I don't normally go to parties put on by real estate developers. However, if I have a chance to take a look at the inside of a historic Portland bar before it gets hollowed out and turned into apartments, I'm there. Innovative Housing, the evening's host, was celebrating their plans for Erickson's Saloon (9 NW 2nd), a former Portland landmark that's going to get turned into an 62 unit mixed-income apartment building. Demolition will begin in June, and if everything goes according to the schedule, the apartments themselves will open in 2015.
Most of you will probably know Erickson's as "that building where the Barracuda used to be," but at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, Erickson's was the largest bar in Portland, and boasted amenities such as a lady's orchestra, a hotel, an ice cream parlor, dancing girls, and a hearty meal known as the "dainty lunch." It took up the majority of its particular block, and various accounts mention that Erickson's bar was of unusual size. Some accounts claim that the bar was over six hundred feet long (which I think stretches credulity) and others are more conservative in their estimates, but all of the sources, accounts and general summations of Erickson's are clear: It was a huge bar, it was popular, and if not for Prohibition it might still be with us today. This episode of Kick-Ass Oregon History (featuring very a special guest star, namely me) gives a pretty good rundown of Erickson's and a few other bars of yore.
During last night's event, the kind of folks you'd expect to be at a real estate party swanned about, drank, and gambled with play money. I peeled off from the main party and got a chance to look at what was left of the third floor, the part of the saloon that doubled as a cheap hotel over a century ago. The floors still bore the marks of small, cramped cribs where men (many of them transient or migrant laborers) could crash for a night or two, and the whole thing was drafty, creaky, and obviously old.
- Doug Kenck-Crispin
Nosing around, I found a few sketchy looking staircases that once led to the street, rooms filled with debris, dust, and beer cans, and it all gave off the impression of being an impressive ruin. According to Sarah Stevenson, Executive Director of Innovative Housing, the exterior of Erickson's will remain the same. "It's a selective demo," she said. "It's a totally historic restoration... We're going to try to preserve as much of it as we can." However, the guts of the building are getting hollowed out in June, and all of the really essential stuff about Erickson's (the giant main room, the balcony overlooking the saloon, the third floor where lumberjacks passed out) will be gone.
I've got mixed feelings about this. At least when it was the Barracuda, the historic bar was still a bar. It was the kind of bar that I'd never, ever want to go into, but it was still a place for drinks and entertainment. That essential identity is getting taken away from the old place, and even as it's being "preserved" it's being destroyed. The exterior will remain the same, and that's great, but the saloon will never be a saloon again. It's a transformation rather than a preservation, and even if I'm a little sad that an interesting ruin will no longer be with us, development still beats the wrecking ball.