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Not every development downtown is a new high-rise. On the contrary, the latest addition to Old Town/Chinatown will be historical soundscaping to enhance the sense of place in the district.


Placemaking is a high priority for architectural design in Portland these days, as developments go up and city planners want them to fit in with the existing neighborhoods’ cultures. While critics of new developments are often historians hoping to save iconic masonry buildings, this time, the history of Old Town is being developed directly into four buildings owned by Innovative Housing, Inc. (IHI).

SUBMITTED: INNOVATIVE HOUSING, INC. - A photo circa 1890 looks east down Burnside Street toward the bridge, with Ericksons Cabaret Grill on the left.

The first soundscape at the Erickson Fritz Apartments on Second and Burnside will be unveiled on Sept. 15, and the rest will follow throughout the year. The soundscapes are built into the recently renovated historical buildings’ facades, recreating past time periods with sounds that were heard there back then, woven in with diverse ethnic communities who inhabited the neighborhood.

The use of modern sound engineering by Charles Morrow Sound in conjunction with research by Jackie Peterson-Loomis, historian and executive director of the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, brings the history of Old Town to the forefront of the new developments.

“These walls can talk,” Peterson-Loomis said. “It’s not just about beautiful architecture, it’s important to have a sense of sky and air. It’s one place in Portland you can stand on the street and look around and get a sense of what it might have been like in the late 1890s: rather than being hemmed in, a sense of livability and even silence at certain times of early morning and night. Imagine what it was like when there were very few cars, or no cars at all.”

The soundscapes, costing $99,500 for all four, are funded by the Portland Development Commission (a $40,000 grant) and the Oregon Cultural Trust (a $28,972 grant). Central City Concern contributed $15,000 for the Estate Hotel soundscape, and the Erickson Fritz apartments contribued $15,800 to its own. IHI is filling in the gaps.

Sound development

The Erickson Fritz Apartments soundscape will incorporate audio from 1900-1930, when the building was August Erickson’s Workingman’s Saloon.

Erickson, a Finnish immigrant from Helsinki, ran the saloon as a bar downstairs and a brothel upstairs. Now, the building has been renovated by IHI into affordable housing with beautiful art.

Charlie Morrow, owner of Morrow Sound, is in Helsinki right now on another project and used his travels to record actual Finnish bar sounds, such as a boisterous crowd.

“We can’t have any fake voices,” Morrow told the Business Tribune. “We recorded communities of Finns in Portland — Erickson would have had a bunch of robust Finns hanging out there — I recorded top TV actors here in Finland for the bar site, and authentic Finns singing drinking songs and arguing and so forth as a layer.”

Morrow Sound is based in New York, Los Angeles, Helsinki, London, San Francisco, Portland and Barton, Vermont. They installed the audio tour at the Empire State Building, incorporating several authentic historical characters in many languages.

Morrow doesn’t have any employees; rather, he hires local contractors for each project. He takes direction from local historians, who for the Erickson wanted a 1900-1930 time period.

“It’s a wide swath of history,” Morrow said. “In that time, you could have early automobiles, you could have some early radios, and at the same time you could still have a horse cart.”

Since sound can get busy very quickly, Morrow layers a few salient sounds against a background. It’s not like a monologue or didactic like what’s found at museums, instead built with layers of sounds and whispers of the past that passersby will grasp at as they walk by for 12-15 feet. The soundscape isn’t repetitive, and varies by time of day.

KEVIN HARDEN - Built in 1905, the Modern Rich Apartments building along Couch Street used to be the Workingmans Shoe Repairing shop, owned by Harry Steinberg.

“At the Erickson, starting now, you’ll have the sense of this vast bar, this lawless, wild group of people, this upstairs which was a brothel,” Morrow said. “When you hear it, you’ll have the idea of it through sound without actually making it a full picture.”

A contracted acoustician works with the owners to locate good spots for the speakers on the facade, and what the speakers will look like — historical, or hidden.

The teams are bringing in local choirs and orchestras to recreate authentic, historical sounds.

“If someone’s going to sing a song, we have to have the right song, and sung by someone who’s an appropriate kind of singer, or we’d have to license a recording from the past,” Morrow said. “One of the interesting choices you have making a soundscape like that is whether it is of the past, or is in fact the past being heard.”

He means there is zero tolerance for modern takes on old-day music, and for his soundscapes it must be sung in a historically accurate representation.

Redeveloping history

Jackie Peterson-Loomis, executive director of the Portland Chinatown History Foundation, is a professional historian who has been living in Portland since the early ‘90s. The soundscapes were her idea, a formulation which began in 2000.

“I started this project back in 2000 thinking about how could we create a new sense of presence of those who lived here at earlier moments in time, through the use of sound,” she said. “And, to attach those sounds to the buildings where those sounds would have been heard as a way to begin to build a relationship between the public and this built environment as a way to get closer to who these people were, what their lives were like, how they were different, all about the early history of the city about our collective history.”

Tracking immigration to Portland’s Old Town, Peterson-Loomis said they were mainly of European background at first — many Germans and German Jews. By the mid-late 19th century, China Town and Japantown (Nihonmachi) had been created, offering homes to a Greek community, a Jewish community and eventually Filipino and African-American communities.

After the Erickson Fritz Apartments, three others are slated for new soundscaping: The Estate Hotel will represent the Greek community from 1925-1960; the Modern Rich Apartments will tell the stories of the Jewish immigrant experience from 1925-1960; and the Musolf Manor will depict the Japanese American experience from 1915-1941.

“It’s just an incredible array of different ethnic groups living side-by-side geographically,” Peterson-Loomis said. “People always see themselves as living within their community, they don’t notice a different ethnic group living across the street.”

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Soundscapes: where, when and who

Erickson Fritz Apartments

Unveiling: Sept. 15, 5-7 p.m.

Location: 9 N.W. Second Ave.

Formerly: Erickson’s Workingman’s Saloon

Time period: 1900-1930

Community: Finnish

Some sounds were created through sound libraries and some are new recordings of music known to have been played here, retraced by Peterson-Loomis and re-recorded by local Irish-American singer groups.

“We did a tremendous amount of historical research in newspapers and found playbooks, found photographs in which you can see the picture of the girls’ orchestra and other performers,” Peterson-Loomis said. “We know there were many ethnic groups that patronized the action: loggers, miners, things in the rough trades of all ethnicities and many different accents. We recorded some dialogue we could pull out of newspaper accounts.”

The Estate Building

Formerly: Maletis Market

Location: 225 N.W. Couch St.

Time period: 1925-1960

Community: Greek

“In later years, the bad years of the ’50s and ’60s when the neighborhood really descended into a kind of skid row, the elitist grocery store served many functions,” Jackie Peterson-Loomis said. “They say it was the first store in which Greek pasta and feta cheese was sold.”

The building then helped serve as bankers for day laborers such as loggers, who would hand over a week’s pay for necessities before going back out to work.

“It was a pretty thriving Greek community, but almost all male in contrast to some other groups. They were largely railroad workers, who lived alone in single-occupancy hotels,” Peterson-Loomis said. “It’s one of the ethnic experiences here that the city knows nothing about, and we hope through soundscapes and other ways to educate the public.”

Modern Rich Apartments

Formerly: Workingman’s Shoe Repairing

Location: 211 N.W. Couch St.

Time period: 1925-1960

Community: Jewish

The Modern Rich on Davis and Second Streets used to be the Workingman’s Shoe Repairing, owned by Harry Steinberg.

“He was an amazing storyteller, and we have wonderful recordings his niece took when he was still living of him singing songs in Yiddish,” Peterson-Loomis said.

Lyndon Musolf Manor

Formerly: Foster Hotel

Location: 216 N.W. Third Ave.

Time period: 1915-1941

Community: Japanese-American

Musolf Manor is where pre-Pearl Harbor Japanese-American Portlanders will be represented.

“It has the potential to evoke a real sense of poignancy and loss,” Peterson-Loomis said. “We’re timing this just before Pearl Harbor, and that unfortunately results in the targeting of Japanese Americans who were living in Japantown in this neighborhood, and who were forcibly removed from their stores and residences and sent first to the assembly center and then out to concentration camps.”

After the war, the family who owned the original department store in Japantown returned and moved into the Musolf building across the street. The son of the owner offered Peterson-Loomis a list of sounds from memory that he recalled hearing on the streets, such as bird wings as dusk.

“We tried to figure out if this is a nighthawk with a bird expert,” Peterson-Loomis said.

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