For years, Kathy Evans admired the dilapidated gothic building she saw whenever she drove on U.S. 30 just south of the St. Johns Bridge. Her four daughters always pointed out the structure and thought it looked like a haunted mansion.
“We’d always dream that we’d win the lottery, buy the building and fix it up,” Evans says. “Turn it into a Scooby-Doo Mystery Theater.”
The 1913 structure, a landmark with its classic lines and smashed-out windows, is actually a former office building for factories that refined tar into natural gas along the Willamette River.
Evans says she was upset to learn this month that the company that owns the property—one of the most polluted industrial sites along the Portland Harbor—wants to tear the building down.
“They went in and they created this huge ecological disaster,” says Evans, who works in marketing. “And the only thing that is good about that property, they’re going to destroy.”
Public interest in the building’s fate took off Dec. 4, when Portland architecture critic Brian Libby reported on his blog that NW Natural planned to tear down the building, and several media outlets, including WW and The Oregonian, linked to his post.
Evans and other advocates for preserving the Gas and Coke Building say NW Natural has a civic responsibility to the landmark. Her online petition has collected nearly 1,300 signatures.
In August 2012, NW Natural asked the city of Portland to remove the building from its Historic Resource Inventory, a survey of about 5,000 properties with historical and architectural significance. The city agreed.
A spokeswoman for NW Natural says the utility has a financial duty to its customers and shareholders.
“I’m not sure how a contaminated building would go on a historic list in the first place,” says NW Natural’s Melissa Moore. “The building has been decaying.”
Liza Mickle, a city of Portland historic resources specialist, says the list of historic properties is wide-ranging, from converted industrial buildings to a Ford assembly plant, and doesn’t discriminate against a building based on its condition. “The list is not meant to be a reflection of what is viable or not viable,” Mickle says.
NW Natural is on the hook to help pay for a federally mandated Superfund cleanup of the Portland Harbor. The company claims it has spent $93 million in cleanup-related costs at the site.
The ground under the building is still contaminated. The three-story concrete structure sits behind a chain-link fence, its copper gutters sagging, its mossy slate roof sloughing, and the portals of its former clock tower boarded up. A May 2012 inspection report found the building is contaminated with asbestos and lead, not to mention bird feces and dead rodents.
Moore says NW Natural hasn’t set a demolition date. Its city demolition permits expire in February, and the company has already received one extension.
Libby, who first drew attention to the building’s fate, says Portland has a dearth of old structures and the city should move to preserve this one. (His blog’s readers proposed converting it to a McMenamins.)
“Even as a ruin, it still has value, architecturally,” Libby says. “Right across the river, we have Cathedral Park. This is almost like an industrial cathedral.”
A report issued last week by historical preservation group Restore Oregon says the building would be difficult and expensive to restore. The organization has shied away from officially backing a campaign to save the building but suggests mothballing it to keep the site’s options open.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” says Restore Oregon executive director Peggy Moretti.
NW Natural’s Moore says the building’s industrial location and zoning make it unlikely anyone will step up to take on the costs of protecting and preserving the site. She also says she doesn’t know if the company would ever consider an offer.
“We can’t speculate on something that hasn’t happened,” Moore says.
Evans now plans to form a committee to back her efforts. She says the building could be kept as a historical ruin surrounded by public space—like a castle in Germany she once lived near.
“Every city looks the same,” she says. “The
things that make us different are the things we should protect.”
Editor's Note, December 19: The Northwest Examiner first revealed NW Natural's demolition plans in its November 2013 edition.