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The Alliance Review: Saving Portland’s Architectural Heritage
Author: Carrie Sturrock, The Alliance Review
Posted: March 7, 2018

Read the original story in The Alliance Review.

The sandstone rosette covered a large chunk of a small table inside the Architectural Heritage Center as the curators decided what to do with it. About two feet wide and gritty, it’s an architectural detail from the recently demolished Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple across the river in downtown Portland, Oregon. The rosette could end up on a wall at the museum even though it weighs a couple hundred pounds. Or it might be filed away for future use in the museum’s cavernous rented warehouse containing an odd collection of America’s past. Val Ballestrem, the museum’s education manager, and his colleagues haven’t decided yet.

He does know he’d rather have the building it came from intact than the nifty piece sitting there for his museum’s collection, which represents a battle lost to save architecturally significant buildings and houses.

These days, large historic buildings like the Ancient Order don’t get demolished often because there are so few left. Constructed in 1892, just 47 years after Portland, Oregon’s founding, the six-story brick building was designed by Justus Krumbein. Located at 914 SW Second Ave, it was one of the city’s most prominent remaining from the 19th century. It had served as the offices for the Portland chapter of the Ancient Order of United Workmen fraternal organization for just a decade before leading a life of varied use included housing the Oregon Historical Society and later a furniture store and warehouse. After preservationists lost a fight to save it, demolition crews began tearing it down this past August. The demolishers knew where to take the pretty pieces.

It’s a little-known fact Portland boasts the largest collection of century-old architectural artifacts like windows, doors and moldings west of the Mississippi. But the Architectural Heritage Center’s curators consider it a collection tinged with sadness because the examples of craftsmanship all came from demolished buildings like the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple. It’s the story of what once was. And it highlights a massive waste of embodied energy. Beyond all that, the collection says something about the vision of two men passionate about beautiful craftsmanship. It also underscores Portland’s ethic of reuse and sustainability. Many Portlanders have long seen the value in what’s old whether it’s a whole building or just a piece of it. “That door needs to be fixed? Let’s fix it. Those old windows - they don’t need to be ripped out,” explained Ballestrem. “It’s that mindset that helps a lot.”

APPRECIATING CRAFTSMANSHIP

In the museum’s basement are racks of stained glass windows, boxes of electrical plates, door knobs and other building details like newel posts and pressed tin exterior decorations shaped like musical instruments. But incredibly there’s another 8,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with more pieces of demolished buildings including a few hundred windows of all shapes and sizes from around the country. “It’s so vast you can’t really wrap your mind around how much they have,” said Lauren Radwanski, a graduate student of historic preservation at the University of Oregon who volunteered at the museum for two years.

How did this collection come to be? And why in Portland? Jerry Bosco was a teenager and a budding artist interested in architecture when he was biking through the Lloyd District in northeast Portland in the mid-1950s. Demolition crews were tearing down houses to make way for what would become one of the nation’s largest malls when it opened in 1960 and the first to ever have an ice rink. A beautiful stained-glass window caught Bosco’s eye. He balanced it on his bicycle and pedaled home, said Ballestrem. That was the beginning. By the mid-1960s, he and Ben Milligan, his life partner, were salvaging pieces of destroyed buildings and selling them. But they kept more than they sold. And the times might have had something to do with that. Like many cities around the country, Portland had begun to discover and appreciate the heritage embodied in its historic buildings as urban renewal cleared vast spaces for freeways during the 1950s and 60s.

“People began to look around and say, ‘Hey, some of these buildings are rundown but they’re interesting and there’s going to be nothing unless we pay attention,” said Carl Abbott, Professor Emeritus of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. Fortunately for Portland, the city grew relatively slowly in the 1950s compared to other older cities whose leaders razed buildings on a more fast-paced, massive scale.

“I like to characterize Portland as a conservative city,” said Abbott. “Conservative in that it likes to hold onto things that seem to be worth keeping whether it’s the natural environment or old buildings.” That said, Portland’s preservation movement kicked into high gear after the city demolished a number of important buildings including the grand, 326-bedroom Portland Hotel in 1951 to make way for a parking structure for the Meier & Frank Building.

SAVING CAST IRON FOR FUTURE BUILDINGS

Portland’s many cast iron buildings were also under threat. It is a relatively young city and was built up during the heyday of cast iron facades. To keep those buildings from the wrecking ball, architect Bill Hawkins started the Portland Friends of Cast Iron Architecture. The group helped save the buildings in what became Portland’s first historic district, Skidmore/Old Town, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977. To this day Portland has one of the largest collections of cast iron facades next to Soho in New York City.

Not surprisingly, the Architectural Heritage Center also has a sizable collection of cast iron pieces from demolished buildings. Bosco and Milligan’s habits were influenced by a Portland preservationist named Eric Ladd who bought entire buildings threatened with demolition and sometimes moved them to new locations. He also bought building fronts from demolished structures and managed to amass a huge collection of cast iron facades. Later, Bosco and Milligan collected facades with the goal of fitting the pieces back into Portland’s built environment.

Which is what is happening right now. A new building going up in the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District, the WorldMark on Naito Parkway, is going to include cast iron arches and columns from the collection started by Ladd and continued by Bosco and Milligan. In another instance, the two men ended up with the original porte-cochere from the Calvary Presbyterian Church, which had been removed during a renovation. Years later, they donated it back to make the building whole. “They wanted to see as many of these things go back into Portland’s buildings as possible,” said Hawkins. “It was their greatest dream.”

In 1975, Bosco and Milligan created Genesis Glass to make stained glass, a business that later became West’s Block as they built and repaired stained glass windows. The couple also continued to collect windows from demolished buildings not just in Portland, but from around the country. What began as an effort to save the pretty pieces morphed into something much larger. Ballestrem said the couple thought about it this way: “They’re tearing down this beautiful house? Let’s save as many pieces as we can."

SAVING HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE DESPITE WEAK PRESERVATION LAWS

Oregon’s preservation laws and financial incentives are relatively weak. Brian Libby, who writes the blog “Portland Architecture” argues developers might have kept the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple had there been tax credits at the state, county and city level for renovations. Another problem: Oregon is the only state that requires owner consent for the designation of historic resources and the owners of the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple never had the building designated.

And yet, Portland has many beautiful historic buildings and neighborhoods. What has led to historic preservation in Portland is in part, the same ethic that lead to the Architectural Heritage Center’s collection. “It’s the reuse, reduce, recycle ethic,” said Ballestrem. “It’s more that than the historic nature of something.” Case in point: Portland passed in 2016 the nation’s first deconstruction law of its kind, which requires any house or duplex built in 1916 or earlier to be carefully deconstructed so the materials can be reused instead of crushed and landfilled.

Portland historic resources program manager Brandon Spencer-Hartle said the places protected in Portland are more due to the will of individual owners than the collective will of the community. Sadly, that’s reflected in how few historic resources the city has protected for reasons of ethnic, social or cultural history such as houses owned by people of color that may not be architecturally significant, said Spencer-Hartle. Historic buildings receive a lot of attention but thousands of Portland residents have helped preserve elements of the city’s history with small “acts of preservation” by fixing their houses. Or by keeping those houses instead of selling them to developers to tear them down as the city undergoes a development boom. “It’s an ethic but what they’re doing is an act of preservation,” said Ballestrem.

That ethic has manifested itself in other ways. It led to the development of a preservation technology in Portland that allows people to keep their original old growth wood single-pane windows while making them energy efficient. Sam Pardue, who invented Indow window inserts, received a lot of initial support from the community because people could appreciate what he was trying to do. Oregon BEST (Built Environment Sustainable Technologies Center), which invests in clean technology innovation that leads to sustainable outcomes, gave him a grant early on. “I couldn’t see ripping out something made with durable old growth lumber, which you can hardly find anymore and is naturally rot resistant,” said Pardue. “Also, the window glass was hand blown. It would have destroyed the character of the house to take it all out.”

Had he replaced his windows, they likely would have ended up at The ReBuilding Center, which didn’t exist when Bosco and Milligan were building their collection. Located on Mississippi Avenue in Portland, The Rebuilding Center moves 6-8 tons of material from demolished houses or renovation projects each day. Back when it opened its doors in 1998, it was one of the country’s first community nonprofits dedicated to reusing building materials and has since served as a model across the United States. It sells used windows, doors, claw-foot tubs, sinks, moldings and more. “Portland has a long history of people who are willing to salvage materials and reuse them,” said manager Tom Patzkowski. “We care about our history and the resources that go into it. We’re scrappy.”

So was Rejuvenation when it started in 1977 as a salvage shop of architectural details with a focus on vintage light fixtures, a company bought in 2011 by Williams-Sonoma, Inc. Hippo Hardware still specializes in hardware, lighting, architecture and plumbing from 1860-1960 in its three floors packed with doors, windows, knobs, lamps, sinks and tubs. It’s a Portland institution with the motto: “Recycling the past for a more livable future.” The Heritage Center with its own doors, windows and hardware, is just a half mile away in the same southeast quadrant of Portland.

It’s not unfair to ask, “How does a museum display pieces of buildings?” To give some context to the collection, Ballestrem created an exhibit pairing some of the pieces with downtown photographs taken by Minor White for the Works Progress Administration from 1938-42. He spent hours poring over White’s photos staring at the now-demolished buildings to see if his museum had any of the architectural details in storage. In one photo of a junk shop, he could see in the background a long-gone building on First Avenue and realized he had the molded sheet metal ornamentation depicted. It now hangs over that particular picture by White. He hopes this exhibit will help people appreciate the buildings Portland does have. “If you build that appreciation, things are more likely to be saved,” he said.

Other exhibits have included one focused on windows; on the use of wood materials; on terra cotta; on the use of architectural metals. When Bosco and Milligan were first building their collection, they didn’t envision it becoming a museum. Any notes they took early on were scribbled onto scraps of paper. They simply loved what they saw and wanted to preserve it with a drive that perhaps had a touch of hoarder in it. Maybe the biggest contribution Bosco and Milligan made wasn’t a catalog of “things” but a reminder that preserving the history of a local culture involves little details that often go unappreciated whether it’s a handcrafted window or an unremarkable space where a music legend got her start. Part of it is simply reflecting on what’s around us and why it matters. Maybe the next time you take a photo, capture something as common as the nearest gas station. Or the next time you work on your house, reuse materials from your community. In the end, it’s the details that matter.