When the Postal Employees Credit Union building opened its Southeast Portland doors in 1962, looky-loos showed up to walk under a swooping ceiling and stare at blocks of bright red, blue and purple glass windows.
They checked out the aluminum shade screens, explored the H-shaped floor plan designed to draw in natural light from multiple directions and took note of other captivating trademarks of International style and Modernism architecture.
Unlike traditional banks adorned with formal flourishes, this simplified structure, decorated inside with a palette of tangerine, soft creams and browns, represented a swank new way to house money.
At the time, financial institution executives embraced cutting-edge modern design to send a message of openness, transparency and friendly convenience.
Supportive concrete pillars were installed on the sloping site to elevate the single-story credit union and make it appear lightweight and floating, and to allow for parking underneath and drive-up services.
The new structure, on a corner lot in the Buckman neighborhood, stood out from the surrounding post World War II automotive shops and industrial buildings.
By 2000, however, the forlorn, white-painted mass at 421 S.E. 10th Ave. was easy to ignore. Multnomah County used it as an office for its corrections department. Razor wire on top of old cyclone fencing and other distracting barriers concealed the site’s faded cool factor.
In 2018, new owners, including Jenelle Isaacson, founder of Living Room Realty, stepped in and spent more than a year executing a thoughtful rehabilitation of the building.
Now the headquarters for Living Room Realty, the former credit union has been deemed by architectural experts as an excellent example of a well-restored midcentury modern bank and has been approved to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The interior showcases the best of the Northwest Regional style popularized by Portland’s most respected modern architects John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi.
As visitors did a half century ago, eyes follow the exposed, wave-like glulam beams and unpainted wood ceiling in the vast “banking” room. They notice the concrete staircases, inquire about the gumwood doors and wood wall paneling, and appreciate the large windows overlooking the landscaped courtyard area.
Despite some modifications, “the building retains the vast majority of the character-defining features that were present at its construction in 1962,” according to documents submitted to the National Register.
The building was designed by the firm Reese and Blachly. Architects John W. Reese and Frank E. Blachly were part of Portland’s so-called 14th Street Gang of young modernists, along with Saul Zaik and William Fletcher.
Barnard & Kinney Contractors of Beaverton oversaw construction of the wood-framed building, which cost more than $200,000, according to an Oregonian story published after the ground breaking in December 1961.
The story stated that the building had space dedicated to store repossessed furniture and cars plus an “auditorium, kitchen and Kiddy Room for entertaining children while adults secure loans.”
Isaacson said in a news release that restoring the building is part of her company’s mission “to build vibrant communities and preserving some of our city’s historic architecture is an important part of that.”
She said the office space will host community events such as art shows and educational workshops when it’s safe for people to gather after the coronavirus pandemic.
Living Room broker and designer Shannon Baird of S. Baird Design oversaw the renovation. Baird, who has been honored by Oregon’s Preservation Office for her historic preservation projects, and designer Anna Carmel wanted the updates to reflect the building’s original integrity.
The building was structurally remade to match Reese and Blachly’s plan. The curved wood ceiling, wood doors, aluminum accents and other surviving elements were restored.
SUM Design Studio + Architecture completed the floor plans for office placement in the northwest wing, remodeled three restrooms and created an IT room layout prior to Baird joining the project.
The remodeling work was led by the general construction team at Deform NW.
“They were open to collaboration and were willing to go out of their way to tend to the finer details that were so nuanced and essential for the historic work in the building,” said Carmel.
Baird and Carmel selected the finishes, designed the lighting and kitchen, and reconfigured a dividing wall to the training room, among other work.
Their biggest challenge was to erase the “sterile, depressed, cold, institutional feeling” of the former correctional facility, said Baird.
The appearance and texture of the furnishings, fixtures, tile and carpet were guided by the original stained glass colors as well as the 1960s modernist era, and were updated to reflect a more inspirational environment.
Baird said people who once thought the space was intimidating now experience a “welcoming and comforting” feel.
Visual softness was achieved with curved lines, midcentury wall units and sofas, and cashmere and other comfortable fabrics.
“Walking inside for the first time, we saw how light moved through the space and how the volume really mattered,” said Baird. “We could easily envision what used to be a well-designed and functioning credit union and what it could become while keeping the original intent. We knew that we could take that feeling and embody it into a fresh modern office for Living Room Realty while nodding to the past.”
— Janet Eastman | 503-294-4072
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