clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Deconstructing Portland

Can a first-of-its-kind ordinance save some of what makes Portland so special?

Cheryl Juetten

In 1954, a 16-year-old boy in Portland, Oregon biked home with a set of nine-foot doors balanced on his handlebars, swaying with the weight in a snaking line. While most kids his age were collecting comic books or baseball cards, Jerry Bosco was collecting architectural artifacts. The doors were adorned with beveled glass windows and he’d rescued them from a bulldozer that was gobbling up a home in Northeast Portland, leaving behind nothing but rubble and a cloud of dust.

This was one of the first pieces of Portland’s history that Jerry Bosco salvaged. Eventually, he would have enough artifacts to weave together the narrative of the city, told through colorful stained glass, brass doorknobs, thick slabs of old growth timber, and stylized accents from decades of the city’s history.

After graduating from Portland State University in 1964, Bosco met fellow collector Ben Milligan. Ben was drawn to arrowheads, agates—and comic books. Their shared interest in collecting pieces of history led to a future as life partners and Portland’s most prolific salvagers. Their collection lives on today in the Architectural Heritage Center on Grand Avenue, where locals often come with questions about their own historic homes.

Today, Milligan and Bosco would have plenty of opportunity to sneak into old properties scheduled for demolition. Portland houses have been torn down at an alarming rate as the city has grown rapidly in the last few years.

And, just like Milligan and Bosco, many residents are scrambling to save what’s left.

The group Stop Demolishing Portland keeps a close eye on historic properties—they protest, create petitions, and rally together to fight developers who try to sidestep the 120-day waiting period required for demolition permits for historic homes. This waiting period, meant to give preservationists and community members time to purchase the house or offer other alternatives to demolition, is an Oregon state law that has gone largely unenforced. The Stop Demolishing Portland Facebook group is where members share addresses and images of homes set for demolition, and it’s full of frustrated, panicked, and at times bitter comments.

These houses are undeniably adorable. And they’ve become the frames on which Portlanders have hung their unique, quirky, and yes—weird—senses of style for decades.

On October 31, Portland will become the first city to adopt an ordinance requiring that houses built in 1916 or earlier be deconstructed instead of demolished. Deconstruction is the process of dismantling a house in a way that allows the pieces to be recycled and reused. Rather than leveling homes with heavy machinery, deconstruction saves quality and historic material that can be used elsewhere.

The city of Portland is presenting this new ordinance as substantial progress, but those who have been fighting for preservation have seen how slow and cumbersome this progress has been—residents have been fighting red tape and developers on this issue for decades. And historic houses will still come down. Their materials might be salvaged, but that doesn’t stop developers from removing the homes and building larger, more expensive houses or splitting the lots to build multiple ones.

Fred Leeson, board president of the Architectural Heritage Center, doesn’t think developers will be deterred by the extra cost and time required to deconstruct historic homes.

"It’s all about the bottom line with these guys. And they make a lot of money when they buy these properties. They’re going to moan about the deconstruction requirements, but it will still be profitable for them."

The ongoing loss of affordable housing in Portland is especially disturbing to Leeson and fellow locals.

"Developers will say that they’re going to build affordable housing. But the affordable houses are the ones they’re tearing down." says Leeson. "These are strong, solid starter homes we’re losing."

Portland gains a lot by deconstructing rather than demolishing. It gains jobs—deconstruction employs, on average, six people to every one that demolition requires. It gains quality materials—the tight grain of old growth timber in older homes is strong enough to fold a nail. It gains a healthier planet when we divert waste from landfills—according to the city, about 20 percent of landfill waste comes from construction and demolition. It also avoids the toxins from lead and asbestos that are released into the air when homes are demolished.

Walls make us feel protected and secure. A roof keeps us dry. Floors guide us between rooms that we fill with pieces of ourselves. Even the smallest accents, like doorknobs, handrails, and molding come together to form a space that feels like our own.

But there are certain things Portland still loses when houses are deconstructed, and it’s these things that have so many people so upset. We lose character. We lose community. We lose the sense of "home" that instills passion for preservation in longtime residents.

The region is growing exponentially. Last year, 41,000 people moved to Portland. Two years ago, 34,125 moved in. I was one of them.

And while long-established residents might gripe about newcomers ruining their city, there are representatives from both camps who are determined to preserve what they love about Portland.

People are drawn here for a number of reasons. There are quiet neighborhoods alongside big city culture. A compact downtown and an urban growth boundary, created to prevent sprawl, have laid the foundation for a city where museums, restaurants, and breweries cozy up to both high-rises and blocks of bungalows. There's a dedication to sustainability that leads the country. There are food carts and endless breweries. And there are the houses themselves. Portland’s neighborhoods, particularly in East Portland, are full of charming Craftsman-style houses. These homes boldly claim their space in Portland’s past and present with the architectural details—decorative eave supports, tapered columns, stone detailing, mixed materials, exposed rafters, earthy colors—that give the city its distinct style.

It was the city’s first population boom that ushered in these charming Portland homes that feel so darn "homey." Long before Portlandia premiered on IFC, Portland was the city everyone was talking about. It was 1905 when 40,000 people descended upon the Rose City for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exhibition, and for four and a half months, all eyes were on Portland. Oregon had only officially become a state in 1859, but Portland was already vying to be the center of commerce in the Northwest, competing with Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma.

With that wave of visitors and national attention came a wave of new residents, too. In 1900, Portland’s population was 90,426. By 1910, that number had surged to 207,214.

The Arts and Crafts movement was taking hold in the United States around the same time, and it was this movement that birthed the Craftsman-style house. The intricate, artistic style rose from opposition to industrialization and mass production; the simpler, handmade designs were the answer to a fear of uniformity. Craftsman homes balance form and function alongside meticulous attention to detail. When the masses arrived in Portland, so did the Craftsman.

These houses are undeniably adorable. And they’ve become the frames on which Portlanders have hung their unique, quirky, and yes—weird—senses of style for decades. Drive (or better yet, bike) around Portland’s neighborhoods, particularly in the east, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find two similar houses. You will find an abundance of yard art, Tibetan prayer flags, untamed vegetable gardens, and bulging roses. You’ll find little libraries and chalk masterpieces adorning driveways. You’ll find stone walls, tree swings, and garden fairies. And you’ll see people interacting with their homes and their neighborhoods—gardening, reading on porches, chatting with neighbors.

Portlanders treat the front of their homes like canvases to be filled with an abundance of color and life. Long-time residents argue that new construction does not foster this same lifestyle. But they’re not just arguing. They’re acting.

When a developer applied to demolish a 1900s Spanish mission-style home that stood at the entrance to Laurelhurst—a neighborhood that seems culled from a storybook with its seamless integration of nature and vintage homes—neighbors were mortified. The developer planned to cram three new houses onto the existing lot, but the community fought back, launching the "Save the Markham Home" campaign. They raised enough money to buy it back.

Fifth-generation builder John McCulloch was able to refurbish the worn and sprawling home after making a hefty contribution to the fundraising efforts himself. The home had to be updated in order to resell, but McCulloch kept the original style intact.

On October 31, Portland will become the first city to adopt an ordinance requiring that houses built in 1916 or earlier be deconstructed instead of demolished.

"Once you lose your cultural heritage, it’s gone forever," he told Koin.com.

Home is your family together in one place. It’s the sound of your favorite record floating through the kitchen as you prepare dinner. But the structure itself plays a vital role in cultivating a home, too. Walls make us feel protected and secure. A roof keeps us dry. Floors guide us between rooms that we fill with pieces of ourselves. Even the smallest accents, like doorknobs, handrails, and molding come together to form a space that feels like our own.

Many of those pieces are rescued in the process of deconstruction. And many of them find their way to The ReBuilding Center, a massive storefront that sells salvaged hardware and appliances on Mississippi Avenue. But The ReBuilding Center isn’t just a store; it’s also a community nonprofit that offers deconstruction services and supports community projects. In many ways, it’s the culmination of what homes have the potential to be, in both a singular and collective sense. One home is a place to feel comfortable and safe, and many homes that feel comfortable and safe create the type of community that The ReBuilding Center seeks to promote. Starting with pieces of old homes, they help build strong houses and stronger neighborhoods.

The RBC was one of the first businesses on Mississippi Avenue, long before it became a trendy strip for artisanal salt and stationary bike-powered smoothie bars. They acknowledge their role in the changes that have happened since.

"We at The ReBuilding Center bear a special responsibility," Executive Director Stephen Reichard explains. "We have such a big footprint. [The organization moving in] enabled other businesses to get a toehold on the street, and then of course, property values rose. I think the whole thing is rife with contradiction, but that’s the nature of change. It’s painful."

The RBC sells salvaged goods to fund programs that enable community members to create the change they wish to see in their neighborhoods. They’re partnered with the Black Williams Project to help celebrate North Williams Avenue as the "vibrant heart of Portland's black community" that it once was. The artery of black culture is now a popular home for artists and creative businesses; the Black Williams Project will honor the African-American community as "contributors and beneficiaries" of that development through murals, signage, and functional art.

When the new deconstruction ordinance goes into effect, the RBC expects to see a lot more salvaged material come through their doors, which means more funding for the causes they support. As houses fall, their elements will come here to become new resources for homeowners and their neighborhoods.

As I ran my hands across old cabinet handles at the RBC recently, I remembered being in another furniture store when I first moved to Portland—this one also home to charming, vintage pieces, but refinished and sold at a much higher price.

I’d been driving across country for three months, searching for a place that felt just right. I’d become the Goldilocks of U.S. cities. This one was too big. This one, too small. But this one—Portland, Oregon—felt just right. I stumbled into Lounge Lizard on Hawthorne Boulevard like a bug drawn to the warmth of their ornate chandeliers. I felt coddled by the comforting colors of throw pillows and reupholstered Renaissance chairs on which one would undoubtedly read great books. My mind started curating the pieces that could be mine if only I had more space to nest than my Hyundai Elantra. I wanted to be coddled. I wanted to be home. The next day, I put an application in on the first apartment I found, and I stayed. Two years later, I bought a small house in the Southeast, built in 1906.

After avoiding roots for so long, it was shocking to find a place where I wanted to stay put. But cultivating a life in a space that was mine gave me great pleasure. I painted and bought thrift store furniture. I gardened and planned for future renovations—a future in a house that now feels more and more like my own.

Each of us is born into a world that we can’t really control. The ground looks as it will. The sky changes colors, but we have nothing to do with it. We rent our space on this planet. But our houses are something we can control. It’s a place we can protect. Perhaps that is why the house has for so long been what we aspire to—the symbol of a comfortable life.

The swell of Portland newcomers continues to rise. Like me, many of these people want to make a home and a life for themselves here. But with each new person, it becomes harder and harder for lower- and even middle-income residents to find the life they’re looking for. It makes it harder and harder for the ones who already live here to continue the lives they’ve known.

"We’re one of maybe half a dozen cities in the world that are consciously striving to figure out how to behave if humans have a hair’s chance in hell of surviving the 21st century," Stephen Reichard points out. "Increasing density is part of that. As we’re growing so rapidly, people are experiencing what that feels like, and that’s really hard."

We’re all just looking to hold on to some sense of permanence in a world that’s changing faster than we can cope—to assert that this space, this place, in this tiny sliver of time that we inhabit it, is not disposable.

That difficulty is both an emotional and a logistical one. Portlanders must reconcile their dedications to sustainability, affordability, and the comforts of the neighborhoods they’ve grown attached to.

Nobody wants the city they once knew to be forgotten.

Jerry Bosco and Ben Milligan didn’t have long to ensure their life work would be remembered and protected. Milligan was diagnosed with AIDS in April of 1986, and Bosco received the same diagnosis later that year. The two had shared their passion, their businesses, and their lives for nearly two decades. They wanted their philosophy of sharing, protecting, and preserving the architectural legacy of the Pacific Northwest to live on.

In their final year, Bosco and Milligan established their vision for what would become the Architectural Heritage Center. Their collection lives on through rotating exhibits in the West Block Building on Grand Avenue—the oldest surviving commercial building in the district, purchased by Bosco and Milligan in 1975.

Deconstruction of historic homes won’t solve the problems of a changing city. It won’t stop change. But it’s a step towards recognizing the value of our past in hopes that, in some form, it lives on in our city.

We’re all just looking to hold on to some sense of permanence in a world that’s changing faster than we can cope—to assert that this space, this place, in this tiny sliver of time that we inhabit it, is not disposable. So we fight for history in hopes that someday, someone will care enough to salvage the scraps of what matters to us: our city, our stories, our lives.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

Longform

How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis

Longform

The Neighbors Issue

Longform

Bungalow Courts Make the Best Neighbors

View all stories in Longform