If you're walking through inner Portland, there's a good chance whatever buildings you're looking at sit on the sites of past constructions. Since at least the 1890s, flames or wrecking balls have claimed cathedrals, mansions, office buildings, and family homes, swept aside by the needs of the city or the ravages of time. Lost Portland, a new book by local architectural historian Val Ballestrem, provides a tour through Portland's lost outline, chronicling the life and death of this city's most notable dead buildings.
In interview, Ballestrem states that his project was not motivated by nostalgia. Many of the buildings he describes would not function in the Portland of today. “A lot of these buildings were just in the wrong place for a city that was growing in the way that [Portland] grew,” he says. “Things like the grand mansions on Fifth Ave were completely in the way.”
Shoddy construction or unforeseen disasters claimed some buildings, but Ballestrem notes that in a few cases prominent structures were set aflame by Chester Buchtel, a Portland firefighter turned arsonist. “My intention going into this was not to reveal some big secret,” he says, “but I'd heard about the burning of the old Temple Beth Israel. I heard that no one was ever charged with a crime. So I looked into it and uncovered that a firefighter later admitted to lighting dozens of fires over the course of the 1920s. He admitted to starting a fire at another synagogue that didn't burn down entirely. He was also the suspected arsonist of the old Washington High School.” The firefighter/arsonist was eventually sent to the Oregon State Hospital.
Ballestrem is broad-minded when it comes to urban development and its necessary evolution. He takes new structures and city environments in stride. But he still has some ire for surface parking. “Sometime we demolish things and we think it's progress. But is progress really a parking lot? One that drives me nuts is the Chamber of Commerce building,” he says, referring to a 1893 structure that sat on on SW Harvey Milk between Third and Fourth Ave. “It was half a city block, and here we are 80+ years later. It's surface parking.”
Still, Ballestrem argues that any expanding city will accumulate an amount of architectural ghosts and that making a record is not the same as mourning the past .“I don't want to say, 'Woe is me. We lost all of these buildings,'” he says. “I just want us to remember they were there.”