Book Report: 'Lost Portland' recalls bygone buildings
Peer into Portland's past in "Lost Portland" ($21.99, History Press), where buildings that once stood in the City of Roses get a new lease on life.
Historian Val C. Ballestrem, education manager for Portland's Architectural Heritage Center, writes engagingly about bygone buildings lost to fire, boom or flood while historical photos — many by the great Minor White — assist in telling their stories.
We read about an opera house with offices called the Marquam Building that set off the theater district on Southwest Broadway. It collapsed and was eventually demolished to be replaced by the Northwestern Bank Building designed by famed architect A.E. Doyle.
In 1893, the Portland Library opened on Southwest Broadway and Stark. In under a decade the library outgrew its building and today's Multnomah County Central Library opened in 1913.
The bizarre Witch Hazel Building, featured on the book's cover, stood near the west side approach to what is today the Hawthorne Bridge. Eccentric in its design, it had a turret that ran all along four of its five stories and extended above the rooftop. The architect is believed to be Henry J. Hefty, who was very fond of turrets.
Residential homes of Portland's most prominent early Portlanders, such as the Corbetts and the Failings, are also explored.
The Queen Anne style was introduced to Portland in 1881 in the form of a home that belonged to Joseph and Augusta Dolph. The veritable McMansion had eight bedrooms and was over the top ornate. It took up an entire city block at Southwest Fifth and Sixth avenues and Columbia and Jefferson streets, and had eight bedrooms. By 1926 the house was demolished. By this time, the homes of Portland's prominent families no longer were built near downtown's commercial district.
In Portland's early years, it wasn't uncommon for flamboyant, well-built buildings less than 30 years old to be demolished in favor of bigger ones. An Elks lodge that stood at Southwest Broadway and Stark was "one of the nicest buildings with one of the shortest lifespans in Portland history," Ballestrem writes. Built in 1906, it was torn down 19 years later to make way for a bigger lodge.
Fire destroyed others. Temple Beth Israel was a gorgeous twin-spired affair with galvanized iron domes located at Southwest 12th and Main. It burned down in 1923. The cause was widely believed to be arson; in 1925, firefighter Chester C. Buchtel admitted to starting the fire. The temple built after the fire, dated 1928, still stands today at Northwest 19th and Glisan.
East Side High School was the first on the east side of the Willamette River. It was later renamed Washington High School. "Like many Portland buildings lost during the early 20th century, the original Washington High School had an amazingly short lifespan," Ballestrem writes. It burned down after 16 years. The suspected arsonist was Buchtel. The firebug later confessed to starting many fires in Portland between 1922-25 and ended up in the Oregon State Hospital. Washington High School was rebuilt in 1923 and stayed open until 1981. Today Portlanders know it as Revolution Hall, 1300 S.E. Stark St.
Ballestrem answered a few questions by the Tribune about his book in an email:
Tribune: What was the most memorable part of researching and writing this book? What surprised you the most?
Ballestrem: As a Portland-area history nerd, I really enjoyed learning about buildings like the Witch Hazel, featured on the book's cover. It was one that to my knowledge had never been written about before and I had barely heard of, prior to starting this project. With the Witch Hazel and others, it became one of my goals to help people understand what used to be there, especially those lost so long ago that no one alive would remember them.
As for surprises, the firefighter arsonist story was one that I had heard rumor of, but I was shocked when I read just how many buildings he admitted to burning.
Tribune: Which of the lost buildings you write about are you fondest of?
Ballestrem: As the book was coming together, I started to realize how much I was fascinated by the buildings constructed during the 1890s. So many of them were big for their time in Portland and yet so many are long gone. This included the collection of Romanesque-styled brick buildings along Sixth Avenue — the Portland Hotel, the Marquam, the Oregonian Tower, and the Hibernian. All were built within a few years of one another and in mid-1890s Portland must have been quite impressive.
Tribune: Portland's in a frenzy of building and growth. Are we at risk of losing our local history in this current period? Do you think we might look back and regret the loss of certain buildings?
Ballestrem: I think that mostly what we're losing today are pieces of the overall fabric that make up the architecturally interesting, and sometimes historic, parts of the city. I worry that in many neighborhoods, we'll soon be crossing a tipping point, forever losing what made them attractive and interesting to people in the first place. Southeast Division, for example, has changed so much in the past decade. I hope the newer residents in that area realize that the neighborhood would have been obliterated for a freeway decades ago, had people who loved their neighborhood so much not spoken out.
Tribune: Which existing buildings are your favorites in Portland?
Ballestrem: I am a big fan of the streetcar era main street buildings, along streets like Belmont and Hawthorne. Not so much individually, but what the sum of their parts represents. As for individual favorites, the Dekum, the 1963 Standard Plaza, and the Northwestern Bank building come to mind.
Tribune: Which standing buildings fall under Missed Opportunity?
Ballestrem: A standing building that I think is a missed opportunity? I think there are a number of examples in the Central Eastside of buildings that are so closed up, that they don't add much to the neighborhood. I'm thinking of some of the old wholesale business buildings between Southeast Water and Third Avenue. Imagine if their ground floors were opened up and made more inviting.
Tribune: An average person is downtown running errands. What overlooked aspects of local architecture/buildings should people stop and notice next time?
Ballestrem: Take a few moments to look up and on many of the downtown street corners, you'll see some fascinating details that you miss at ground level. Many of the old buildings have been altered at the storefront and aren't all that exciting, but above they retain amazing architectural detail. Look at the terra cotta details on a building like the Northwestern Bank Building at Southwest Sixth and Morrison, or the cornice on the Wilcox building at Southwest Sixth and Washington. You won't see those details unless you slow down and look up.
Tribune: How can readers interested in learning more connect with their local history and architecture?
Ballestrem: I may be showing some bias as to my recommendation, since they're also my employer. There are a number of entities leading decent tours around town, but if you are really focused on Portland specific history and architecture, I recommend going on an Architectural Heritage Center walking tour. You can go to VisitAHC.org for more details about upcoming tours and talks, as well as information about exhibits on display at the AHC, which is conveniently located in Portland's Central Eastside.