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An upcoming demolition speaks to a broader need for historic preservation

BRIAN LIBBYToday Portland’s skyline is dotted with construction cranes. But what also has become distressingly prevalent are the demolition crews.

The metro area’s urban growth boundary means we’re growing up and in, more than sprawling at the suburban edges. But the choice between density and historic preservation is a false one.

The city’s own studies indicate there is still plenty of developable vacant land left without razing historic buildings. But zoning meant to encourage density is combining with skyrocketing local real-estate values to tip the balance. Now it’s not just decaying little houses being demolished but veritable mansions, not just vacant lots or empty buildings being redeveloped but perennially-occupied ones.

If we don’t change our laws to better protect historic buildings and incentivize their restoration, it will be not just an irreplaceable cultural loss but also an economic one. Great places attract more people to live, work and play.

Nowhere is the shame of our disappearing historic fabric greater than one downtown Portland block that, at least for now, includes two significant buildings, the circa-1892 Ancient Order United Workmen Temple and the circa-1906 Hotel Albion building (home to the Lotus Café) that are scheduled to be demolished. At least the Auditorium Building on that same block appears safe.

The Workmen Temple’s demolition, initiated by owners Onder Development and Arthur Murtal to make way for taller hotel and office towers on the block, will be the largest historic building to come down in the city since the 1980s. Last year, the developers succeeded in having the Temple removed from the city’s Historic Resources Inventory without any review, one of many regulatory loopholes. “It’s certainly the most significant demolition to happen in over a decade,” says Peggy Morretti, executive director of Restore Oregon. “It’s not okay.”

PAMPLIN MEDIA PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - The circa-1892 Ancient Order United Workmen Temple (pictured here) and the circa-1906 Hotel Albion building (home to the Lotus Café) will be demolished as part of the Onder Development office and hotel project at Southwest Third Avenue and Salmon Street. The brick Auditorium and Music Hall building, also at this site, will stay. Nevermind that the new hotel and office, designed by Ankrom Moisan, are typically unremarkable. The city’s Design Commission recently criticized the designs for not being an improvement upon what they’re replacing. What’s more troubling is that the buildings seem doomed more by intent than economics.

Earlier this year one of the developers told me they’d explored every option for restoration, but bringing such a large unreinforced masonry building as the Workmen Temple seismically up to code without taking a loss had proven impossible. Yet, as Morretti explains, “There are similarly sized masonry buildings around the city that have been seismically retrofitted. There are a whole lot of incentives they could have had to restore the Workmen Temple. I don’t believe they wanted to.”

Some demolition and new construction is inevitable and healthy, providing jobs and serving a changing society’s needs. But at times, particularly economic booms, a lot of great old buildings — ones with more than enough inherent economic value to justify restoring — need our help. In the booming 1950s and ’60s, for example, Portland saw countless irreplaceable architectural gems along its waterfront torn down in the name of parking lots, amidst the rise of the automobile age. Today is one of those times too.

It may be too late to save the Workmen Temple and the Hotel Albion from the clutches of moneyed interests and mediocrity, but amidst the rubble it’s time to draw a line in the sand.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at:

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