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Reed's First Building Slated for Demolition

By Chris Lydgate ’90 on February 28, 2014 04:36 PM

The building that housed Reed's original classrooms.

The unassuming brick building that housed Reed’s original classrooms is slated for demolition later this year, to be replaced by a gleaming 15-story apartment tower.

Located at the corner of Southwest 11th and Jefferson, the building was designed by noted architect Frederick Manson White and erected in 1911 by the Reed Institute on property donated by Simeon Reed. Here the first Reed students—24 women, 26 men—sweated over their studies under the baleful eye of the first professors (including the formidable President William T. Foster, who also taught English classes).

The developer, the Molasky Group of Las Vegas, Nevada, has purchased the building from the city of Portland and plans to build a 15-story tower with 196 market-rate residential apartments, 13,000 square feet of commercial space, underground parking, and a roof deck. It appears that the final design is still pending approval from the Portland Design Commission.

The old building—now known as the Jefferson West—had many adventures during its long life. In addition to hosting Reed’s first classes, it was home to several colorful Portland institutions, including the Cordova Hotel, the Mural Room, the Jazz Quarry, and the infamous Jefferson Theater, an adult venue that the Portland Mercury once described as “small, dark, sticky, and open 24/7.” (There is considerable irony in this juxtaposition, since President Foster led an effort to stamp out vice and prostitution in Portland in Reed’s early years, a campaign that triggered a neuralgic reaction in certain downtown business circles.)

Building in 2014.
Developers plan to build a 15-story tower.

Developers plan to build a 15-story tower in place of the Jefferson West.

The upper floors of the Jefferson West includes 80 apartments that once housed some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. In an effort to preserve its stock of affordable downtown housing, the Portland Development Commission purchased the property in 2001 (making the city of Portland the de facto landlord of a porno theatre). But instead of remodeling the structure, which had fallen into a state of disrepair, the PDC constructed new housing next door and relocated the tenants, clearing the way for the Jefferson West to be demolished. (It has apparently been deemed unsafe by the Portland Fire Bureau.)

The original building included two lecture rooms, two small classrooms, an assembly hall (known as the Chapel), a small library, and an office for the president and his secretary (who together comprised the administration in those days).

Although Reed’s tenure in the Jefferson West was relatively short, several of the college’s longstanding traditions were established there, including morning assembly in the Chapel (no longer observed), sports in the afternoon (occasionally observed), and awkward shuffling of feet when asked to define your terms (observed with a vengeance).

Nonetheless, the old building was indubitably the place where the central experience of Reed—inquiry in the classroom—began. On the first day of class, September 18, 1911, students, faculty, and three trustees “picked their way through building debris to the small assembly room which their number filled to overflowing,” according to a first-hand account by Jean Wolverton, class of 1915. The Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot gave an invocation and President Foster addressed the first-ever crop of Reedies.

“This day is pregnant with meaning,” he declared. “The future of this institution is, in a peculiar sense, in our hands . . . Our sense of the future committed to our care and our devotion to worthy ideals should create for Reed College a deathless spirit.”

Then the speeches were over and it was time to crack the books and get down to work.