Downtown: Plaza will pay tribute to our cast-iron past
by Fred Leeson, Special to The Oregonian
Chances are you never stayed at the Gilman Hotel or did business at the Smith & Watson or Monastes buildings.
Once part of a glorious string of cast-iron facades along Southwest First Avenue, these structures erected late in the 19th century were demolished after World War II when Portland didn’t know what to do with old buildings other than tear them down, often for parking lots.
Elements of the Gilman, Smith & Watson and Monastes will rise again, however, as part of a colonnade of rescued cast-iron architectural pieces that will decorate the south side of Ankeny Plaza next to the revamped Portland Fire Bureau headquarters in 2010.
The new structure will house public restrooms, some stalls available for Saturday Market retailers — which is holding a grand opening at its new location this weekend — and perhaps even an open-air display celebrating Portland’s history and physical growth.
The revamped plaza also will include a plaque acknowledging Portland’s once-glorious neighborhood of cast-iron architecture. Although many notable buildings were destroyed in the name of progress, the neighborhood around the plaza retains some of the nation’s best collections of historic cast-iron buildings, says Portland architect and architectural historian, William J. Hawkins III.
The iron pieces that will be reassembled were collected from demolition sites about a half-century ago by the late Eric Ladd. They have been in storage ever since.
Will Dann, an architect with THA Architecture, the firm that designed the arcade, says there are not enough pieces left to re-create whole buildings but enough to evoke its history. New fabrication will be shaded slightly different colors so architectural purists can tell what is old and what is new.
Dann says cast-iron buildings of two to four stories once extended along First Avenue from Northwest Couch to Southwest Clay Streets, “creating a horizontal rhythm very rich in detail.” The cast-iron era was brief, however, as steel proved stronger and more fireproof in the early 1900s.
Chet Orloff, former executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, is seeking grants for an outdoor display in the colonnade that would tell people about Portland history as well as its cast-iron tradition.
The new restrooms are expected to be completed late in 2010. The full colonnade probably will take longer, given the availability of urban renewal funding. Kevin Brake, a Portland Development Commission project manager, says the restrooms will be the final project before cessation of the Downtown Waterfront Urban Renewal Area.