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A New Apartment Building for 1425 NW Glisan Street

Mill Creek Residential did not commission DanielHouse Studios to design its new condominium building at the intersection of Glisan Street of NW 13th. If it had, it would have gotten a scheme that seamlessly integrated the site’s early 20th century firehouse into its massing, rather than glibly working around it, as appears to be the current course of action. In a neighborhood like Portland’s Pearl, one whose history is so quickly dissolving in favor of glass and steel towers, simply preserving an historic firehouse is not enough. Its earlier, more interesting architecture needs to be engaged with and expounded upon.

The built language of the old firehouse is nothing extraordinary. Its proportions are okay, it has a robust cornice and parapet up top and is built of reasonable materials. But a vernacular building is not a crowning architectural achievement. Indeed, much of the significant architecture of Portland is vernacular. Until the great monumental buildings of A.E. Doyle in the 1910’s and 20’s (Portland Public Library), lots of the work feels distinctly different from that of the eastern seaboard, the Midwest, or the South. Northwestern buildings of the late 1800s and early 1900s are characterized by deep overhangs with wooden brackets carved in varied style, with double hung or casement windows punctured well into facades of brick, stucco or even timber. There’s a weight about the early stuff that feels as though it was really intended to guard against the elements particular to the Northwest.

There’s an economy, too. Buildings aren’t often rendered in limestone or marble here as they were in places like New York or Chicago. And with this economy, one senses invention. Consider Providence Park. Originally titled Multnomah Field, the building is a modest civic gesture of the sparest materials. An envelope of horizontal board formed concrete is penetrated by massive unadorned archways leading into the underbelly of the bleachers. Huge wooden members support the simple cantilevered cover. Barebones aside, there is an energy the place brings all on its own. It feels domestic and public at once, as if its bleachers would be just as welcoming to enjoy alone as they would with a thousand rollicking fans. The same rings true of the Erickson Saloon building in Old Town where more colorful forms of entertainment took place. It’s spare, yet vibrant—somehow energized. It facilitated activities both public and private. And so goes the story of the architecturally mediocre firehouse on Glisan Street. This should be true of its replacement as well.

Our design scheme for 1425 Glisan works to meet the criteria discussed above. Spare, but vibrant. Public and private. Having an energy of its own. To meet these criteria, we look to the past for guidance. Our building is vernacular in its form and materiality. It is spare; that its, window penetrations are punctured into a brick and board-formed concrete massing without adornment. Its major flourishes come where the building meets the sky. There, its mass gives way to great civic festivity. As the city of Portland grows more dense, its private buildings will need to become part of the public life of the city. At 1425, we suggest a public roof deck crowned with that great symbol of American amusement, a carousel. Of course the carousel is just that, a symbol – of the civic responsibility a building on this site has to the city of Portland.

Look for our next article the exploration of the economic benefits of a building such as the one we propose!