Dear readers, perhaps you have thought I’ve written enough about J.K. Gill over the past years? Certainly I dedicated parts of several chapters of my memoir to this great-great-grandfather of mine, including a chapter aptly titled Books. If you are new to these ramblings, though, you might first catch up with this 2019 blog, J.K. Gill in 5 minutes or less. But now, I have news! After 12 months of mostly pandemic isolation I was eager to be invited to revisit 426 SW Harvey Milk Street, following up on my first tour that preceded COVID-19’s “shut down” of life as we knew it by mere minutes. While I have been forced, like so many others, to work from my dining room, construction continued in Oregon and ironically I provided virtual technical support through my day job to Oregon COVID-19 Construction Task Force in an effort to reduce exposure risks to construction workers.
I had been eager to hear news about the status of this building and schedule my return visit to what we can now, again, officially refer to as the J.K. Gill Building in downtown Portland. I did need a pick me up so soon after Mom’s March 6 passing, and I’m unsure now whether I was more excited to learn about the J.K. Gill Building having been successfully added to the National Register of Historic Places in February of this year, or that I was about to get my second private tour following completion of the building’s major renovation.
I blogged about my first February 2020 visit to the building during active construction, wearing a hard hat but no facemask – structural barebones exposed, a finished building still to be only imagined. The second was only two weeks ago, where I (now fully vaccinated) boarded a Tri-Met bus for the first time in a year, facemask donned. I retained the facemask but needed no hard hat this time as Hilary Olson, Urban Renaissance Group, once again led me on this private tour of the finished building. The renovation was designed by SERA Architects for owner and developer Urban Renaissance Group.
I have been holding off on writing about this recent visit as I politely awaited Urban Renaissance’s grand opening announcement –so kindly they have included me in updates and invitations along this journey– only to learn another blogger beat me to posting this marvelous story first. Since the writer of that blog, Brian Libby, holds expertise in architecture and building structures, technical observations so different than my sharing of bits and pieces of this and that, there is more than enough for both of us to share, while we still await a more detailed announcement from the building owner. Libby can share those details and I can share the homey family stories. (See Libby’s Emporium uncovered: visiting the renovated J.K. Gill Building.) For after all, regardless of who writes about it, J.K. Gill and all of his descendants would be pleased to know the building has so lovingly been brought back to life.
If you’re old enough to remember shopping in the downtown Portland Gill’s store at this location, this 5th Street door was the entrance, and still holds the J.K. Gill design medallion, a historic remnant, outside the entrance. This space, like others, awaits final interior design decisions from its to-be tenant. Even without any architecture expertise, I can tell you the most pronounced and impactful part of this existing building for me are the original massive columns. Some of these cylindrical columns had been hidden when the building was used as Multnomah County’s Gladys McCoy Building, but have once again broken out boldly. The feeling of space and light is pervasive throughout the building spaces I toured.
There is no doubt, not that my tour guide Hilary could have noticed behind my mask, that I was smiling pretty broadly when I was shown the framed photos prominently featured in the lobby, shared by me from our family photo album. (The 1905 image below on the right also is featured in My Music Man’s Chapter 11: Pirates, a chapter set on the Long Beach Peninsula.)
As I loitered along the hallways, particularly on the main floor and lower level, I took in the framed old images of store operations from times long ago. What a fixture this place had been for so many decades, including its history in earlier downtown PDX locations where both musical instruments and furniture were once sold and our earliest school textbooks were published. I applaud the care and skill that Urban Renaissance took to renovate this building and bring back so many original features. Although the pandemic has changed the way so many employers imagine work to be performed, with large numbers of people still working at home, I would imagine this space will be coveted as a desired workspace for some of that time. I have surprised myself these last few months to be eager for the day I too can return a few days a week to my own office. This building almost makes me want to leave my job at OHSU in a building on the hill to seek work for whatever tenants might make their way into the building, just for a chance to be in a space like this. Peeking out the building’s original windows, the wavy glass –imperfections from bubbles, waves and varying thicknesses –leaves me with a feeling of character. And times long gone.
The lower level brings us back to 2021 with the addition of conveniences we need today, bike storage, showers, and a fitness room, although tempered with the continuation of historic photos and structural details.
Can you imagine what my great-great-grandfather, or his son-in-law and store manager William Andrew Montgomery would say to know that this original store scale was saved and still sits in the renovated building’s lower level? I’m not sure what the scale’s original history is, and maybe it was just as easy to keep in place as to move, but regardless: now that is cool.
Maybe before too long I can look forward to stop inside the lobby of this beautiful building and sip a cup of tea as I imagine the memories held within its walls. Thank you Urban Renaissance for the care you have taken to resurrect the J.K. Gill Building. Although I never met him, I am certain my great-great-grandfather would be proud.
Interested in reading more about J.K. Gill and the J.K. Gill Bookstore?