Matt Froman has been waiting a long time for the rebirth of the Phoenix Pharmacy building.
He thought it would happen in 1999, when his father bought the two-story brick building with the distinctive rounded aluminum-and-glass storefront on the corner of Southeast 67th Avenue and Foster Road.
Then, he felt certain the time was right in 2012, when he and his father decided to try to find a developer to help refurbish the building.
Both times, plans fell through.
Now, however, Froman has found a renewed energy and belief that the time is right for the building that was constructed nearly a century ago to find a new life. A large part of Froman's conviction is based on the fact that in the fall of last year, he and two partners formed Foster the Phoenix LLC to buy the building from Froman's father.
Even as the new owners begin determining how much restoring the structure, including a seismic upgrade, will cost, the building's condition continues to degrade, from a leaking roof and a crack in one rear wall to peeling paint and broken windows.
Still, Froman says he's not willing to give up on the building without one last major push. For one thing, he's tired of watching Portland lose unique old buildings to the wrecking ball. For another, the building has been a part of his life for almost as long as he can remember.
The Leach link
John Leach, a Portland druggist who would go on to become a civic leader in the city, built the nearly 7,500-square-foot Phoenix Pharmacy building in 1922. At the time, the top floor featured six office suites that were occupied by dentists and physicians while a drugstore filled the main floor. Leach billed the building as Portland's "finest suburban pharmacy."
People in the neighborhood seemed to agree. Before too long, the pharmacy had become a community meeting space.
Leach and his wife, Lilla, spent their lives as active contributors to Portland, a status that didn't stop with their deaths. The Leaches left the city more than five acres on Southeast 122nd Avenue where the couple had lived, an area that's now grown in size to become Leach Botanical Garden.
The Phoenix Pharmacy building was donated to the YMCA, so that the organization could sell it, The building eventually served a host of tenants, including an aquarium and a waterbed store. After the last tenant, Allen Video, moved out, the building sat vacant until 1999, when Robert "Buck" Froman purchased the building.
Froman already owned Buck's Stove Palace, a store at 6803 S.E. Foster Road that he had operated since the early 1970s. He thought the Phoenix Pharmacy building, with its distinctive storefront, would make the perfect location for a museum dedicated to antique stoves.
Froman started to fill the building with artifacts — old stoves, antique scales and even a pair of wood-framed doors — that he planned to one day incorporate into the museum. But trying to work on the museum while also running his business proved to be a bigger challenge than Froman could tackle on his own.
By 2012, he was no closer to having started a renovation of the building. His son Matt, offered to help get a restoration of the Phoenix Pharmacy building moving. At the time, Matt Froman had already dipped his toe in real estate, focusing mainly on buying houses, fixing them up and then turning them into rentals. With several such properties to his name, he was ready to take a bigger step into the world of development.
Portland Development Commission, now called Prosper Portland, helped connect the Fromans with some local developers, who visited the building. They examined the hollow clay tile exterior walls that would need to be seismically upgraded. They studied the places on the upper floor ceiling where water had leaked through holes in the roof. They knew from the age of the building that any renovation would likely include costly asbestos abatement.
"Once they got in (there) and they saw how much work there was due to seismic and deferred maintenance, everybody walked," Matt Froman said.
For a short time, it appeared that two local nonprofits would step forward to save the building. Mercy Corps Northwest and Rose Community Development Corp. were looking for a building for a real estate investment trust that would allow people to each invest as little as $10 to purchase and renovate a property in their neighborhood. The Phoenix Pharmacy Building was at the top of their list. But the plan fell through when the nonprofits and Froman's father couldn't come to an agreement about the purchase.
It was then that Matt Froman admitted to himself that the time might not be right to try to bring the Phoenix back to life.
"I kind of gave up on the dream for a bit," he said.
Then he met Rick Michaelson and Karen Karlsson.
Michaelson and Karlsson, partners in a company called Nonetop LLC, have earned a local reputation as historic preservationists who have saved more than a few of the area's iconic older buildings from demolition. One of their more recent projects was relocating and refurbishing the nearly 140-year-old Morris Marks house.
Prosper Portland suggested Michaelson and Karlsson might be able to provide some suggestions to help Froman find a way to restore the Phoenix Pharmacy building. But before too long, though, the historic preservationists agreed to help Froman purchase the building from his father. The trio formed Foster the Phoenix and became owners of the building this past October.
Karlsson and Michaels provided the largest portion of the money for the purchase of the building, according to Froman. But they're also providing the aspiring developer with something he thinks is just as valuable.
"They're more historic saviors than trying to make money. That's why they're a perfect fit for me," Froman said. "(For many) younger developers, it's all about the bottom line. This one here is more a labor of love ... it's more, for me, to finish what my dad started and to do something really cool."
Making a list
The new owners already know restoring the building will be a tall order. They're in the early stages of figuring out what needs to be done when, and how much it all might end up costing.
"Right now, we're pulling real costs together, getting a better idea of the scope (of work)," Karlsson said.
It's already apparent that some work needs to be put at the top of list. The leaking roof, for example, will likely be tackled this summer, Froman said.
There's also a $20,000 grant from the State Office of Historic Preservation to help cover the cost of restoring the building's storefront, a large portion of which currently is covered with murals painted on plywood to discourage trespassing and vandalism. The parameters of the grant indicate the work needs to be done by this time next year, according to Froman. But Karlsson said the amount will only cover about 15% of what she thinks that portion of the restoration will end up costing. The partners are still trying to determine whether they will be able to return the storefront to wood, the original material used, or if the budget will require they stick with the aluminum that was added during a renovation after the building was constructed.
Even as the trio braces for an eventual project cost, there are aspects of the building that provide much-needed inspiration. Most of the original features of the interior are long gone, for example, but there's still an original built-in safe about the size of a small walk-in closet in the basement. A set of stairs boast ornate dust corners, which used to be common elements in older buildings.
The paint is peeling on second-floor walls and ceiling plaster is scattered across the floor, but on a July morning, sunlight spills through the curved front windows, creating a pattern on the floor. The partners have identified the rooms there as having the potential to be turned into offices available for lease. There's even the possibility that once major structural issues are taken care of, the spaces can be renovated and then rented to drum up money to help cover the cost of interior work for the ground floor, which features a mezzanine area.
Getting creative with financing is going to be an important part of the renovation, the three owners say. In addition to the state grant for the storefront, they've received a Property Investment Program grant from Prosper Portland as well as a development loan. The support from the agency, which views restoration of the Phoenix Pharmacy building as vital to helping stir up more interest in investing in area businesses, has played a large role in getting the project to this point, Michaelson and Karlsson said.
The three building owners would like to avoid having to bring in outside investors, but Michaelson said that decision will be made once they have a better idea of how much the entire renovation will likely cost.
He and Karlsson plan on staying involved with the building until the renovation is finished. Once that's accomplished, the plan calls for Froman to buy them out and become the sole owner. For now, though, the developer-in-training is just happy to have help moving forward his dream to see the Phoenix rise.
"The challenge was, I could sit and talk to people about it, but at the end of the day, it was my dad's building so I didn't really have any say," Froman said. "Now I'm actually part of the ownership. I'm part of the decision making team ... that's why I believe, in my heart of hearts, that this building will come back to life."
Phoenix Pharmacy Building
Address: 6615 S.E. Foster Road
Built: 1922 by John Leach
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