For the past decade or so, we Portlanders have had to reconcile our need for sufficient housing to accommodate our rapidly growing population with our desire to maintain our city’s ecological and cultural integrity. The former has been more or less accomplished with the help of our regional government Metro’s urban growth boundary, which prioritizes condensed urban development and reduces impacts to natural resources. The latter, however, has been no such advocacy, with historic buildings going under the wrecking ball at an alarming rate.

The nonprofit group Innovative Housing has a new solution to an old problem: revitalize an historic building right in the urban center to create apartments for low-income tenants. Built at a cost of $15.9 million, Erickson Fritz Apartments will provide 62 studio and 1-bedroom apartments (52 to Portlanders qualifying for affordable housing), including five ADA-compliant units. Rent ranges from $317 to $719 for those whose annual income is $30,900 or less.

Even the art and community spaces in the Erickson Fritz pay homage to the building’s history. Courtyard benches crafted from wood reclaimed from the building resemble felled trees, and one intimate sitting area incorporates the original balcony railings not seen since the old days. The centerpiece in the courtyard, a towering timber of stacked beer barrels, is skewered with a pegboard and phantom logging boots, a steel Sasquatch crafted from reclaimed brackets disappears into an exterior wall, and a boat skeleton chandelier tinkling with antique whiskey bottles marks the high water mark of the famous flood of 1894.

Built in 1895 (after the ’94 flood destroyed Erickson’s first saloon), Erickson’s Saloon was once the crown jewel of the Portland drinking scene, replete with orchestra, ballroom, and 684 feet of burnished wood bar. Naturally, since the bulk of the clientele were loggers, sailors, and dockworkers with a pocketful of cash and time to spend, there were also several rooms for gambling, and an entire floor dedicated to the ladies working in the cribs upstairs. If a patron couldn’t be arsed to leave the bar to relieve oneself, a handy trough lay at the foot of the bar to usher his urine away. Thanks to the vigilant work of local historian Doug-Kenck Crispin (co-producer and salty mouth behind the Kick Ass Oregon History podcast), the storied “Erickson’s piss trough” has been preserved.

“They found a trough during demolition, and it might be a piss trough, or it could be a spittoon or a slop trough—right now we just aren't sure,” said Kenck-Crispin. “But just in bringing the trough from shadowy fables to actual masonry reality makes it so spectacular.” When the trough was unearthed from beneath the subflooring, Kenck-Crispin (acting as historic consultant) and the art team’s project manager, James Harrison, saw the potential for preservation. “I really gotta give props,” Kenck-Crispin admitted, “Innovative Housing took the extra steps to try to preserve and reuse what they could in the building. The history of that space really was forefront in their project.”

  • Photo: Jamie Dunkle