Phoenix Pharmacy flies high on Foster ... finally
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A lot has changed in the past three years or so for Matt Froman. He got married. He became a dad. He survived losing his full-time employment due to the pandemic.
He also managed to realize his dream to restore a century-old building along Portland's Southeast Foster Road to its former glory and position as a provider of space for the area's small businesses.
The renovation of the Phoenix Pharmacy Building at the corner of Southeast Foster Road and 67th Street, Froman says, was the result of a strong team that included his partners, a small crew of dedicated craftsmen and the financial support of grants from city and state agencies dedicated to historic preservation and economic development. But even with that teamwork on his side, Froman admits, there were times he wondered if the project would ever be completed.
Luckily for Froman, he also received signs along the way that bolstered him when his faith and energy flagged. Sometimes a sign came in the form of a passerby stopping to talk to him as he worked the building to share a story of their memories of the building. Other times, it was a discovery of a piece of the building's history as workers cleared away old rubble.
The most telling sign of all, however, may have come as Froman began to plan the grand opening for the renovated building. The date of the event turned out to be exactly 100 years to the day when construction of the unique, triangular brick building officially was completed.
All in the family
The Phoenix Pharmacy Building has been a part of Froman's life for almost as long as he can remember. He grew up in the area and was always fascinated by the unique, curved front of the building.
The pharmacy building originally was constructed in 1922 by John Leach, a civic leader in Portland who along with his wife, Lila, gifted the city land that became Leach Botanical Gardens. In the 1920s, however, Leach was a druggist who decided to build a two-story, 7,500-square-foot structure on what is now Southeast Foster Road to house his business, Phoenix Pharmacy, on the group floor. The second floor contained a series of offices that Leach leased out to doctors and surgeons.
Phoenix Pharmacy became a place where the community congregated. The building continued to serve as a focal point of the neighborhood over the years as the pharmacy gave way to other tenants, including an aquarium and a video store. When the last tenant moved out, the building sat vacant for a while until Froman's dad, Robert, purchased it in 1999.
Matt Froman had been dabbling in real estate, buying houses and then fixing them up and renting them out. He told his dad he would help him renovate the Phoenix Pharmacy Building. Progress on the building was slow, however — until 2019, when Froman purchased the building from his father.
By the time Froman took over ownership of the building, the structure was in sad shape. Paint was peeling. Windows were broken. A crack ran down a rear wall. The outside of building sported a sign with a big red "U" — a system used by the city to alert firefighters of buildings that are unsafe for them to enter or pose hazards to their safely. The building's roof was especially problematic, with leaks that threatened to further degrade the structural integrity of the building.
Froman, however, believed the building could be saved. He had joined up in the purchase and renovation of the building with Rick Michaelson and Karen Karlsson of Nonetop LLP, two architects-turned-historic-preservationists with reputations for saving more than a few of the area's iconic historic buildings from demolition. Together, Froman and the architects set out to find funding and put together a team willing to do the work that would be required to restore the Phoenix Pharmacy Building to its former glory.
Froman and his partners were initially able to drum up financial support from the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, which provided a $20,000 storefront grant. (More recently, the building had its nomination for status as a state historic landmark building approved and the nomination was headed to the federal level.)
After some initial challenges at the city level, Froman and his partners also obtained a loan from Prosper Portland. With the grant and loan money, they were able to move forward with the renovation to the point that they were soon able to gain more support. Prosper Portland, for example, came through with a second loan even before the first loan was paid off — allowing the renovation work to take a big step forward.
Even with that funding, Froman and his partners had to dig into their own pockets to keep the work going. They prioritized work based on need. The leaking roof was one of the first projects tackled, an adventure that taught Froman the value of reading every word of a contract with a contractor.
Froman tackled a good part of the basic renovation work himself. He pulled up old linoleum. He painted door jambs. He even replaced the windows of the spaces on the second floor that would be leased to local small businesses from the neighborhood.
"I did all of the windows," Froman says. "I can tell you there are 38 of those bad boys … and everyone has been taken out and they've either been reglazed or replaced."
Froman also found craftsmen who understood that restoring a century-old building isn't a project for the faint of heart. Froman was there with them every step of the way, often joining a carpenter or an electrician in tight crawl space to brainstorm a solution to an unexpected problem.
Little by little, the Phoenix began to rise from the ashes. After an inspection, the city removed the sign with the red U from the outside of the building. Plywood put up to protect the windows along the cured front of the ground floor of the building was removed and new glass installed. Froman even found a tenant for the ground floor — Foster Outdoor, which a local couple had opened a few years earlier just down the street from the Phoenix Pharmacy Building.
The second floor office spaces also filled quickly. That area originally could be accessed from the ground floor via a mezzanine or through a door on the side of the building. During the renovation, Froman closed off the office area, so it now has a single point of entry from the side of the building (the mezzanine became a part of the Foster Outdoor space). He also set up each space with its own dedicated heating and cooling units with individual controls.
Froman knew he wanted a variety of tenants for the office spaces. However, he didn't set out with a specific mix in mind. Still, he feels the combination he ended up with pays tribute to the history of the building. There's a massage therapist, an energy and self-health practitioner and a counselor. A photographer and make-up artist as well as the main office for Foster Outdoor round out the tenants in the office spaces.
"What I like about this is, it somehow naturally drew mostly the health and wellness crowd," Froman says.
With tenants in place, Froman is now preparing to transition to a new full-time job. He'll continue to take care of maintenance for the building and serve as manager, collecting rents and taking care of maintenance. But the Phoenix Pharmacy Building will no longer be the thing that occupies his every walking — and sleeping — thought.
"For the past two years, this has been my full time job. It's going to feel a little weird (not to have that), but it's going to feel good. I'll admit, I've woken up many, many (times) in the middle of the night or in the morning with my long list of stuff," he says. "My mind didn't stop. It (wasn't) like a normal 9-to-5 job where you leave your computer and go home."
Even though he's transitioning to a non-developer job, he admits restoring the Phoenix Pharmacy Building may not have been one-time event in his life.
"I've definitely been bitten by the (developer) bug," he says. "The challenge is the next building, the cost and all that. But I'm definitely going to look into it. I've already had my eye on a couple of different things along Foster that I would love to look at. But it just dreams right now."
Whether or not Froman decides to return to the role of building rehabber, he says he has been forever changed in how he looks at buildings and the way they've been put together — especially those with a historic bent.
"When I'm walking into a building now, I'm going, 'Oh, look at the HVAC sprinklers. There's the sprinkler system.' My mind definitely thinks that way now," he says.
Shadowing the past
An unexpected bonus for Matt Froman as he has worked on restoring the Phoenix Pharmacy Building has been uncovering pieces that connect the structure's past with its new future — as if the building were slowly yielding its secrets.
As electricians were running new wires from the basement, for example, they came across a prescription book from 1948. Froman figured out it was from the office of a doctor and surgeon who had rented an office on the second floor of the building.
"What people would do is, they would (go see the doctor on the second floor) and have their surgery," Froman said. "Then they would go downstairs and get their prescriptions filled. It was like one-stop shopping … you could have your procedures done and get your meds all in the same place."
Froman also has received items connected with the building and its history from people in the community. The former owner of a video store that was housed in the building for a time had collected some artifacts that she passed on to Froman, including a cardboard box embossed with the Phoenix Pharmacy name that once held a customer's prescription.
Froman made a wooden shadow box and filled it with the artifacts. The display now holds a place of honor on a wall on the second floor in the main lobby area.
A perfect fit
For Foster Outdoor, the anchor tenant in the Phoenix Pharmacy Building, there's no place like home.
Mike Turner and his wife Sarah Wagener, the owners of Foster Outdoor, have lived in the Southeast Foster neighborhood for more than a decade. When they decided to take their combined 23 years of outdoor retail experience and open their own store, they knew they wanted it to be close to where they lived. They found a retail space just down the street from the Phoenix Pharmacy building.
As Foster Outdoor neared its first year in business, the store was holding its own. Then the pandemic arrived.
"It was an interesting time for sure," Turner told Opportunity Magazine.
The store's usual foot traffic suffered for a bit. But the business soon regained its balance as Portlanders looking to spend time out of doors snapped up camping, hiking and other equipment.
By last year, the couple realized the business had outgrown its original space. That's when Turner said he approached Froman about the ground-floor space in the Phoenix Pharmacy Building. Turner and Wagener had noticed the building was being renovated and knew the ground floor space would be about the right size for Foster Outdoor. It also would allow the couple to keep the business in the neighborhood where it had its start.
The couple signed a lease early enough that Turner was able to work with Froman on tenant improvements for the first-floor space.
"Once interior work began on the ground-floor area, (Mike was) pretty much here every day, doing his sweat equity," Froman says. "He (was) here painting as opposed to having someone else come in and do it. He's also been able to customize where he's wanted details such as electrical outlets."
Foster Outdoor officially moved into the Phoenix Pharmacy Building in early June and is now settled in.
"It turned out to be the perfect fit," Turner says. "We're here for real. The response from the neighborhood has been really positive."
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