Preserving a fabulous historic site
Walter Cole, aka Darcelle, Portland's famous drag queen, anxiously awaits returning to the stage to entertain people.
The ongoing COVID-19 health and economic crisis and government restrictions have limited the 89-year-old Cole to staying at home and leaving empty Darcelle XV Showplace at 208 N.W. Third Ave., which has been his workplace for 53 years.
"I'm going crazy," Cole said. "I haven't ever been off, my whole life — any job. It'll be like starting over. We're ready."
Unfortunately, he added, "the coronavirus is not going to be over, and if they keep protesting, they'll keep people away from downtown. We're all for equality, we know what they're talking about. Get out and vote and get the right people in (office)."
In the meantime, organizers have worked on something historic on Cole's behalf.
Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town's 110-year-old Foster Hotel building on Northwest Third Avenue could be nominated this month to the National Register of Historic Places. Oregon's State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation will consider the local landmark for the national history list based solely on its connection to the city's gay community; it'll hold a second meeting Friday, June 19, to discuss the nomination.
It's a first for Oregon. No other local site or building has been considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places based only on its connection to the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) history.
"That's a big deal," said Kristen Minor, a former architect and city planner who wrote the 64-page national register nomination report with Portland author and playwright Don Horn of Triangle Productions. "I've got my fingers crossed that we'll be able to do this."
Most sites and buildings are considered for the national history list because of their architectural style, their connection to a local historic event or person, or their part in a historic district. Some local buildings named to the national register have mentioned their link to the city's LGBTQ community, but they were listed for other reasons. This would be the first to directly connect a place with the history of the region's LGBTQ community.
"I'm just excited by it; I think it's wonderful," Cole said. "The state was very supportive (in the first meeting)." After the second meeting, it would go to the National Park Service for consideration.
Cole is quite optimistic about the chances. "Oh yeah, it's going to happen. They were too excited."
Said Horn: "Once we get this through, then other businesses can jump on the bandwagon. The national register has never, ever given it to just a business. This is a huge, huge ask."
Darcelle has been doing business at the same spot for 53 years. Not many Portland businesses can say the same. "People want to see hope and something happen; he did something unusual and it's still there," Horn added. "Having this business stay in one location and he's still active ... that's huge."
What has the club meant to Portland? It's helped the gay community establish itself in the mainstream, Cole said.
"We're real people, you can come in and forgot your problems, come in and have a good time," he said. "Portland has been kind and good to Darcelle, especially the elected people and the city people. All over the years, I've done fundraisers for all of them."
By focusing on the club's prominence in promoting gay rights issues, Minor said they hoped to overcome other potential problems, like the building's many renovations and changes, something that could derail historic nominations. "The club and the building have changed quite a bit," she said. "It's not frozen in time. It's an entertainment venue."
Darcelle XV's Showcase is one of seven sites the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation will consider June 19 for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. Other local sites include the Postal Employees Credit Union building on Southeast 10th Avenue, the German Baptist Old Person's Home on Northeast 81st Avenue, the New Fliedner Building on Southwest Washington Street, and the 37-building Downtown Forest Grove Historic District.
The Foster Hotel building (1910), where Darcelle XV Showcase is located, was named to the national register in December 1975 as part of the Portland Skidmore/Old Town Historic District.
Even the Northeast Portland home of Cole, the 1896 Elmer and Linnie Miller House, was named in late February to the National Register of Historic Places primarily because of its Queen Anne-style architecture prominent in the Eliot neighborhood and its connection to attorney Elmer Miller and his wife, Celinda. A 51-page nomination report included three paragraphs about Cole's key role in state gay rights activism.
For more on the Darcelle XV Showplace historic designation push, see www.pamplinmedia.com/pt/9-news/469732-380247-darcelles-drag-club-lands-in-historic-spotlight.
Kevin Harden of Pamplin Media Group contributed to this story.
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