United States Customs House

Sustainability of an Historic Structure: Renovation and Re-Purposing

The following was written for Intern Development Program (IDP) credit through the Emerging Professionals Companion (EPC), as an exercise in re-purposing an existing structure and is fairly theoretical and unresearched.

In Northwest Portland, where the Pearl District and Old Town meet, there sits an historic building in need of love and attention. While this turn-of-last-century building is in no eminent danger of demolition, it is certainly in jeopardy of neglect and under use. Built in 1901, the U.S. Customs House was home to the offices and courtrooms of the United States Customs Services. Designed by Edgar Lazarus and James Knox Taylor in an European Renaissance style, the building is completely decked out in marble columns, balustrades, arches, cornices, quoins, and plenty of other classical features. Straddling an entire block beside the North Park Blocks and Broadway just north of downtown, the building has been empty for a number of years and the government is looking for a buyer. After serving time as the customs house, the building welcomed the U.S. Corp of Engineers. Recent, though failed proposals include a home for the University of Oregon Portland campus, a boutique hotel, and an international language school.

Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which saves it from utter destruction, the Customs House is an under-appreciated property in need of a significant repurposing. The government is kicking it around, searching for a potential buyer. Finally there has been the realization that no one wants it. The final blow to historic pride is the upcoming internet auction - a last desperate attempt to unload this historical edifice on an unseen buyer. Someone with money will buy it, but what will they do with it?

The Customs House is no longer comfortable in the neighborhood in which it sits and is no longer what potential buyers are looking for. There are no storefront windows with which to display the latest summer fashions and the offices are surely archaic and not up to data and power standards. The original use is obsolete. Nearby are renovated condos (which are nice) and weary commercial buildings (most not worth saving). But this building itself, an assemblage of marble majesty, is indeed worth saving. More than the marble we need try to save its very soul. What will it become? Law and architecture offices (if not for the high local vacancy rate), banal storage (if all else fails) or something completely different? The new use has probably only been considered along the lines of something grand to match its exquisite character. As this hasn't worked out so well, given the recent abandonment, perhaps something else is needed. To introduce a new spirit of exciting and sustainable reuse and to promote local independent businesses, I propose a mixed-use scheme that welcomes the Customs House back into the neighborhood. 

A hotel is a splendid idea, but why another luxury hotel? Why not consider a hostel - the hotel's forgotten friend who encourages young and adventurous travelers to venture downtown, seeking affordable lodging in the geographic area usually reserved for spendy suites. This would provide healthy competition for the other hostel in Northwest Portland and I could see these accommodations filling one of the upper floors of the building. Another possible tenant is a used bookstore. Though Powell's Books is not many blocks away, the city can always use another interesting bookstore that fills an interesting space. I imagine (as I have not seen) the upper floors of the Customs House to contain small offices lining the sides of wide corridors – admittedly not your typical bookstore layout. However, given a little imagination and creative organization, these rooms and even one side of a wide corridor could be lined with shelves and pleasantly placed reading tables. The courtrooms might be re-purposed for this as well, and who could say no to another local coffee shop or an attractive event space?

Given the funding required to update the finishes and retrofit the structure, a major anchor tenant will be required. The tenant must be willing to put down the cash necessary to pump new life into a dying edifice, as a group that values the renovation of historic space is important in the Portland culture. Someone has to spend the money, or this building will sit vacant until someone does. One local group fitting this description is McMenamins - the restaurant, pub and entertainment group with extensive experience transforming existing structures all over Portland into excitingly artful places to share a pint or watch a movie. McMenamins might find the ground floor of the Customs House a fine location for a new full service restaurant and pub. The courtyard on the west side of the property, which opens up to the North Park Blocks, could be established as an outdoor seating place and could even spill out into the park if such a thing were ever allowed. Similar to the nearby Eco Trust Building, an old structure repurposed for retail and commercial space, the various tenants would be accessed from the interior lobbies and shared interior circulation.

Theoretically, McMenamins could operate this whole endeavor on their own, as they have experience with this sort of thing. Or another independent business could follow the McMenamins model in their own style with a result just as effective. In an effort to offer the best variety of services and multiplicity of choice, a cooperation of diverse businesses could come together under one roof, allowing the character of the Customs House to change with the times and not be subject to the detriment of one business's financial misfortune.

This renovation can implement green principles, primarily through the reuse of an existing structure and taking in local tenants rather than national chains. The heating systems can be upgraded to the best energy efficiency standards and perhaps solar power and a green roof technology can be employed. New windows that maintain the historic look but offer improved performance will help the building maintain sustainability. Having once been a customs house and then an office for the U.S. Corp of Engineers, this building is ready for something new and non-governmental. There are better places in the city for simple office space which do not require such a handsome countenance, but there is seldom such an exquisite (seemingly unwanted) space available for local artistic independent businesses such as hostels, book stores, coffee shops and pubs.

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