When it was originally built in 1915, the Ford Building at 2505 SE 11th Avenue at Division was just that: an assembly plant for Ford automobiles, and the only one in Oregon. They built Model Ts here, Falcons, and maybe even an Edsel or two.
Now, courtesy of Portland's Emerick Architects and a California developer, the massive 82,000 square foot brick building has new life as a flexible office and retail space intended for creative industries. And indeed, when I visited recently, strolling through the several floors and cavernous halls, it seemed like nearly every one of the scores of units was occupied by some sort of photographer, yoga studio, or web design company.
The Ford Building also is also calling upon one of its tenants, Gallery Homeland, to curate art for all of the public areas in the building, of which there is a lot: more than 5,000 square feet. I recently reviewed one of the current shows, by artist Susan Murrell, for The Oregonian, and was taken by what an installation opportunity this building is. The Ford isn't the first old warehouse conversion that has filled its public spaces with art; Beam Development's Works Partnership-designed Eastbank Commerce Center and Olympic Mills Commerce Center warehouse rehabs in the Central Eastside do much the same. Still, it's an encouraging trend.
Emerick Architects has done a few other noteworthy building renovations in the past, such as the circa-1920s Porter Building in the Pearl District, a new-old headquarters for Grand Central Baking near the burgeoning North Mississippi area, and a grand old Masonic temple that's become the headquarters for SEIU local 503 (and I love the idea of working-class union guys taking over for weird elitist Masons). The firm's Northwood Home along the Willamette was also the first house in the area to receive the US Green Building Council's LEED for Homes designation.
But chances are the Emericks (principals Brian and Melody) won't ever design and/or renovate a building of this scale again, unless somebody comes calling for a stadium or a blimp hangar. The Ford Building also occupies a unique site that's somewhat removed from the rest of the Central Eastside, which lies to the west and north. The Ford occupies a small stretch of Division Street at 12th Avenue that, with Genie's restaurant, Lovecraft Biofuels and Ramekin's Cafe (among others), is becoming one of numerous little retail clusters scattered throughout Portland's neighborhoods.
Although the brick facade and the massive scale are impressive, ultimately the Ford Building will benefit from more storefront retail on the ground level. It's an imposing structure with too much streetfront space shut off to the outside. But as businesses like Seyta Selter's terrific Dutchess clothing/tailor shop (home of the swell $500 individually tailored suit) occupy some of that retail frontage, the Ford will really come alive even more -- and not just when one a freight train rumbles just a few feet outside.
It's been decades since Ford Motor Company produced any automobile designs to get me excited. You'd probably have to go back to the late '60s Mustang for that. (It could be worse, though: they're not GM or Chrysler. Have you seen the PT Cruiser? Or the Chevy HHR? Eeewww!) But the Ford Building seems to epitomize much of what's right not only with preservation in Portland, but those occupying the spaces.
by Brian Libby, 2008
Published with permission of Portland Architecture