Centering a Town: 11th. Effort/Memory

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

T. S. Eliot/Burnt Norton/Four Quartets

All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.

Didion/Notes from a Native Daughter/
Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Architecture built today necessarily, inevitably, is focused on the present, using current materials and technologies, and contemporary idioms and styles and trends. Much is simple and merely functional, bowing to the economic demands of costs of land, material, and labor, to the desire to maximize profits in a world that has lost touch with its base.

Or we see buildings of wonder, abstract, ambitious, demanding, hopeful, and futuristic—and oblivious to present concerns and the past, that only send a blank message forward.

Then there are the abstract and airy projections of speculation:

Large global private equity investors including Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, GlobalLand and others have spent more than $6.3 billion acquiring nearly 29,000 units in the Portland area in just the past four years.

Developers are demolishing sound, habitable, affordable housing and replacing it with housing priced at the very top of the market. The result is to push low- and moderate-income families and communities of color out to the edges of the metro area, away from jobs, schools, public events, parks, mass transit and walkable neighborhoods..

We have to wonder where this trend might lead.

In many cities, investment firms now own enough property to wield the monopoly power to jack up rents, and–with deep pockets and tax breaks–can weather high vacancy rates in order to keep rents high. Wall Street is using those rent payments to create highly profitable new financial assets called rent-backed securities, much like the shaky mortgage-backed securities behind the financial crisis of 2008.

From Mary King, “Wall Street speculators and the loss of affordable housing.”

St. Johns itself has undergone some modernization, via replacements and facelifts. The Bonham and Currier Building around 1905:

The same building recently:

Starbucks and the Japanese restaurant, however, are now gone.

The neighborhood is in a period of transition, like the rest of Portland, with much anticipated growth. Its downtown area has been zoned for for four-story buildings, and the preference is for mixed-use. Many of the older buildings, it has to be assumed, will be razed. Lost or at peril, the memories those buildings once held, the languages they once spoke, and with those losses our sense of a durable existence, of a place in time, of continuity in our lives.

Once a working class neighborhood, the area has now become too expensive for many. But St. Johns seems to be in a stall. The site for my virtual project remains a fenced-in vacant lot. The Central Lofts project apparently has been put on hold. A companion project by the same developer, The Union at St. Johns, has yet to fill. Much commercial space is vacant throughout the downtown area. Older concerns—Tulip Bakery; Salle Trois Armes, a fencing school—have closed with the aging or passing of their proprietors, with nothing taking their place. Patties’s, across from my site, is on its way out as well. Other concerns have come and gone.

The goal of this version is to provide a building that anchors St. Johns at its center and provides a place of memory. A successful design might help identify St. Johns to its residents as well as gain recognition from the rest of Portland, perhaps bring them here. In our age of social media images of the building might spread far and wide.


One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places. The city is the locus of the collective memory. This relationship between the locus and the citizenry then becomes the city’s predominant image, both of architecture and of landscape, and as certain artifacts become part of its memory, new ones emerge. In this entirely positive sense great ideas flow through the history of the city and give shape to it.

Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City

One way to preserve history is through restoration of old buildings, which relate to the present in a variety of ways. There isn’t such a building at the site, and it is difficult if not impossible to recreate the older styles without lapsing into sentimentality or reductive simplification.

This building, in its design, loosely suggests memory as overlapping grids, grey and red, as if nexuses of experience and reflection. Both are incomplete, however, with suggestive connections among themselves as well as disjunctions in an overall pattern that approaches randomness, a hint at the vagaries of time. I prefer a different color for the grey—as before, a green that matches the bridge. The grids lie behind thick planes of brick at the facade, as if they are archeological excavations or the result of incisions that reveal underlying structures.

Maybe. Concrete physical design can only carry limited figurative meaning.

Most, the design reflects my contradictory desires for openness and light via windows versus solid brick masses for solidity and permanence, another message I want the building to carry. We exist, we endure; our buildings give us expression and strength. And I want it to have texture and pattern to gain attention and distinguish it from other buildings.

How the building best carries memory is through images. One option is to make the building a kind of scrapbook, with alternating planes of windows and pictures. I may try that yet. Here I decided to focus on three images to give them size and import as well as maintain the dynamics of the design.

There is much precedent for such images. Murals are painted on walls all over the world, many in Portland. I would prefer hangings that can be rotated. Which images should be selected is a challenge that engenders all manner of debate that, I suspect, would be contentious. How honest and critical should we be about the past, how accepting? At stake, our sense of ourselves now, where we have been, where we might be going, what we might be forgetting.

I only reviewed a few images from old photographs I found and my selection is somewhat arbitrary. At the rear, an old photograph of one of the towers, rising and scaffolded, of the St. Johns Bridge while under construction, around 1930. This picture will be what those exiting the bridge first see, an image of what they just drove through, and not only does it recall a memory, it also presents the notion of possibility, of structure, of uplift. Figuratively it might apply to work done at the center. We rise, we build, we structure our lives, we look up.

At the side, along Philadelphia, the airship Angelus, flown at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905. Really, it was not a successful machine and its connection with St. Johns is tangential.

After several futile attempts to adjust the machinery so that it would run, Beachy opened the gas valve and let the airship drift. He had the Angelus under his control about 15 minutes, but it was about 7 o/clock before he landed at St. Johns. The service of a tugboat was secured and the airship towed back to Government Island, from where it was removed to the aeronautic concourse.

From Morning Oregonian, 1905. Perhaps the image will remind us of how much we have advanced technologically, but I see a measure of caution about such ambition. Technology can fail and does; it can only offer us so much. Also it has a dreamy, surreal quality on its own that floats us from straight, standard, yet often misleading historical narratives. The picture of bridge workers on break, at the head of this post, might be more suitable for the open, friendly personality of the people of St. Johns.

On the front, facing main street Lombard, a picture of a rally, admittedly a sketchy image.

Robert Kennedy and John Glenn address a crowd in St. Johns during the 1968 presidential election. At the upper left you can see Dad’s (AD’S), a former tavern that was once a hotel and is, in fact, the site of my project. The image conjures civic activity and debate, reminding residents they have a place in the larger world. It also recalls different times, different debates, and other ideas in our ongoing political process, where we too often forget what was said before and who said it. There is also the note of tragedy. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles two weeks later.


The program is the same or similar as that explained in previous posts, a satellite college for Portland State with exhibition and civic functions on the first floor.

A basic floor plan for the upper floors, where five classrooms surround an open stairway.

Or there could be an open communal area on the first floor that extends through the second.

The instructors at the college bring additional resources and perhaps could aid in the reconstruction of neighborhood memory, of our notions of ourselves in the world.


The most important reason to preserve the past is so we know we have one, and we should be given visible reassurance daily, concretely in our buildings of its presence. It need not be momentous and seldom is.

Or the larger movements often start with and are built upon the small moments that comprise our lives. Or it is the large events that ignore us and too often compromise our time together. The patterns of history, however, are never single or conclusive. They can lead in different directions and be left stranded in fraying threads. And they shift with our changing perceptions, before, and now, and in the future.

James John, the founder, a merchant and entrepreneur, settled here a century and a half ago and later filed for township, after whom the town, now neighborhood, is named. He was mysterious and reclusive, and not much is known about him. He was also generous—he helped fund the schools—and was given the nickname St. John. Also he sometimes spelled his last name with an s. The language of history is never stable.

The town owes its existence to the Willamette River

which for years led to thriving industry. The Port of Portland Dry Dock, around 1931.

Other industry flourished, notably the Portland Woolen Mills, at the time the largest such mill west of Cleveland, pictured here in 1920. Industry has since declined, and that is the challenge for St. Johns, how to define itself and thrive in our post-industrial world.

City Hall for the town St. Johns. St. Johns merged with Portland in 1915, but the building still stands and is now used an administrative office for the Portland police department. It is across the street diagonally from the site of my project.

Then the daily enterprises that most define day-to-day existence. Commerce—St. Johns Hardware Co. around 1910.


And civic display.

But also conflict and protest. In 1910 there was a riot against East-Indian laborers working in one of the mills.

The trouble had been brewing for some time on account of the number of Hindus consistently increasing at the St. Johns lumber mill. White men, it has been said, have been replaced by these Turbaned fellows, and a strong feeling of animosity toward them has engendered.

From the St. Johns Review. St. Johns was hardly alone in such racial backlash, and the story is painfully familiar today. Above, second from right, Sohan Singh Bhakna, who worked in the mill and later had a role in the Ghadar Party’s abortive revolt against British rule in India and was arrested, 1938. This picture shows him in chains at the Amritsar Railway Station.

Recently, 2015, Greenpeace activists hung from the St. Johns Bridge to stop a Shell Oil ship bound for Alaska. For St. Johns, as for us all, our environment, like our racial views, remains a challenge to resolve, both of which will shape the quality of our lives, the integrity of our identity in the future.

Background and Previous Designs

Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.


Model, pictures of the model, and floor plans by the author.

St. Johns Bridge tower via Vintage Portland

Angelus airship via The Columbia River

Robert Kennedy rally via St. Johns Heritage Association

Sohan Singh Bhakna photo via Public History PDX where you can find full attribution and discussion of the riots

Greenpeace protest via Bronx Climate Justice North

All other pictures via Positive Spin, where you can find more pictures and a brief history


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