For the Love of Cars
We know how the story ends. Portland's first downtown, its iron-fronted steam punk version of an old European city, done in by apathy, bridge approaches, a freeway and most of all, surface parking lots. By the 1970s, less than thirty of the two hundred seventy cast iron buildings downtown remained. But how did it begin? When did Portland start to trade its most unique built feature for acres and acres of pay by the hour asphalt?
Portland 1968, the city that parks. The site of the original downtown, looking south. Note the former Public Market building, surrounded by the Harbor Drive freeway, in the left upper corner during the final stages of demolition. (click on images to expand)
The same area, this time looking to the north, in 1935. The brand new Public Market building is to the right.
Portland's ascendancy as "the Metropolis of the Pacific Northwest" was coincident with the rise of cast-iron as a building material for commercial structures. Viewed today as old fashioned, its manufacture allowed modular construction, modern in concept. Its vertical strength encouraged narrow supports permitting light filled spaces not previously possible. Local fabrication (for the most part) and the relative inexpensiveness of material allowed block upon block of ornate construction in a frontier city without the population to support the number of artisans required by traditional methods.
Front Avenue, looking towards Ash in 1939, Minor White photograph. Everything on the right was torn down to make Harbor Drive in the early 1940s. The Smith Block (1872) on the left is one of the few cast iron survivors on Front (the southbound lanes of Naito Parkway). It houses Waterfront Bicycle Rentals.
The era of cast-iron ended in 1889. Downtown shifted west, away from the river. The old "European section" would become known as the Wholesale or Commission District and was home to Chinatown, Japantown, a Gypsy community, second hand stores and Skid Road.
Portland in 1935. The cast-iron fronted riverside downtown blended into to brick and sandstone of its 1890s successor, centered on 3rd, followed to the west by the gleaming terracotta city center of the early twentieth century. A close examination finds three surface parking lots.
The December 4 1933 issue of the Oregonian announced the pending demolition of the Labbe Building on the north east corner of Second and Washington. Tenants were given thirty days to vacate the premises.
"The building as it stands affords some classic examples of the building art of the day. The entrance halls, stairways and elevator shaft display fine hand carved woodwork, but one of the most striking things remaining is the letter box rows on each side of the entrance hall. These letter boxes look like dove coats, each with its frosted glass door and slot above the mail to be dropped into the proper place." -The Morning Oregonian, December 4 1933.
Completed in 1880, the Labbe Building was the first four story commercial building in the city and the first with an elevator. It was designed by Warren H. Williams, whom a good portion of Portland's surviving cast-iron buildings are attributed to.
The Labbe brothers: Blaise, Antoine and John arrived from France in 1863. In 1865 they started a grocery business at Second and Washington. Fifteen years later constructed their commercial building across the street. It was regarded as the center of business and professional life as well as housing Morse's Palace, the city's most prominent art gallery.
Pictures of the Labbe Building are hard to come by, but it appears to the far right with a red and white awning in a postcard from 1909. The next building on the right, across Second, is the Waldo Block, which still exists, (with modified upper windows) home to Mama Mia Trattoria.
The Oregonian article was mum on what was to replace the building. In the areal photograph from 1935, the site is a surface parking lot, marked by fresh white paint on the neighboring wall. It has been one ever since.
The lot at Second and Washington is in the center of the picture. By the time of the photograph (1935) it had been joined a block to the north by a second lot on the site of the Wienhard Building (1872) on Second and Oak.
2nd and Washington, 2010.
Just west of the old riverfront downtown, on Stark between Third and Fourth, was a third fresh surface parking lot in 1935, the site of the Chamber of Commerce Building.
Built in 1893, the Chamber of Commerce Building was at the center of the new inland downtown developing on Third Street. Six stories high with a two story tower, it housed three banks on its first floor, a bowling alley, billiard rooms and a saloon. It featured an auditorium that was host to numerous political conventions and in 1905 was headquarters for the committee to organize the Lewis and Clark Exposition.
The lower floors of the building were submerged by the flood of 1894 and the top floors consumed by fire in 1906. Two additional stories were added in 1910, eliminating the tower.
From Fourth and Stark, after the addition of two stories in 1910.
Shortly after its completion the building was foreclosed upon during the financial crisis of 1894. It had numerous owners before being purchased by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, who's St Paul based owners decided to demolish it in 1933.
"We have made a thorough examination of the possible uses of the building and found that the cost of modernizing would be too great and that it would be better to tear it down and prepare the ground for possible development of that district in the future."
-Charles A. Hart, Attorney for the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway in the Oregonian. October 8 1933.
Third and Stark, July 16 2010. Still waiting for that development.
The demolition of the Portland Hotel in 1950 can be said to have been our Penn Station moment, when Portlanders began to realize the intrinsic value of what was being lost was greater than the short term gain brought by its replacement. An early voicing of the sentiment however can be found by reporter Don Giesy in the Oregonian, December 17 1933 writing about the Chamber of Commerce Building:
"The fact that the building is rich in history is of no consequence. That the building has tenanted a great many of our state leaders who have gained national prominence is of no import. Nor are we concerned with the almost human personality of the building. Were it standing in a European city, it would probably be used for 50 or 100 more years; but, to Impatient America, it is merely a symbol of a former era and is standing in the path of the juggernaut. Progress."
The site of the Chamber of Commerce Building (center), a brand new lot in 1935. The newly revealed wall of the neighboring Sherlock Building finds use as a giant billboard for 7up.
The demolition of the Chamber of Commerce Building went on into 1935. A surface parking lot immediately followed. By then a cycle was in place. As more businesses left the old downtown, the time lag toward a downward adjustment in property taxes added to the expense of keeping a vacant building. Demolition removed the buildings from the tax rolls. The rewards of surface parking lots, initially seen as a low cost stop gap before new development, soon became apparent. Three quarters of a century later the first lots are still in place, as are the vast majority of those that followed.
Four years later, in 1939, the lot on the site of the Labbe Block (partially visible at center, far left) has gained neighbors.
July 2010. Close examination of the billboard shows that it is likely painted on a wall from the Labbe building, still pressed against its neighbor. If so, it is a final remnant.
but just maybe there is another...
The Case of the Missing Weather Vane
Stewart Holbrook, Northwest literary giant, wrote in his Down Portland By-Paths column in the Oregonian on October 30 1934:
"Folks who depended on the weather vane on top of the now demolished Labbe Building to tell them which way the wind lay are missing it. Most of them I judge, had no particular reason for wanting to know; just a habit.
It really was a swell vane. The spreadeagle which topped it was very lifelike. I discovered that when the building was torn down Antione Labbe* got the eagle and the vane. He tells me that after half a century the eagle, the arrow and the quadrant are all in excellent condition. He doesn't know whether or not it had been gilded since it was originally put in place, but the gold leaf is perfect.
The old eagle must have served as a mark for sharpshooters at some time or other, for there are several holes in the bird, obviously made by rifle bullets.
The eagle has a wingspread of 3 feet, the arrow is 4 feet long, and the entire vane stands 6 feet high. I asked Mr. Labbe what he was going to do with it. He said he thought he'd put it on top of his house. Wants to do something with it and that's probably where it will wind up, to tell Mr. Labbe and his neighbors how she blows. Until somebody puts another vane in the district where Labbe Building used to stand, there will be people, a lot of them, who will have to find something else to look at every day."
So where is it?
A check with the city directory of 1934 gave me Antione Labbe's address. I went there and asked the current owner about it. There is no sign of the vane on the property. Did it perish in a war time scrap drive, or perhaps is buried in someones garage? Does it top another building to this day? If anyone knows, or if there are any descendants of the Labbe brothers who would like to talk with me about this, or another story that I am currently working on that pertains to the brothers, my email address is the letter d followed by my last name @comcast.net.
*(the second Antione Labbe).
In A Summer Extravaganza (alternate title; The Glorious Results of Too Much Time on eBay) I asked where the following picture was taken:
The answer: from an upper floor above Big Town Hero, on the corner of 11th and Morrison. Look closely, next to the middle stop light a small portion of the Baptist church tower that figures prominently in the 1911 picture nearly hidden by the building in front of it.
Now, lets go find that weather vane...