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Warehouse Temple: Visiting Works Partnership's Olympic Mills Commerce Center

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Yesterday I made a long-intended visit to the Olympic Mills Commerce Center, the circa-1927 cereal mill that has been renovated by Works Partnership Architecture and Beam Development into a series of flexible creative spaces for mostly design-based tenants. Some rough edges not withstanding, I like this building and its rehab a lot.

The original structure, known since 1950 as the B&O warehouse (for the former Baggage and Omnibus Company), has an eight-story concrete grain elevator and extends to nearly a full city block with its two-story warehouse.

A series of four courtyards cut into the warehouse with skylights to bring in natural light. These double-height courtyards, encircled by second-floor catwalks, are the most pleasant and photogenic portions of the building. They’re clad in slatted wood (made of 2x6 flooring) that was re-milled from several wood grain cribs that had been part of the tower’s grain elevator.

OlympicMills08R In a recent home magazine article I wrote, the homeowner talked about enjoying the high volumes that existed even in rooms with relatively small square footage. I thought of the same with these four spaces. Rather than one huge atrium, like you’d find at Montgomery Park, you have four that are small enough to feel intimate yet large enough to feel expansive. And the slatted wood is gorgeous. This some will surely find too hyperbolic, but while the Olympic Mills Commerce Center may not be quite at this level of sophistication, inside the courtyards of this huge, rough-edged former cereal mill, I felt the hint of a Buddhist temple, or some light filled Alvar Aalto building like the Mt. Angel Abbey Library.

The architects had different plans for furniture than the identical red couches in the quartet of spaces. “We were also hoping that each courtyard would be populated with a different furniture strategy,” Works’ Bill Neburka said in a recent email. “One would be old work tables for impromptu meetings, one would be salvaged wood chairs of all types. I was always really intrigued by how you could see a record of human patterns by the residual chair placement in Bryant Park in NYC: sort of like tracks in the sand. We're still working on that one.”

Even so, getting accomplished a historic renovation like this one, which could have been full of countless surprise-expenses, I don’t think the couches are so bad for a start. Maybe it’ll just need to be up to the tenants to take initiative in creating that kind of community—tables or no tables. There is also a lot of artwork, banners and other stuff hanging from the walls, perhaps too much in my taste. But I can see its effectiveness in encouraging these tenants to form that kind of intra-building community.

OlympicMills18R Although most of my time was spent exploring the interior courtyards, I also took the elevator up to the top floor of the grain elevator. It is still unoccupied, unlike most of the rest of the building, and there seemed to be some residual construction going on there. But as the tallest building in the Central Eastside (or at least close to it), and just across the river from downtown, Olympic Mills offers some tantalizing views.

When the building was purchased in 2005, the tower and base of the building were painted two different colors, which broke up the mass of the huge old mill. But this time around, the new paint job, a sort of earthy orange, was used throughout the exterior. As a result, one gets a much stronger sense of the building as a big portion of Portland’s east-of-the-Willamette skyline.

OlympicMillsrendering It makes me wonder what modern buildings might someday be built in the neighborhood to contrast the wonderful historic industrial structures like this one. Hopefully we won’t make the same mistake as some did in the Pearl District, pairing new faux-industrial with the old warehouses. That’s certainly not happening at the Olympic Mills Commerce Center, though, which has new life but nevertheless feels, in its materials and character, like one connecting thread from past to present and beyond. "It's a super-cool building," Neburka adds. "We just tried to stay out of our own way."

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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