Former J.K. Gill building returns to its roots
A nearly century-old downtown Portland structure, formerly known as the Gladys McCoy Building, is about to get a new look — and a new name.
Since 1998, the 10-story structure at 426 S.W. Harvey Milk St., housed the headquarters of the Multnomah County Health Department. But when the agency moved to a new building on Northwest Sixth Avenue in September, it took the Gladys McCoy name with it.
Now, Urban Renaissance Group and Gaw Capital USA, a partnership that purchased the building from the county in January 2018, are in the process of rebranding the structure with the name and identity of its original owner and tenant, the J.K. Gill Co. At one time, the company was the largest distributor of books in the Northwest and employed more than 500 people.
The rebranding plan includes a major renovation of the building, an effort that is already under way.
"(The J.K. Gill Building) is going to be essentially a brand new building within the existing shell," said Tom Kilbane, Urban Renaissance Group vice president and regional general manager.
J.K. Gill was once the largest book distributor in the Northwest. But the company, which also was known in Portland as a stationary retailer, rose from humble beginnings.
Joseph K. Gill was teaching at Willamette University in Salem in 1866 when he decided to buy a school supply company in that city. Within two years, Gill and a partner, C.F. Yeaton, moved the company into a newly constructed store. By 1870, however, Gill had sold his share of that company to his partner and moved to Portland, where he joined with George A. Steel to purchase a stationery store at the corner of Front and Washington streets.
The business partners found success providing Portlanders with a mix of office supplies and a variety of books. When Steel retired in 1878, the business was renamed J.K. Gill and Co.
In 1922, after a series of relocations and a split and reunion that resulted in the company simplifying its name to J.K. Gill, the business hired the Portland architectural firm of Sutton & Whitney to design a new building. The structure was constructed at the corner of Southwest Fifth Avenue and Southwest Ankeny, now known as Southwest Harvey Milk Street. The $300,000 construction cost, along with the purchase of land and furnishings, brought the project's total price tag to $600,000.
At the time the building was constructed, J.K. Gill was recognized as the country's biggest book distributor. The company continued to flourish even after its founder's death in 1931, by being responsive to the market. In the 1960s, for example, as downtown retail outlets lost popularity to shopping malls, the company relocated its chain of stores accordingly. In 1970, with 11 stores in Oregon and Washington and $13.8 million in annual sales, Gill's heirs sold the company to Young & Rubicam. By 1976, the company had grown to 36 stores in three states with total annual sales of more than $40 million.
The company continued to grow as Bro-Dart Industries acquired J.K. Gill from Young & Rubicam in 1980. Despite that success, by the time the 1990s rolled around, increasing competition from larger national retailers signaled the end of J.K. Gill.
The company's presence in Portland lasted until 1991, when the flagship store closed its doors in the building that Joseph Gill built in 1922. Multnomah County, which had begun leasing space it the building in 1978, purchased the property in 1988 for the offices of its health department.
In January 2018, as Multnomah County neared completion of a new headquarters building in downtown Portland, the building was purchased by Seattle-based Urban Renaissance Group and Gaw Capital USA, a private real estate equity firm.
As they prepare to renovate the building and restore the original J.K. Gill name, the new owners expect the rebranding will spark nostalgia and fond memories for long-time Portlanders.
"I have friends who still remember getting their school books there," Kilbane said.
The building's location played a big role in the decision of Urban Renaissance Group, and GAW, real estate investment trust, to purchase the property.
"You've got walkable amenities, great transit and a food cart pod across the street," Kilbane told the Business Tribune. "The building's also got great bones."
Despite a great location, the building was one of Portland's best kept real estate secrets.
"People have walked by this building a hundred times and have never noticed it," Kilbane said.
He was the exception.
While his company was renovating the Yeon Building, about a block away, Kilbane often passed by the former Gill building and thought it would be fun to have a a shot at renovating the 10-story building.
His company got its chance after Multnomah County put the building up for sale. The county leased the building back from Urban Renaissance Group and GAW for nearly a year while waiting for its new headquarters to be completed.
Now that the agency has relocated, interior demolition work has started on the building.
Shell improvements are expected to be finished by the beginning of July.
SERA Architects handled design for the renovation, and Fortis Construction is serving as general contractor. While Kilbane's company has worked with Fortis on previous projects, this is its first time working with SERA.
The goal of the renovation is to take the building back to "where it started," with a book and stationery theme woven into the lobby décor in addition to restoring the J.K. Gill name, according to Kilbane.
The lobby also will be expanded and a café added. Meanwhile, on the top floor, an 800-square-foot skylight will be introduced to boost natural light.
Elevators will be updated. A new energy-efficient HVAC system is planned, along with upgraded plumbing and electrical systems. Storefront glass, doors, canopies and exterior paint will be updated. Restrooms will be converted to gender-neutral models. Operable windows will be re-commissioned.
In addition to a new fitness center, the building will be outfitted with secure bike storage for 100 bicycles as well as spa-grade showers, lockers and a tenant lounge.
When completed, the building will offer 100,000 square feet of office space, and companies looking for space in the 10,000-square-foot range are the target market, Kilbane said.
While Urban Renaissance Group has been actively talking with companies interested in the building, no leases have been signed.
"We'll be talking to tenants in earnest after the first of the year and hopefully will have a few leases signed," Kilbane said.
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