In June 2004, when the boarded-up building at 128 NE Russell St. changed hands once again, its future was questionable. But the building's past was definite, and colorful. The hulking structure was built by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in 1914 as a gathering place for downtrodden Irish-Catholic immigrants. In 1936, when the Catholic Church bought the place, that transaction set off a 65-year merry-go-round of owners and uses, as a site for community gatherings, boxing matches and, eventually, a day-care center. Until 2002, that is, when the doors and gothic windows were shuttered.
Then Mark Woolley and Chris Monlux, longtime Portland arts promoters, bought the place. "We could have torn it down," Monlux says as he explains the building's odd distinction of being a large auditorium in a residentially zoned district, "but we still wouldn't have been able to build a new venue."
Enter City Hall. Last fall, the Vera Katz-led City Council amended the city's historic-preservation ordinance, aiming to preserve more of old buildings by, among other things, giving owners the ability to operate the sites as commercial enterprises. In November, the Historic Hibernian Hall landed on the National Register of Historic Places, and renovations are underway to create the Wonder Ballroom, a multifaceted entertainment complex on a sleepy street in Northeast Portland. A look at the venue itself offers insights into this mix of old-world style and new-world commercialism.
The Stage: Staying true to the building's past, the Wonder Ballroom will host an eclectic array of entertainment, including the Oregon Book Awards, the 20th Annual Portland Polka Party, Wade McCollum's rock opera One and, coming this Saturday, a Kaosmosis dance party. Much of the focus, though, will be on live music, which the venue will host six times per month.
The Auditorium: With the help of Roy Roos-a structural engineer with Irish eyes-the renovation is designed to return the auditorium to its 1914 glory. Walls are painted in subtle, earthy tones-think potatoes and boiled celery-while the room will be lit by a gothic-style chandelier and sconces. The room, at 712-person capacity, will be designated all-ages for most events, and will compete with such similarly sized venues as the Aladdin Theater and Loveland. The entire building is designated as nonsmoking; shows will run as late as 2 am.
The Gallery: The Hibernians' old assembly room, this 2,700-square-foot hall will become a satellite location for the Mark Woolley Gallery, where the local visual-arts king will assemble works by various Portland artists.
The Mezzanine: The Wonder's main bar, built from salvaged Doug fir, presides over the 40-seat mezzanine. A second bar will be opened on the main floor, plus there will be a designated area for the 21+ crowd on the auditorium floor.
The Office: Woolley and Monlux bought the building, and then signed on another owner, Howie Bierbaum. As general manager, Bierbaum (also known as Howie Baggadonutz) has given the Ballroom calendar flair using his arts-world clout.
The Ticket Booth: Local booking and promotion company Monqui Presents, co-owned by Monlux, will schedule music at the venue. By shutting out other promoters, the Wonder Ballroom is mirroring the practice of the smaller Doug Fir Lounge, a venue co-owned by Monlux's partner in Monqui, Mike Quinn.
The Restaurant: The Wonder Cafe is under construction, slated for a late-July opening. Cuisine? Still a question mark, but a manager has been hired, plucked from a "hot Portland restaurant," Monlux says.
The Wonder Ballroom will celebrate its grand opening featuring the Dahoo Chorus, MarchFourth Marching Band and Wade McCollum. 9 pm Saturday, June 25. 284-8686. $12-$20. All ages.