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Prism on Division: Visiting the Clinton Condominiums

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When they last completed a building together, Holst Architecture  and developer Randy Rapaport (along with a couple key co-developers) produced the Belmont Street Lofts. Five years later, it's still among the most compelling and attractive mid-sized condo projects in Portland, if not the very best.

Now, final work is being completed on the team's long-awaited follow up: the Clinton Condominiums.

The process has been a long and somewhat arduous one, with a nearly two-year construction process, some squabbles between architect and developer, and a housing market very different from the boom in which the Clinton was planned.

But now that the building is complete, all seems to be forgiven. "I loved working creatively with John Holmes," Rapaport said of Holst's co-principal when I visited the Clinton last week. "I wanted to challenge him to stretch what was possible in Portland."

Rapaport is not a designer, and as a client, he might not be right for everyone. Like me, he's a bit neurotic and verbose. Much has been made of this late-40s man’'s penchant for indie rock and skateboards. But more importantly, Rapaport relishes the idea of inspiring and empowering architects to do their best work, and he is willing to commit to the budget, materials and design work to make it happen. And the results speak for themselves. After all, like its predecessor on Belmont, the Clinton is quite beautiful.

In such a downturned economy, he and Holst could have value-engineered all the best aspects of the building away. But they didn't. Right now the building’s 27 units are 70 percent sold, but even if it gets completely filled, Rapaport says he'll take a loss. Better that than dumb-down the building, he says.

Among the residents so far at the Clinton are a renowned scientist just retired from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the founder of an award-winning coffee company. There is also a yoga studio and a bakery on the ground floor: Little t American Bakery, which I can tell you from personal experience makes an exquisite New Orleans style Mufaletta sandwich.

At the street level, what's quickly noticeable is the Clinton's mahogany trim framing floor-to-ceiling windows. Touring the building last week with Randy Rapaport, he told me the supplier ran out of the original wood intended to be used, Meranti, so they were upgraded to mahogany.

Looking upward at the condos on floors two through four, the signature element is an assortment of translucent green glass panels that are placed in a somewhat random pattern and at varying widths. It gives the building, especially at night, the look of a jewel or prism with organic sides and angles glimmering in different directions.

On the sides of the building, the Clinton is clad in core-ten Cor-ten steel, which is designed to rust over time. With the angular, complex looking glass front facade, the Cor-ten provides a noticeable counterbalance of simple form and rough texture. Cor-ten seems to be a popular material these days, and the Clinton is far from the first to use it. Even so, it's a nice addition and further evidence that every detail was attended to.

Inside, the Clinton's inside units are first rate, with gorgeous walnut trim throughout and wide open loft-like spaces but bedrooms that can be closed off. There's a sea of white glass tile in the bathroom as well. Looking out at southeast Portland just over the treetops, the top floor views are quite different from what you get in a condo tower, but one feels much more part of the urban fabric down a little lower.

On the corner where the Clinton sits at 26th and Division, the surrounding buildings seem incongruent: a dingy Plaid Pantry store, and an abandoned small warehouse. Just a block to the south, though, you have the cozy and inviting Clinton Street neighborhood that includes a couple terrific restaurants (Savoy, Dot's) and the Clinton Street Theater. Besides, I think the Clinton will set in motion changes for this stretch of Division. Which is not to say there isn't value in a less polished blue-collar urban neighborhood, as this area has been traditionally. I hope the Reel 'Em Inn tavern a block down Division, for example, stays put. It's a mix of old and new, dingy and pristine, that makes for a good neighborhood. 

In the years since they first collaborated with Rapaport and his co-developers on the Belmont, Holst has made some major strides. This is a firm that operated for years without having a completed building project, and now they have a lot of the most compelling work in town. In addition to the Clinton coming on line now, the gorgeous 937 project in the Pearl is nearing completion. And Holst recently broke ground on the new Ziba Design headquarters. Aside from a condo in Hood River, they've yet to expand very much out of Portland. But along with Allied Works, Works Partnership, Skylab, Rick Potestio, Thomas Hacker and a few others, Holst is unquestionably one of the best firms in town.

Meanwhile, Rapaport is looking to drum up community interest in what may be his next project: a 2,000-seat music venue. Rapaport either is or may be partnering with Brad Malsin and Beam Development on this, according to reports in Willamette Week and the Southeast Examiner. But it's all, as I understand it, in the talking stage now. The venue would be in the Central Eastside very close to the neighborhood's I-5 exit ramp.

To be designed by Works Partnership, the venue would seem to occupy a workable niche between smaller venues like the Roseland Theater (1200 seats) or Crystal Ballroom (1500 seats) and the larger Schnitzer Concert Hall (2700 seats).  Rapaport told me it'd be likely to have a kind of opera house design, with upper seating directly on top of the lower seats for optimum intimacy, and a cube-like form on the outside. He also says he's been more vocal about this project than he normally would for a hypothetical development because he believes a public project should get the public's input before it's built more than a private residence.

Meanwhile, next time you're on Southeast Division or in the adjacent Clinton neighborhood, have a look at its new condo namesake.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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