You have to give it up for the GSA, they sure haven’t thrown in the towel on trying to save the 110-year-old U.S. Custom House in downtown Portland. Even with potential renovation costs required to inhabit the structure hovering around $10 million (with a wide give or take factor), the GSA will start the bidding—yet again—on the structure on Dec. 1.
From public open houses to starring roles in television shows—both Grimm and Leverage film in Portland and used the structure recently—the GSA sure has put the publicity wheels to the pavement. But what has potential buyers worried is the construction unknowns of renovating a nearly 79,000-sqaure-foot, full city block antique. Oh, the issues—and cost—that could be hidden behind those granite, roman brick and terra cotta walls and tucked under the Italian Renaissance Revival style.
The four-story, H-shaped building opened at 220 N.W. Eighth Ave. in 1901 as Portland’s custom house. It was home to the customs folks until 1968 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over tenancy than and lasted until about six years ago. Since, the government has tried to sell the building at least three other times. And it almost worked.
At one point, the GSA was willing to give the building away to The International School because of the public use anticipated, but the tenants backed away because they figured the renovations, including seismic upgrades and code requirements, simply weren’t feasible.
Then, in the latest round of action, a three-week auction in late 2010, Portland real estate management company PREM Group won the bid by offering $2.5 million. But PREM never closed on the deal, citing unknown costs involved in the massive renovations.
Along with seismic concerns and Americans with Disabilities Act upgrading needs, the building has plenty of asbestos and serves as an energy hog (it seems the structures of 1901 just don’t have the same efficiencies as today).
Adding to the difficulty of restoring the structure was the grand nature in which government buildings were designed in the early 1900s. Everything from high floors to historic charm make the building a bit, shall we say, unusual for a typical redevelopment project. It isn’t something just anyone wants to step in and take over, especially at a minimum bid of $250,000.
The building was designed in the office of James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, and constructed under the supervision of architect Edgar Lazarus. Everything from a one-story granite loggia of five tall, arched openings serving as the entrance, terra-cotta detailing on the upper floors, two-story engaged Corinthian columns, marble-clad piers, marble wainscoting and a cast-iron grand staircase from the first to the fourth floor give this building plenty of charm. And restoration expense. Let’s see what happens, if anything.