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Redfox Commons and Fairmount Apartments renovations make a historic Northwest Portland intersection come alive again

COURTESY: BRIAN LIBBY - Brian Libby says two renovations in Northwest could bring back the good old days.

You might say Portland came of age 114 years ago at the intersection of Northwest 26th and Vaughn.

Standing there was a grandiose entrance to the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition (better known as the World's Fair): a colonnade supported by 20 massive Doric columns, recalling St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

The entrance and the fair itself proudly declared that this sleepy, isolated frontier town was ready for its coming-out party as a major city. But the structures were more temporary stage sets than lasting architecture — all quickly disassembled after the last ticket was sold.COURTESY: LARA SWIMMER PHOTOGRAPHY - Red Fox Commons, located on a site that once served as the entrance to the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, represents the latest transition of the Northwest Portland industrial district.

In the ensuing century-plus, this land transitioned industrial enclave, as it largely remains today. However, a planned extension of the Portland Streetcar and two recent building renovations indicate that's changing.

With the momentum of high-density development sprouting nearby in both nearby Slabtown and the adjacent former ESCO property, the residential and mixed-use portion of Northwest Portland has been inching northward to Vaughn, the southern edge of this former Lewis & Clark Exposition land.

What's now known as Redfox Commons, completed earlier this year, makes the leap across Vaughn complete.

Comprised of two former hay-bale warehouses built for J.A. Freeman and Sons in the 1940s, the design by Lever Architecture for Langley Investment Partners makes these structures sing. The buildings were stripped down to expose their gorgeous roof trusses inside, allowing wide-open, column-free space. A new glass partition between the warehouses and a row of clerestory windows fill the interior with sunlight.

Just across the intersection of 26th and Vaughn is one of the only buildings standing during the 1905 fair: the Fairmount Apartments.

Built as a hotel serving the Lewis & Clark Exposition's 1.6 million visitors, it was added to the National Register in 2000. With a blend of Colonial Revival and Craftsman style, its E-shaped configuration filled the rooms with light while its covered front porches made the apartments feel like houses.

By the time a renovation began in 2016 by architect Michael Flowers for owner Urban Development + Partners, the stucco and wood-clad structure was in grim shape: rotting from within and some floors sagging by as much as half a foot.

That changed with a nearly two-year renovation that uncovered old skylights and refinished hardwood floors in addition to the structural stabilization. With that streetcar line coming to this street, a carless lifestyle awaits.

Just as the fair had Guild's Lake itself, so too does this neighborhood need open public spaces to flourish — not just places to live and work. Will the largest urban wilderness in the nation do? Forest Park is just a few blocks away.

After the 1905 fair, Portland became a big city for the first time, with massive growth in the 1910s and '20s. We haven't reached that level of growth today, but hundreds of thousands are coming in the years ahead. Today, we don't mark our successes with Doric columns, but (with apologies to the 1905 fair) we never really were that sort. It's the place-making that matters, and the restoration of buildings like these.

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: portlandarchitecture.com


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