the presentation doesn't give a particularly succinct description of it's main thematic, but this sentence from the press release helps: "One of the most persistent ways people exert power over others is to control their access to space." This is a topic that I have considerable interest in, as I think it's important to recognize the subtle ways that the built environment can influence our perceptions and behaviors.

The program was divided into two parts: first Hillyer started with presenting an overview of the basic thesis, and the latter portion was a group conversation that Hillyer ably moderated. I'm always a little leery of democratic group conversations, especially among lay-people (nevermind that this was an interested/motivated group of lay-people), because I find that the central topic can be easily derailed by someone who wants to turn the discussion to their own personal experiences and narratives, regardless of how directly relevant their thoughts might be. I'll be the first to admit that my attitude is flawed: my feeling of a voice "derailing" a conversation is my own perception; it's clearly important for the person speaking, and indeed, may even be reflective of other people's thoughts and opinions. Group conversations and democracy are sloppy things by nature and necessity, and everyone has the right to speak. Please accept this as my too-lengthy explanation of why I'll focus on the former rather than the latter part of the program.

Hillyer started by talking about the idea of "landscape" and how it is defined, noting that is often framed metaphorically or pastorally. When we are talking about a landscape painting, for example, it generally conjures mental images of undisturbed nature: rolling hills, majestic peaks, perhaps a winding river. The idea of landscape often ignores the vernacular of the built environment: the arterials of a city, dense downtowns, industrial waterfronts, big box strips with acres of parking. This is all part of our day-to-day landscape, and it affects us and our behaviors, although it is so common-place as to be rendered invisible. In not seeing this landscape, and recognizing it as such, we do not question the nature of it or ask why it exists in the fashion that it does. Without intentionally acknowledging the built environment, it becomes something that just happens; something that just is, much like the rolling hills, majestic peaks and winding rivers. Except, of course, the built environment exists only through past specific human intention.

Along this line of thought, Hillyer posed questions to us such as: who gets to decide what constitutes a neighborhood? It's a good question, especially when taking in historical events like the practice of redlining, which undeniably forms an element of the modern demographics of certain neighborhoods (Alameda is an example that comes immediately to my mind). She talked towards the power behind the control of space, how it can be used to reinforce segregation, or to delineate the perceived appropriate use of space. In terms of racial and economic parity, the practical application of space as a means of control can have devastating effects: take the effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans for example.

On the psychological control and definition of space, she showed us this image, which I felt was particularly compelling:

This picture of a segregated water fountain from the South illustrates that segregation wasn't about maintaining a physical distance between races as much as it was using the space to define the superiority of whites over blacks. The space is shared, but the symbolism of the two different fountains is as obvious as it is oppressive. This was part of a landscape, and someone constructed that portion of architecture with a specific thought and intention.

Portland's racist past was addressed, as well. There were the overt forms of racism in the city, from the "We Cater to White Trade Only" signs in lunch counter windows of downtown Portland in the mid-40s to the Coon-Chicken Inn on Sandy Boulevard (which exists today as Clyde's Prime Rib), but also the much more destructive public works projects like the construction of Memorial Coliseum, I-5 and the Fremont Bridge, and the planned expansion of Emmanuel Hospital. This is a subject that interests me greatly, because I think that our city has a long and continuing history of targeting minority areas for re-development, and I think it's important for them to be acknowledged in order for them to be prevented in the future. Other large-scale "urban renewal" fiascoes include the destruction of the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of South Portland through the South Auditorium project, the destruction of the original Chinatown through the Morrison Bridge expansion, and the further harassment of the black community through the construction of the Minnesota Freeway. Oh, and of course: Vanport.

The presentation continued, as Hillyer addressed ways in which the built environment can also be reclaimed by the minority or by dissenting voices. She used lunch counter sit-ins as an example of political acts that occur as a protest to the proscribed use of a space. She talked about monuments to Confederate generals erected during the Jim Crow era before showing us an alternate - and very provocative - example of a monument that addresses the experience of the Civil Rights era:

She discussed the semantics of our remembered past as well, showing us a historical marker reading "The Massacre at Wounded Knee", where "Massacre" had clearly been added over a previous word. The previous word was "Battle", and the change reflected a different framing of events. These semantics are also reflected in what we choose to preserve, and how we preserve it. The Paul Revere house in Boston was being used as an Italian grocery and bank in the late 19th century before it was purchased and returned to a semblance of its 18th-century purposes. Through this preservation, the memory of the structure as a home to Paul Revere is honored, while its previous importance to an ethnic group is erased. In this example, it was made clear that preservation itself is a political act.

Not all modifications to the environment around us have a specific racial or classist subtext, but the whole program served as a great lesson that in any type of development there is a value judgment that is being made. Forest or farmland? Farmland or suburb? Portland Avenue or Rosa Parks Way? "Jump City" [ugh.] or inner-city Home Depot?

Early on in the growth of Portland, the men developing the city made a specific decision to set aside the Park Blocks as one contingent whole - not the divided North and South Park Blocks that we know of today. It was a generation removed from the original developers that started building on the blocks that separate the Park Blocks today, and the resulting legacy of that had left a couple of blocks that were merely used as surface parking lots. One of those lots has recently been returned to the public domain as Directors Park. It's the same type of value judgment that was made decades ago that resulted in the transformation of a Meier and Frank parking structure into Pioneer Courthouse Square. (There were also private profits made off of public funds in both of these cases, which shouldn't be discounted in the equation, but I digress.)

This program left me inspired, and made me feel like I have an improved vocabulary for how I regard our urban landscape now, and I'm going to make the assumption that others in attendance felt the same way. There was quite a bit in this presentation that I feel like I'm not doing justice to, and I'm not sure that Reiko Hillyer will have the opportunity to make this presentation again, but if she does, I would strongly encourage you to experience it for yourself. I knew a few other people that were in attendance, specifically my pal Patrick Tsukuda, Dan Haneckow of the fantastic blog Cafe Unknown, and Val Ballestrem, Education Manager of the Architectural Heritage Center, and I hope that they all will provide their own accounts of the experience as a way to expand on and refine my own description.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Opposing the Demolition of the Galaxy Restaurant

If you haven't heard, the Galaxy, over at NE 9th and Burnside, is slated for destruction. The Portland Preservation blog has a good post about it, including a picture of the god-awful design plans for the new structure. There's still a possibility that the project can be stopped or modified, as it is still open for public comment. If you're interested, you should contact Christine Caruso, the city planner. Her email is, and you should reference case number LU 10-160377 DZ. Here's the email I sent to her this morning:

Hi Christine,

I'm submitting this email to you in order to register my opposition to the plans to demolish the Galaxy Restaurant at 9th and Burnside. I am interested in this issue because I live at SE 15th and Stark Street, and walk by this property everyday on my walk home from work; additionally, I spend a lot of leisure time in this area at nearby bars and shops. I'm opposed to the current plan because of the following issues:

  • The current structure has some historical context in that it is the first Denny's Restaurant in Portland, and that it is an example of the Googie architectural style. Admittedly, I personally don't believe this to be especially significant, but I do have the belief that this is a type of architecture that Portlanders will lament the destruction of in future decades, much the same way we regret today the destruction that occurred in the 1930s of our cast iron buildings.
  • The destruction of a one-story structure in order to replace it with another one-story structure is not in line with our city's values of re-use and sustainability. In the Oregonian article, "Portland's first Denny's building, a rare example of Googie architecture, could be demolished", architect James M. Park cites the out-dated plumbing and the need for additional square footage as two reasons why the building could not be salvaged, but this is a false argument; replacing plumbing does not require the removal of a structure, and square footage can be added to the existing structure without completely demolishing it. Destroying buildings has a real cost in the amount of energy and resources it costs, as well as the amount of waste it generates.
  • The idea that the site should be replaced by another one-story structure does not make sense when considering the future growth of the neighborhood. With the completion of the Burnside-Couch couplet, lower Burnside is poised to grow exponentially and become a much higher density mixed-use neighborhood - a 20 minute neighborhood. Should this structure be destroyed and re-developed, it doesn't make sense to replace it with a structure that doesn't seem to anticipate or take advantage of the neighborhood's future.
  • Finally, having reviewed the proposed architectural plans for "Trio Club", I believe that the aesthetic of this project is horrible. The proposed design and materials resemble something from the "big box" complexes of the suburbs. The project certainly does not follow the guidelines put forth in the 1991 Special Design Guidelines for the Central Eastside Plan, specifically ignoring the preference on Burnside for arcaded buildings. I would argue that no one would agree that the proposed design meets the goal of "enriching the pedestrian environment with quality materials and design features that are respective of the district's urban character."
Thank you for taking the time to read my email and considering my opinions,
Khris Soden