Preservation Pioneer: The Salvation and Revival of the Harlow Block
By John Tess President & CEO, Heritage Consulting Group | October 20, 2019
Sometimes success is achieved simply by not giving up. The Harlow Hotel in Portland, Oregon is just such a story. It is one of the city's oldest commercial buildings, but for most of the last four decades, it has been abused, battered and left vacant. It was the target of two previous attempts at rehabilitation. Depending on which calendar is being used, the current renovation has taken a decade. And yet, late this summer, the building opened as the Harlow Hotel, an intimate full service 26-room boutique hotel.
The Harlow Block is a three story brick building constructed in 1882 in what was originally called "North Portland." At that point in time, the city was only forty years old and the state thirty. It was an inland port city of 17,000 people. The wharf city generally revolved what is not known as the Skidmore-Old Town National Landmark District at Naito Boulevard and Burnside. At this time, the area around the Harlow Block was mostly upscale residential and the block adjacent to the west had been platted a public park. There were also ongoing conversations in the City about a new train station to be located just to the north.
Portland's 1882 Harlow Hotel was abandoned for four decades. Param Hotels has brought it back to life as a 26-room boutique historic hotel.
The developer of the building was John D. Harlow. Harlow had been born in Bangor, Maine in 1820. A descendent of an original Mayflower passenger, Harlow became a sea captain. He arrived in Portland in 1851 and became the successful owner and operator of steamships, including the Commodore Perry, the first steamer constructed on the Willamette River strictly for towing purposes, as well as ships, Shoo Fly, Minnehaha, and Rip Van Winkle.
He purchased the 5,000 square foot parcel in 1869 and built his family home. In the 1870s, he purchased land for a country home east of Portland and platted the town of Troutdale. In the early 1880s, he moved permanently to the country house, and in July of 1882 spent $26,000 to build the Harlow Block on the site of his home.
The handsome masonry building that bore his name was three stories with ground floor commercial and hotel rooms on the upper two floors. The ground floor originally featured the "East Park Exchange" saloon. A barber shop and office on the ground floor. The hotel piece was known as "Grand Central."
Until the depression years, the hotel and shops generally prospered. The modern train depot was completed in 1893 three blocks away while the areas to the west developed in a major warehouse district. A new modern post office opened was built across the street in 1916. As the area transitioned to more commercial uses, the hotel was modernized and upgraded.
Unfortunately, like many older hotels, beginning in the depression years, the property began a downward cycle toward SRO occupancy. Demand for hotel rooms largely dissipated during the 1930s and 1940s, while the 1950s saw the flight to the suburbs. As income fell, less and less money was available to maintain the property. By the 1960s, the Harlow Block could reasonably be called a flophouse.
Renovation Plan Number 1
Beginning in the 1960s, more and more Americans were appreciating vintage buildings. Led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, historic preservation and adaptive reuse grew in popularity. The State of Oregon created the first statewide incentive for historic preservation, a 15-year property tax abasement. As the same time, the City of Portland created a Landmark division in its Planning Bureau, charged with identifying historic buildings and providing incentives to support their renovation.
It was at this time that the ownership embarked on its first modernization. The hotel was closed and the building vacated. Renovations plans were prepared. Unfortunately, by this point in time, the building was largely isolated and the redevelopment plan was just not viable. While downtown Portland began to prosper, the nearby "Old Town" district struggled to gain traction. Train travel lost popularity. The warehouse district to the west became obsolete.
Through the 1970s, the building was sold twice.
Renovation Plan Number 2
By 1980, a new owner planned a new renovation. That initiative began by listing the property on the National Register of Historic Places. This documented the property's bone fides was an important historic resource in the city. It was now the second older commercial building in Portland, the only earlier property being the 1880 Merchant Hotel in Old Town. Ownership envisioned a full restoration of the exterior and interior. Again, despite the obvious significance of the building, the economic realities of the surrounding neighborhood remained.
Renovation Plan Number 3
For the most part, the Harlow Block remained empty through the years. The occasional underfunded commercial tenant would lease one or more of the first floor spaces but nothing substantive. The building literally disintegrated over time as the roof began to leak and the mortar began to fail. In a well-intentioned previous renovation, the brick had been sandblasted; the façade was literally crumbling.
Then in the early 2000s, Thomas James "Jake" Bigham acquired the property under the corporation "Old 82 LLC." Bigham was born in New York City but graduated from the University of Oregon School of Architecture in 1996. Working for Chesshir Architecture, Bigham saw the Harlow as an opportunity. He developed plans to renovation the building, turning it into a boutique hotel. The exterior and interior would be fully rehabilitated, while all systems would be upgraded and the building seismically brought up to code. To expand the room count, the project included a rooftop addition. To help on the project finances, he filed an application for historic tax credits. Tragically, Bigham was killed in a windsurfing accident in Cabo Pulmo on the Baja Peninsula over Christmas, 2007.
Hotel reception is located in one of the five ground floor commercial spaces.
Ganesh Sonpatki, owner of Param Hotels, picked up the pieces. A graduate of the University of California-Davis, Sonpatki's family was in the hotel business. He had relocated to Portland from San Francisco a few years prior and was looking for potential investment projects. At this point, Sonpatki owned and operated several hotel properties in the metropolitan region, though to this point exclusively modern properties. He acquired the property and hired Chesshir architects to carry the project forward.
Naively, he did not think bringing the project to fruition would be a challenge given that he had building permits and tax credits in hand. To this point in time, he had not done a historic project previously and as he learned, the path forward was not as simple as he thought.
First of all, the building was in far worse condition than he anticipated. The sandblasted brick was beginning to destabilize. The roof had failed din many locations. Interior historic materials such as wood wainscoting, were damaged beyond repair.
In practical terms, these failing conditional substantially increased the renovation costs. Seeking the federal historic tax credits, he now faced replication of materials, not repair. A good example here is the upper floor windows. In the earlier application, the windows were to be repaired. A decade later, the window had reached a point where repaired was not viable. Yet, in replacing the windows, the new windows needed to be wood and they needed to replicate the historic. Similarly, originally, the building included interior windows that opened onto the corridor.
Again, water intrusion made it nearly impossible to repair the windows, while modern fire codes required a 2-hour rated wall. To meet code, the interior windows needed to be removed, a wall installed to secure the fire rating and a replica window installed on the corridor side to re-create the historic look.
Second, building codes in the City of Portland had evolved. In attempting to make plan changes to enhance the project's viability given his experience as a hotel owner and manager, the project hit substantial and expensive code triggers.
A good example was the storefront entries. As was common in the 19th century, the building was constructed to the lot line and the entry steps extending into the public right of way. In the previous building permit, the steps had been grandfathered. Changing city policies meant that these would no longer be allowed in the event Sonpatki hit the new code triggers.
Similarly, the rooftop addition was problematic. While the City had previously approved a rooftop addition, the original design was problematic while access much more challenging. In attempting to modify the rooftop design and access, Sonpatki discovered that he would hit new code triggers that would make the project prohibitively expensive.
In the end, to achieve his pro forma requirements, Sonpatki jettisoned notions of updating the designs and working within the earlier permitting system.
Third, like many urban areas, Portland faces a graffiti/tagging issue. This long-standing building had suffered from repeated tagging to the brick facades. Each repair was progressively more challenging given the fragile brick, each repair becoming progressively more delicate and expensive. To help minimize, Sonpatki implemented 24 hour security and eventually sheathed the elevations with nylon fabric during the life of construction.
The rehabbed hotel features 26 intimate guest rooms. The project restored the hotel's extensive historic woodwork.
By Labor Day, the 26-room hotel and restaurant will be open. Much as Harlow was prescient about the value of the original location, the reborn Harlow Hotel is located in an increasingly thriving area. Just to the north is the very trendy Pearl District. Between the Pearl District and the hotel is a one-time 13 acre postal site being redeveloped in a mix of residential, office and commercial uses. To the west, the one-time dilapidated warehouse district has been reborn into a trendy vibrant area anchored by Powell's Books and the Brewery Blocks.
At 26-rooms, the hotel project remains a challenging one that does not offer much room for operational mis-steps. Param Hotels experience in hotel management should go a long way toward making and keeping the Harlow Hotel successful.
As the project opens, Sonpatki is undaunted and happy he undertook the challenge. Having a historic project under his belt, he has a better understanding of what to expect and how to better manage the development process. He appreciates the importance of revitalizing historic buildings and is looking forward to his next opportunity.
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