Historic St. Johns City Hall threatened (April 2023)

The St. Johns City Hall, a 1907 Portland Historic Landmark, stands tall, proud, and picturesque against the backdrop of the St. Johns Bridge and steep forested hills behind it. The three-story Greek revival structure looms as a beacon of the independent town St. Johns once was and embodies the spirit of self-reliance still common to the north peninsula.

St. Johns City Hall, Portland, Oregon
St. Johns City Hall

The construction of the St. Johns City Hall began in 1906. The classical Greek Revival architecture was inspired by the symmetry and elegance of ancient Greek temples. The style reached peak popularity from 1825 to 1860, around the start of the Civil War. The brick building was designed with offices for the mayor, city recorder, city attorney, chief of police and the fire department, as well as a gymnasium and a records room on the first floor. The second floor had the City Council chambers and smaller rooms to be used as committee and jury rooms. After annexation to Portland, the building housed a series of Portland bureaus, the north precinct, the police Traffic Division and most recently the Portland Park Rangers.

In 1977, Portland City Council granted permission allowing the St. Johns Heritage Association to share space with the north precinct on the third floor of the building. The Heritage group held meetings there and created a display case of local historic artifacts that served as a small museum for the community. A building remodel around that time included a grant for $300,000 from the federal Economic Development Administration that stipulated that the third floor “remain flexible in order to accommodate a variety of public functions” with the intent “to accommodate joint usership of the building.” 

For 44 years the city bureaus housed in the historic St. Johns City Hall have collaborated with the community by sharing the third floor. That’s why it came as a shock to Michael Brown, president of the St. Johns Heritage Association, when in 2021 the group was informed in no uncertain terms that they were to vacate the building and were given a deadline to remove all historic artifacts. Furthermore, Brown was informed that the building would likely be annexed and sold within three to five years. 

A subsequent email campaign to city leaders undertaken by Brown and Mike Verbout, an organizer of the St. Johns Museum project, produced little result or explanation. It was simply said that city staff was planning ahead. Both Brown and Verbout said they felt blatantly disrespected. “We’re both volunteers. We were always respectful. But they made it hard,” said Verbout.

The City Office of Management and Finance (OMF) is responsible for management and maintenance of city facilities including the St. Johns City Hall. Maty Sauter, an OMF manager, received the emails from Brown and Verbout. When asked about the possible sale of the building by this newspaper, she said “We are always evaluating our properties. It’s an old building that requires a lot of maintenance. We consider that when evaluating city properties.” According to the city’s website the OMF’s mission is “responsible financial stewardship [that] requires continuous and accurate analysis of asset performance [to] maintain operations at the lowest price.” 

Contrarily, the city website also includes this interesting vision statement from OMF: “Our buildings add to the comfort and beauty of Portland’s built environment…By participating in cooperative ventures, we assist private and non-profit organizations to create and revitalize Portland neighborhoods.”

In spite of the fact that the city-sponsored St. Johns Plan 2004 lists the City Hall as an important historic building and directs the Portland Planning Bureau to partner with the community in pursuing National Historic Register status—almost twenty years later, that has not happened, nor are there any signs it will. The building is among only 10% of Portland landmarks that does not also have National Landmark status. If Portland City Hall approves it, the building could potentially be demolished. 

The North Portland community should be included in decisions about the future of the building. In fact there should be an advisory group whose role it is to represent local stakeholders in deciding its future. That’s exactly what’s being done currently at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. In that case a historic building, the Firehouse has actually been deeded to the surrounding community for public use. The city is also collaborating with the community near the Interstate Firehouse to find ways to financially sustain it. In regard to St. Johns’ City Hall, Mike Verbout asks, “Why not here?” 

Verbout noted that the St. Johns Museum group and Heritage Association, are seeking a new home—and the old City Hall would be an ideal place for both. “The Museum would like to include the history of all the groups who have played a role in North Portland including native Americans and Chinese workers who created the cut and the railroad tunnels. There could also be a study and research area.” Michael Brown added, “It could be a field trip destination for kids to learn about the area’s Lewis and Clark history. It could house the Crime Prevention Office, Community Policing Office, or be a satellite office for the police to build better rapport with the community.”

There could also be ways to retain the City Hall’s historic character while allowing compatible mixed uses. But what the community needs first and foremost is assurance that it will not be demolished or altered in ways that would destroy its character. Right now all discussion about the building’s future has been behind closed doors. That must change.

To help advocate for the St. Johns City Hall email Mike Verbout at MikeVerbout@cheerful.com.

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