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June 29th, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

JUMPTOWN JUMPSTART

Young developers work to save legendary Portland jazz club.

     
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The last brick-and-mortar survivor of North Williams Avenue's sizzling '40s nightlife scene could live again-if two young developers can secure another $1 million by July 8.

Today, the old Multi-Craft Plastics headquarters on a triangular block just north of the Rose Garden looks like post-industrial junk after the company moved out six months ago.

But 60 years ago it reigned as the Dude Ranch, a jazz club billed the "Pleasure Spot of the West." Giants like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk rocked packed houses there after World War II, when Williams Avenue buzzed with black-dominated nightclubs, bars and restaurants.

What remains today is a little like seeing a ghost.

The main ground-floor room of the abandoned three-story brick building is dusty and depressing. The floor is covered in ragged, colorless carpet, and structural pillars clad in '70s fake-wood panels support a saggy, tile drop ceiling.

But above the false ceiling, those pillars shed their plywood skin to reveal plaster painted pale green. Four sconces curve out of each pillar's side. They once cast dramatic light upward to a delicately detailed, 20-foot-high ceiling hung with chandeliers.

Greg Pearlman, 33, and Maria Toth, 37, want to restore the Dude Ranch and weld it to a high-rise, mixed-use green development they call Jumptown to honor Portland's old jazz-scene nickname.

They've lined up brand-name architect Ken Yeang-famed for designing eco-friendly Southeast Asian skyscrapers-and a team of mostly local investors. Still short $1 million of the $5 million needed to buy and renovate the building, Pearlman and Toth face a July 8 deadline from the current owner.

That tight time frame is a looming hurdle between the partners and an admittedly grandiose dream.

"This will be a renovation of a key piece of jazz history, and probably the greenest building ever built in Portland," Pearlman says. "We want to make this an entertainment district, a place for creative firms and a diverse community."

The partners want to restore the ground floor to its swanky past and fill it with a jazz club, theater group or other cultural tenant. The upper two floors, which were a restaurant/speakeasy (you can still see the outline of a craps table once bolted to the floor) could be a future restaurant, taking advantage of sweeping views of downtown through huge, arched windows.

Behind the original Dude Ranch, the plan calls for a 10-story tower of 110 work spaces and condos. According to the project's current prospectus, upper-floor condos could go for up to $880,000, subsidizing live-work units priced between $180,000 and $225,000.

Solar power, rainwater recycling and rooftop gardens-all Yeang signatures-would add an ecotopian edge to the plot's increasingly desirable central location.

"This could be the most celebrated building in Portland," says Peter Wilcox, an architect and developer who's part of the Jumptown development team. "You have a chance to suture together the Pearl District and what's happening on the east side."

Irony abounds: "Urban renewal" was largely responsible for the Williams Avenue scene's demise, when the neighborhood fell to make way for the Memorial Coliseum and I-5. Bob Dietsche, author of a forthcoming book on Portland jazz history titled Jumptown, calls the area a "jazz Pompeii."

"The Dude Ranch was the Cotton Club, Apollo Theatre, Las Vegas and the Wild West rolled into one," Dietsche says. "If they manage to do what they say they're going to do, it'll be just amazing."

 
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