Per Ryan Frank’s May 27 article in the Oregonian, the Portland Development Commission stepped in to preserve the Heritage Building from default by buying the loan that Albina Community Bank held on the building. The PDC is now the sole mortgage holder for the Heritage Building, whose developers have struggled to fill both the ground-level commercial space and the office space contained within.
The Heritage Building, one of the boulevard’s most attractive newer developments (actually a rehab of an old furniture store that was partially burned in the ‘riot’ on Union Avenue in the summer of 1969), has the potential to draw people to the boulevard for a variety of purposes. It already contains tenants such as Portland Community College, and Yoga Mandiram.
Jack Bogdanksi’s blog, bojack.org, has a post on the Heritage Building, in which he suggests that the PDC is throwing good money after bad on this project; commenters on the site seem to agree.
The Heritage Building is the rehabilitated successor to the Weimer Building, which has stood in the middle of the block between Failing and Shaver for decades. Gottfried Weimer (born 1892) opened a furniture store in the building in 1922, and he lived next door at 3946 NE Union (now MLK). Gottfried Weimer was part of an ethnic-German immigrant community that left the Volga River basin in Russia and headed to the Old Northwest and the Pacific Northwest. Some of these folks took up residence in Albina during the early part of the 20th century. The Volga Germans in Portland website tells us that:
The Volga German neighborhood was concentrated in an area generally bounded by NE Alberta on the North, NE 15th on the East, NE Russell on the South, and NE Mississippi and NE Albina on the West. This area was known as “Rooshian Town” or “Little Russia” by the locals and appears to have been the general area of residence for most families until well into the 1930′s. Many of the families, churches, and businesses in this neighborhood were Volga Germans.
Williams Avenue was once the fashionable street of Albina and the equivalent of today’s “shopping mall” for the Volga Germans… Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) later became the heart of the Albina business district and was home to many German-Russian businesses and was a primary commercial center for the community…
Conrad Brill, one of the members of this community arriving in Portland, wrote about his memories in an unpublished book, “Memories of Norska,” quoted here on the Volga German website. Brill remembered Gottfriend Weimer well, and described him thus:
Mr. Weimer was himself a poor immigrant, who repaired and re-blackened staves for his fellow countrymen, after coming from Kraft. He made rounds from house to house. He had roomed and boarded with a family, whose daughter he then married. He bought an old tumble down place on Union Avenue where he set up a repair shop and dealt in new and used stoves. Later he would build new from ground up, with financial loans from fellow Germans, which were transacted with a handshake. He went on to become one of the most successful businessmen in our community, selling on the installment plan. His customers were mostly Volga Germans.
Weimer’s Furniture stored stayed open for 47 years, and had a second floor ballroom that was used for dances by the German American Club. The ballroom was forced to close during the second world war; as Conrad Brill explained:
When Mr. Weimer built his hardware store, they built a large dancehall above it for communal dances. A group, including Mr. Weimer, Mr. Geist, Dr. Uhle and others formed a German American Club and there were many good times at Weimer’s dancehall. When WWII started these clubs were frowned on as much as the Japanese peoples right to live on the West Coast. Dr. Uhle was a very outspoken man who got into several arguments at the hospital with one specific Jewish doctor. He was accused of being un-American for his outspoken feelings and the German American Club was named as un-American and closed up. Dr. Uhle was sent east as far as Chicago. The others explained to the authorities that they were German speaking people who actually were from Russia and not German Nationals, so other than closing the club all went well for them.
A photo of the old Weimer building:
Weimer’s, as well as a number of other German businesses, remained in Albina and on Union Avenue for a long time, some remaining on the street for decades, even as the population of the surrounding neighborhood began to change. The Germans, and other European immigrant communities, became less notable in the area, and the rising African-American population that began arriving in Albina after the Vanport Flood of 1948 began to reshape Albina. African-Americans renewed Vancouver and Williams Avenues as commercial strips, until the building of the Memorial Coliseum and, particularly, the condemning of parts of the area for the proposed (but never completed) expansion of Emmanuel Hospital shattered life on those streets; African-American-owned businesses increasingly moved onto Union Avenue.
Lawrence (Bud) Weimer took charge of Weimer’s, and managed it until riots broke out in Albina in the summer of 1969, and the building was damaged. That summer was the third in four years that disturbances in the area had broken out, and the troubles in June 1969 were extensive, violent, and lasted for several days. The Oregonian (June 17, 1969), in an article called “Police, Witness, Participants Offer Explanations for Albina Disorders”, reported that:
Two versions are being reported of the cause of disturbances that erupted in the Albina area over the weekend.
Police say disorderly youths who ignored an order to disperse from NE Union Avenue and Shaver Street are to blame…
George Davis, night manager of Lidio’s Drive In Restaurant, 4011 NE Union St., [sic] said the troubles started when the officers used their clubs on two Negro girls they were attempting to arrest.
Kent Ford, who identifies himself as a captain in the Black Panthers,… arrested Saturday morning on a charge of inciting a riot, said police provoked the incident as an excuse for jailing Black Panthers and other Negro militants.
“The whole thing here is freedom, and the police don’t want us to have it,” said Ford….
“We want fascist pigs (police) out of the Albina district. We don’t need those pigs here,” Kent said.
Capt. [William] Taylor [commander of the Police Bureau] said Negro militants have been attempting to agitate trouble in the area… Shirt-sleeve weather and hot nights… also were given by Capt. Taylor as possible reasons setting off the disturbances.
The Weimer building had been damaged at the very outset of the troubles on June 14. When police responded to complaints about youth in the area throwing rocks and bottles, they arrived to find roughly 150 teen-agers gathered, a a fight between the youths and the police broke out. Trouble spread onto Union Avenue, and during the fight, several people were pulled from their vehicles by youths and beaten. One was a taxi driver, whose vehicle was “still in gear [and] rolled into the show window of Weimer’s Furniture Store at 3934 NE Union Ave.” (Oregonian, June 15, 1969).
(“Blacks Said Responsible to Entire Community,” Oregonian, June 17, 1969:
“Responsibility of blacks is not just to the ghetto, but to the total community,” black students at Portland State University were told Monday.
Patricia Roberts Harris, first American black woman to become an ambassador, spoke at a noon luncheon at Portland State to kickoff the Martin Luther King scholarship fund drive. She said she wanted to see more blacks in positions of major leadership, not just leadership in the ghetto.
“Whites take comfort when they can point to some of us successful blacks,” said Mrs. Harris. “But the truth of it is there are so few of us that it isn’t significant.”)
Worse was yet to come, for Albina and for the Weimer building. Rioting and police confrontations continued on and off for several days, until a wave of fires broke out on the evening of June 17. The Weimer building was among those torched; the Oregonian reported that efforts to fight the fires were hampered by a fire hydrant whose water had been turned off (police were dispatched to guard hydrants in the area) and the beating of a fireman.
The Oregonian reported (June 19, 1969), in an article titled “Calm Returns to Fire-Scarred Albina: Area Residents Quiet, Tense In Face of Police Patrols”:
The Alberta Furniture Store at 1905 NE Alberta St., and Weimer’s Furniture Co., 3838 NE Union Ave., were destroyed by what police described as “a better class of firebombs” than have been used in the four nights of unrest in Albina. Damage at each store was put at $200,000…. Thirty to 40 fire alarms were called during the night, and police reported that members of the Black Panther organization were maintaining a “firebomb depot” on NE Garfield Avenue.
Attempts to fight fires were again reportedly hampered by assaults on fire hydrants and firefighters, and someone shot a hole in a firehose.
The same article reported that several dozen young people picketed at City Hall to protest the arrest of the Black Panthers, writing that the “happy protestors, all white, carried signs about police brutality and references to ‘pigs’ (police). Few saw their marching and a lone policeman in a stopped squad car did not bother them.”
(Oregonian, June 18, 1969 headline: “Officials Promise Study of NE Youth Program”; June 19, 1969 headline: “Black Panther Aim Held To Wreck U.S. Industry)
An article in the Oregonian on June 19, “Troubled Times in Albina,” reported on the deliberations of a number of Union Avenue business owners on whether to stay on the Avenue. Lawrence Weimer reported that there was no way he would reopen Weimer’s, though he hoped to salvage the building enough that it could be used as a warehouse. After 47 years on the street, Weimer’s was out of business.
In 2005, the long-empty “Weimer Warehouse” began undergoing renovation, and its transformation into the Heritage Building began. The Portland Development Commission had purchased the building in 1999, for $400,000, and in 2001 developers Eric Wentland and Jeana Woolley won the bid to redevelop the building. Renovation expanded the building from 18 to 30 thousand square feet, with ground-level commercial space and a variety of office spaces inside. The developers struggled to find financing to begin the renovation, and in 2005 the PDC stepped up with a $2.4 million loan, with Albina Community Bank providing the remaining financing.