Within the eight-story brick building, located pass-the-salt distance from the Morrison Bridge on the east side, you’ll find random junk from people’s garages, yes. But you’ll also find artist studios, ad agency headquarters, liquidation company offices and closet-sized units in which homeless people put their bedrolls during the day so they can wander the streets unencumbered.
This year, the historic building, a microcosm of urban Portland, reaches a milestone: It turns 100.
The building was constructed in 1911 as the Northwestern distribution center for the John Deere Plow Company. It served in that capacity for five decades before converting to a general warehouse in 1963 and a public storage facility in the mid-’80s. Built to hold farm machinery, it has 14-inch-thick steel-reinforced floors and 110-foot columns running through its interior from base to roof.
Early one morning, longtime maintenance man Rex Church rolls open the garagelike door overlooking the loading dock on Southeast 3rd Avenue to open the facility for business. Tenants filter across the bare concrete floor of the lobby to meet the heavy-duty freight elevator that will carry them to their units.
Unit 8102: Down to the Wire
On the eighth floor, Ralph Welker is making everybody nervous. He is supposed to have a set for the Sellwood-based Classical Ballet Academy’s production of Coppélia finished in less than two days, but he has barely started. “I procrastinated so bad I could kick myself,” he says. “The design is in my head, but everyone is stressed because they don’t know what I’m thinking.”
Welker has his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and wears a diamond earring in his left ear. He started renting his spacious, top-floor unit 23 years ago, when the rest of the building was still deserted, and he appreciates the still-cheap rent ($250 a month for his spot). Welker’s space is packed with two decades’ worth of clamps, hammers, ladders and buckets; from a high shelf, a carved foam gargoyle head overlooks the room.
Welker started working for the Academy a decade ago in exchange for free ballet classes for his granddaughter Sierra, now 13. “She’s been en pointe a couple years, and she just started modern dance,” he says, pointing out a photo of a young ballerina with her hair in a bun, extending her leg into the air. “She’s getting really good.”
Unit 2009: Exotic Photographer
Three deeply tanned strippers wearing white and pink bra-and-panty sets pose in front of a lit-up white backdrop in London Lunoux’s studio this afternoon. Lunoux, a student at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and full-time photographer, has shot for Portland-based Exotic magazine for the past five years.
Today, she’s taking pictures of performers from three local strip clubs for one of the magazine’s advertisements.
Lunoux’s studio is a large, well-lit space on the second—and most finished—floor of the building. While the top six stories were as wide open as skating rinks before the owners erected walls to create the individual storage units, the second story was originally used as the John Deere office and remains more ornate, with a white marble stairway, oak wall panels and frosted glass panels on its interior windows and doors.
Lunoux says she coexists easily with the other tenants on her floor, though she’s sure they’re shocked occasionally when a stripper runs down the hall in her underwear to use the restroom. “I try to keep that to a minimum,” she says, laughing.
Unit 3326: To the Highest Bidder
Once a month, Portland Storage Company auctions off the contents of units whose renters have not paid in three months despite mailed warnings (see “Raiders of the Lost Crap,” WW, Dec. 17, 2008). Church, who has been in charge of the building’s maintenance for two decades, has learned to recognize short-timers from the second they unload their vehicles. “If I see anybody moving in here with a waterbed, I know it will go to auction,” he says. The same goes for rattan furniture and mirrors with cheap beer logos on them.
Today, a white-haired retiree named Richard Struzan wins one of two units up for bid, No. 3326, for $130.50. Because the rules prohibit bidders from entering a unit to examine its contents beforehand, Struzan had to judge the collection’s worth from afar based on clues like how neatly it was arranged and the value of any items actually visible.
“I paid way too much,” Struzan says, rooting around in his new purchase after the auction. “Hopefully, there’s enough stuff in here I can get my money back.”
Struzan rolls a cart into the space and begins sorting through the unit’s contents, setting aside ceramic bowls, African sculptures and other things with resale value. He creates another pile for throwaway items: a typed screenplay, a self-produced CD and a stack of old photographs. He adds a copy of Ebony magazine, a book on hypnosis techniques, an unused condom and the results of an HIV test (negative).
As Struzan works, a portrait of the unit’s owner—probably an older black man, a lover of art, music and Toni Morrison novels—begins to emerge. “He was into jazz,” Struzan says, setting a Bill Evans CD in the “keep” pile. “That’s good—jazz sells OK.”
Unit 2013: Last Man Standing
“I am the place businesses go to die,” says Fabian Gordon from behind a desk in Unit 2013, where he is addressing a stack of padded manila envelopes containing the DVD KISS Meets Phantom of the Park. It’s one of the last stockpiles of the movie in the country, and Gordon is selling them for $30 apiece.
Gordon is a large, jolly man with a dark goatee and plenty to say. He runs Uncle Fabe’s Square Deals, a liquidation business that sells mostly online. His recent purchases include 12 pairs of snowboarding boots, giant grocery store signs that say “Produce,” “Meat” and “Checkout,” and 10 World War II gurneys.
The phone rings. The woman on the line wonders if she can stop by in 20 minutes to check out an aged office chair rated for 500 pounds that Gordon has listed on Craigslist. Sure, Gordon tells her. After he hangs up, he locates the chair in the back of the room, hoists it upside down over his head and carries it out of the jumble.
“Normally I steam clean things,” he explains, wrapping a piece of tape sticky side out, around his hand. He begins running the tape across the office chair to pick up bits of lint and hair. “This is not what I prefer to do.”
Like many of the tenants at Portland Storage, Gordon appreciates the 100-year-old building for its bombproof strength, its decaying elegance, its low overhead, and the chance it has given him to succeed at his venture.
“It’s like Casablanca,” he says. “It’s the way station of the damned. It’s the place where you’re waiting for the next thing to happen.”