Sifting Through the Wreckage of Olde Reed
Byon April 01, 2014 04:50 PM
The Jefferson West, which housed Reed's first classes, is slated for demolition later this year. Photos by Tom Humphrey
The drab brick building sits on the corner of Southwest 11th and Jefferson, empty and forlorn, its doors locked and its windows daubed with messages from its last tenant—a social-justice program run by students from Portland State University. Overshadowed by the sleek new towers to the east, it's the kind of building you'd walk past a thousand times without ever noticing it. Unimpressive as it seems, this building is Olde Reed, in the most literal sense.
We came to explore Reed’s first building before it is demolished to make way for a 15-story apartment tower, which will most likely be more glamorous than the last vestige of the original campus. Our group consisted of Mike Teskey, director of alumni & parent relations; Mandy Heaton, Tom Humphrey, Laurie Lindquist, Chris Lydgate ’90 (editor of Reed), and Kevin Myers from public affairs; Gay Walker ’69 and Mark Kuestner from the Hauser Library special collections; and your humble correspondent.
The superintendent let us inside the building now called Jefferson West. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was greeted by the sight of broken mailboxes and the musty smell of crumbling brick. The building has undergone many transitions since it left the hands of William T. Foster and his 50 students. It was later home to the Cordova Hotel, the Mural Room, the Jazz Quarry, and an adult movie theatre. The top floor includes 80 apartments which once provided living space for some of the city’s poorest residents.
We poked around the poorly lit basement first, using our phones as flashlights and not finding much except rubble and old theatre seats. Heaton, however, hit the jackpot when she discovered a pair of handcuffs covered in faux tiger fur behind a torn couch with the key still in the lock—perhaps a relic from the theatre’s heyday.
The building has been home to many colorful Portland institutions, including the Mural Room nightclub and the infamous Jefferson Theater. And who wore those leopardskin handcuffs?
The second floor was littered with remnants of the previous inhabitants: old newspaper clippings, broken mirrors, and several paintings that were actually nailed to the walls. Then, like any good Reedie, it was onto the roof. Teskey was the first one up, with Lydgate and myself in hot pursuit. We squeezed into a narrow stairwell and then up a splintery wooden ladder out into the sunshine. The roof was covered with muddy puddles. We eagerly set off to check out the view, imagining what Reed students in 1911 might have seen on their first day of classes. Spying an old wine bottle lying on its side, half-submerged in a pool of water, Lydgate jokingly cried, “a vintage libation of Olde Reed!”
Yet, the roof proved to be unfruitful as for our quest, so we retreated back inside. At this point we lost most of our party, leaving just Lydgate, Myers, Humphrey, and myself to solve the final mystery: where was the original classroom?
Using an old photo of students assembled for first day of class in 1911, we tried to determine the exact location of the original classroom. We were looking for a wide, tall space with columns, and windows that spanned most of the height of the wall. Humphrey noticed a tree behind the students in the picture, with several thick branches extending from the stump.
The photo above was taken on the first day of Reed classes in 1911, on SW Jefferson Street. Does the photo below show the same classroom?
The last room we visited had been used by PSU students for a field study program. It was empty, except for the several columns that punctuated the space, with light streaming in on all sides from the ample windows. Was this perhaps the classroom? As we pondered I glanced outside and noticed several trees lining the street. The trees were reminiscent of the one Humphrey had seen in the photo and, upon closer observation we could see where original, lower, branches had been cut to preserve new growth.
The romantic in me likes to think that we did find the original classroom, and that its final use, in a continuation of the tradition, had been as a classroom.
As we left the building and walked away from Olde Reed, we realized that we were the last Reedies to set foot in the same space used by those pioneering 50 students on the first day of classes. When they listened to President Foster give his opening speech, they could not have known that they were beginning something that would continue more than 100 years later, in a room that their academic ancestors would enter for the last time one sunny Friday in 2014.
[Adapted from The Grail, Issue V, Published March 27, 2014]