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December 5th, 2001 Brian Libby | Featured Stories
 

Requiem for St. Francis

Old hotels are disappearing from Portland--the latest victim was a well-known landmark.

     
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Last month another vestige of Portland's historic downtown core became a pile of rubble. It was no architectural masterpiece, just a nice old building that had certainly seen its fortunes fall. But before the dust settles, the St. Francis Hotel deserves at least a eulogy.

For the past 74 years, the St. Francis stood at the corner of Southwest 11th Avenue and Main Street, behind the Portland Art Museum. At one time the white brick building with its antique interior was a stately destination for out-of-town guests (the old Portland trolley proudly advertised having a stop there), but for most of its existence it's been a residence hotel for the down and out. Movie fans will recall that it was also featured in Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, where writer William S. Burroughs played a recovered junkie living there--an ideal mascot for the building's shabby elegance.

Now the St. Francis has been torn down to make way for the Museum Place project, which will include a mixture of housing and retail as part of a larger plan to redevelop and enliven the city's West End neighborhood. As Portland tries to house a burgeoning population within the urban growth boundary, changes in our city's fabric are inevitable. To its credit, Museum Place could provide a jump-start the West End desperately needs.

What's more, over the last half- century Portland has shown an impressive commitment to historic preservation. We've saved from demolition buildings such as the Governor Hotel (in which Van Sant filmed the Bob scenes for My Own Private Idaho) and Lloyd-Wright's Gordon House. For that, we should be proud. Yet parts of Portland's past continue to vanish.

Take a trip to Paris, London or even Havana and you'll see that the nameless old buildings are just as important to a classical urban fabric as the famous ones--maybe even more. The St. Francis was no Governor, but that's precisely the point. It was what Tom Waits would call "a crumbling beauty," indicative of Portland's hallowed seediness, where swanky lofts and Starbucks franchises segue into back-alley flop houses and brick-house soup kitchens. If there's such a thing as the nobility of poverty, then there's also a quiet grandeur in the neglected buildings of better days, defiantly unencumbered by commercialization. This is a face of Portland that is, like the St. Francis, rapidly falling away.

This is not to say that we should halt sensible development in favor of romanticized urban decay. But as architect Nancy Hanks once wrote, "Old buildings are like friends. They reassure people in times of change." When eyesores like the recent Pioneer Place addition go up, it's all the more rueful to see lovely buildings like the St. Francis come down. And while it's unquestionably time for some transformation in the West End, the price has come as another friend lost.


Another transformed Van Sant site is the rundown grocery market from Mala Noche, recently opened as the lush Lush.




The Danmoore Hotel on Southwest Morrison Street is the next hotel earmarked for destruction.
 
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