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Oregonian, October 25, 2002


by Randy Gragg

Nobody knows why the architecture firm of Daniel H. Burnham and Company designed Portland's Marshall-Wells Warehouse the way they did.

The walls are reinforced concrete. The frame is made of heavy timber posts and beams. There is nothing unusual about either of those feature. What's weird is the relationship between the two.. The frame sits at a 45-degree diagonal to the walls--a high-school geometry problem writ monumental.

For the new owners of 164 condominiums in the 1910 building, located at 1420 NW Lovejoy St., this structural oddity has resulted in some of the coolest lofts in the Pearl District, fabulous spaces, torqued and energized by the angling beams of the structural system. And for developer Robert Ball, it has leveraged a financial win on his biggest project ever.

Ball started renovating old houses in Eugene in his teen years, moved on to old Northwest Portland apartment buildings in his 20, and now, at 36, he has completed a $35-million, 280,000-square-foot project in the city's epicenter of new development, the Pearl District. Last year, he initiated a proposed redesign of Portland's weak mayor political system, the "Good Government Initiative," which lost but threw a scare into the city's political establishment. In short, Ball is proving himself one part rising-star developer, one part charismatic civic advocate.

But anyone hoping the renovation of a building with such a unique history and structural system might yield some stunning new architecture will be disappointed. Ball and his architect, Ankrom Moisan Associated Architects, beautifully restored and responsibly updated the building's exterior. They did a truly excellent job of preserving the dynamic industrial ambiance of the interior while providing for such contemporary needs as soundproofing.

But they stumbled on their chance to infuse the building with a dramatic sense of its new life.

To bring light into the interior of the full-block, 200-by-200-foot, seven-story edifice, they hollowed out the middle with an atrium. It might have been one of the most beautiful outdoor rooms in the city, but the result rises only about two notches above the averaging housing project turned inside out.

Historic preservation ideally should address both the body and the spirit of a building, and though the Marshall-Wells building was just a hardware company warehouse, the architecture was at the very least eccentric--and maybe even experimental.

At the time the Marshall-Wells Hardware Company Warehouse No. 2 (the building's official name) was built, its designer, Daniel Burnham, was one of the world's most famous architects. In 1881, he designed Chicago's Montauk Building, to which the term "skyscraper" was first applied. He and his one-time partner, John Wllborn Root, designed the "White City" of the 1893 Columbia Exposition, giving birth to the "City Beautiful" moment of urban planning. In 1902, he designed New York's iconic first skyscraper, the Flatiron Building.

Marshall-Wells stores and warehouses, no doubt, were bread-and-butter jobs for Burnham. His firm designed them at a rate of one a year. The Portland facility, finished a year before his death, probably took little of his time and even less of his drafting table. Nevertheless, it is unique.

The historic renovation's architect, Ankrom Moisan's Dave Heater, thinks the peculiar structural system probably emerged out of boredom. The project's engineeer, Blake Patsy of KPFF, speculates that Burnham tried out the system in Portland so no one back East would hear about it.

But Daniel Pelissier, project manager for the renovation's contractor, Howard S. Wright Construction, has a more charitable view. The system might have been an early form of seismic engineering tried in the wake of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a city where Burnham designed many buildings.

Whatever the reason, the resulting building begs for something spectacular where its new identity meets its old--namely its diamond-in-the-square courtyard. Instead, there are only tiny windows, although they are expensive, ventilation-inducing, double-hung style. The surrounding finish is a Tuscan-orange stucco--real stucco, but still just stucco, applied flush to the window frames with no other details at all.

Earlier schemes (viewable on the project's Web site: featured huge, gracious, industrial-grade windows, corner trellises and top-floor terraces and planters, all of which were "value-engineered" out of the final design--cut for budget reasons.

Admittedly, the expenses and tradeoffs in a project like this are tough, and the market risk high. For instance, to keep the gorgeously utilitarian metal column-capital brackets exposed--which reveals impressive 28-by-28-inch hoisting beams--they had to be fireproofed with intumescent paint at $50 per square foot. The proximity to Interstate 405 dictated that half of he 384 upper-story windows have three layers of glass for soundproofing. And Ball absorbed such costly surprises as the lack of enough steel in the lower walls concrete and unforeseen asbestos.

Ball says he prefers the term "historic preservationist" to "developer." With most of the renovation of Marshall-Wells Warehouse that's certainly true--in the body of the building. Maybe in his next historic remodel, he'll prove it in spirit, preserving Portland's architecture history while encouraging his architects to make some history of their own.

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