It is a truth universally acknowledged that an up-and-coming neighborhood in possession of increasingly hip retail and rising rents must be in want of a name. Several have been trotted out for the bustling blocks of Portland, Oregon’s southwest quadrant just west of downtown and south of the hip and hopping Pearl District. Given its spate of design and fabric shops, the Fiber Arts District is an option, as is the hackneyed SoBu (south of Burnside). A far less ostentatious moniker, favored by one of the primary drivers of the neighborhood’s development, is also in the fray. “I like the West End,” says architect Jeff Kovel, founder of Skylab Design Group. “That’s what it’s been called historically, and I think it’s kind of classy.”
If anyone deserves credit for kick-starting the West End’s revitalization, it would have to be Kovel. The neighborhood has been a home to vagrants and many of Portland’s social services; a methadone clinic and a rundown hotel were centers of activity. But in 2001, Kovel, then 29, decided to move Skylab Design—now with a staff of eight—into downtown Portland and lit upon a crumbling building at SW 12th Avenue and SW Alder Street as his new digs. “We intended to stay for a year and then sell it and get out,” he says. “But obviously we’re still here.”
The ramshackle building that has become 12 + Alder serves as the office for Skylab Design, the storefront for the furniture shop Intelligent Design, space for the salon D Studio, and home to the Kovel family. Erected in 1907, the building has housed a messenger service, a boardinghouse, a storage space, a gay bathhouse, and more recently, a store selling fine, handmade men’s lingerie.
Manly underthings aside, for years the West End’s only architectural draw was the First Presbyterian Church, a stately Victorian Gothic just across the street from 12 + Alder. “The church is amazing,” Kovel says with clear admiration for the sanctuary designed by William E. McCaw, Richard Martin, Jr., and Manson White in 1890. “It was a real no-man’s-land down here, and one of the things we wanted to do when building 12 + Alder was to feed off the church and to extend the context of [the] architectural experience.”
While the modernist glass-and-steel façade is an aesthetic departure from the First Presbyterian’s design, the clearest and grandest example of Kovel’s dialogue with the church comes in his open, uncluttered 2,000-square-foot residence on the second floor. “When it was a bathhouse in the ’70s, there was this pitched skylight that looked up to the steeple.” Kovel kept that detail in the bathroom, but wanted an even more sweeping statement for the living room. The corner of the house just opposite the church’s steeple seemed promising, but viewing the entirety of the 180-foot bell tower from so close up required a dramatic gesture.
“I imagined prying apart the façade of the building, the way you’d pry open the doors of an elevator,” Kovel explains. The result is a great vertical swath cut out of the shell of the building running the length of the second floor and back several feet into the roof. It’s as though a skylight has bled into a window, creating a broad transparent glass stripe that gives way to a numinous view. Realizing this bold gesture required a more down-to-earth feat of engineering and a leap of faith.
“When we decided to keep the shell of this building,” Kovel says, “we essentially had to design another one inside it because the place was crumbling. So when we cut out the big window there was a good chance the whole thing could have fallen [down]. We cantilevered the floor out a couple feet over the sidewalk and sup-ported everything from the inside, but once that cut was made the two walls on either side of the window were no longer connected.” To the delight of the Skylab team—and passing pedestrians—neither wall fell. And in keeping with his connection to the church (secularly architectural), Kovel canted the frame of the window to mirror the spire across the street, just as the bronze painted steel panels that make up the second floor’s exterior allude to the First Presbyterian’s slate shingles.
Kovel’s makeover of 12 + Alder was purposeful, if occasionally perilous. “The people we purchased the building from were going to tear it down,” he says, “and we had a couple reasons for wanting to buy it. One was to try to create a conversation about how a defunct building and neighborhood could be revitalized, and another was to adaptively reuse the structure.” What’s more, the old wooden framework of the structure was shipped over to the Doug Fir Lounge—a Portland restaurant and club Kovel designed and partially owns—and fashioned into the bar. Ordering a Rusty Nail never seemed so apt.
Kovel’s tenants Bill Fritts and David Kennedy are as satisfied with their new HQs as their laid-back landlord is. Kennedy’s D Studio once occupied a sliver of retail space on the ground floor of 12 + Alder, but has since moved upstairs into a roomier, more private space cut to resemble an apartment. Fritts’s Intelligent Design sells the latest in modern furniture; he and his team of designers also do custom and consulting work. Musing on his highly creative tenants, Kovel says: “It’s kind of like a collective here—though a really professional one where everybody is working and doing well.”
Downstairs, beyond the bespoke walls of 12 + Alder, one finds a neighborhood in flux. West End mainstays like luggage shops and laundries now vie for space alongside chic shops and new restaurants. The derelict hotel nearby has been replaced with a park, and when asked about 12 + Alder’s place in the rise of the West End, Craig Olson, who recently opened the modernist gift shop Canoe just across the street, says, “That building is hard to overlook and clearly signaled that change was afoot.”
“There’s a transformation happening,” Kovel says, “and I think that we planted the seed. This building made sense for us because it was all about transition: in business,
in the neighborhood, in our lives.”