Once Home to a Cast of Portland’s Fitness Fanatics, Nelson’s Nautilus Gym Is No More

“The sauna at this gym is perhaps the densest place I’ve ever been in terms of diversity. Sitting mostly naked with a bunch of dudes speaking in 5 different languages in a tiny hot room is pretty eye-opening.”

Site of the former Nelson's Nautilus gym. (Courtesy of Google Maps)
  • ADDRESS: 8333 NE Russell St.
  • YEAR BUILT: Unknown
  • SQUARE FOOTAGE: 1.2 acres
  • MARKET VALUE: $1.1 million
  • OWNER: Port Athletic LLC
  • HOW LONG IT’S BEEN EMPTY: Since 2019
  • WHY IT’S EMPTY: The building burned down.

The 1.2-acre vacant lot at the corner of Northeast Russell Street and 84th Avenue in East Portland doesn’t look like it was ever home to very much.

But for decades, the building that occupied this lot was the gathering place for an eclectic group of sports and exercise fanatics. Then their gym burned down to its concrete foundation in 2019.

For close to 40 years, a boat business owner and wrestling coach named Marc Sprague ran the Oregon Athletic Club out of the 30,000-square-foot building. It sported a junior Olympic-sized pool, numerous weight rooms, and six racquetball courts. It was frequented by families in the area, Sprague, 83, proudly recalls.

“It was a great thing for that area,” he says. “A lot of elderly people in the pool swimming.”

Sprague ended up throwing in the towel in the mid-1990s; “It’s a long story, I don’t want to get into it.”

That’s when Myron and Evelyn Nelson came into the picture. They renamed the gym Nelson’s Nautilus. (At Nautilus’ peak, they had seven such gyms in the state; the couple purchased their first gym location in 1988 from Billy Jack Haynes, the legendary Portland pro wrestler now accused of murdering his wife earlier this year in Lents.)

The Nelsons ran Nautilus for about 12 years. Still, the main attraction was its pool and an Olympic-sized high-dive platform, says the Nelsons’ son, Preston. “For insurance reasons, we ended up closing [the high dive] in 2000,” he says. “There are certain things that aren’t cash cows, you know.”

Nautilus hosted a rotating cast of smaller clubs inside the gym, including Cobra Wrestling, Sprague’s wrestling club. For a time, a company even taught scuba diving lessons in the pool.

In 2008, a Nautilus member named Rick praised the gym in an online review. “The sauna at this gym is perhaps the densest place I’ve ever been in terms of diversity,” Rick wrote. “Sitting mostly naked with a bunch of dudes speaking in 5 different languages in a tiny hot room is pretty eye-opening.”

Preston Nelson, now 56, spent 20 years working for his family’s network of gyms.

One character in the gym saga weathered the long list of businesses that came in and out of the building: Milton O. Brown, who owned it for decades (he briefly sold the building to the Nelsons, but purchased it back just several years later) and leased it to various businesses. Brown, a Portland lawyer, was disbarred for poor conduct in 1988 but went on to acquire an expansive real estate portfolio, as WW documented in this column last month (“Pompeii on Fremont,” May 29).

“Milt loved his initials because they spelled MOB,” Preston Nelson recalls. “My dad took a liking to him, and they got in some business.”

It’s not clear exactly what happened, but the Nelson’s business started failing just a couple of years in. Then, according to Preston Nelson, his father had a falling out with Brown. The Nelsons got the boot from the gym in late 2008.

Brown, now 95, had a hard time recalling anything about the building when reached at his home in Washington state. The real estate agent listed on business fillings for Brown’s trust did not respond to a request for comment, nor did his granddaughter Shauna Friedenberger, who, according to her LinkedIn page, works as a psychic.

In 2011, shortly after a fire at the gym, Portland Fire & Rescue added the structure to its “unsafe building” list. For many years, until an August 2019 fire burned the building to the ground, the lone tenant was the boxing club Grand Avenue Boxing.

Later that year, what was left of the building was demolished. It’s stood vacant since, and was the subject of a February complaint about furniture dumped on the lot.

Preston Nelson recalls driving by the property shortly after the fire destroyed it in 2019.

“It kind of hurt my heart,” Nelson says. “It was all rubble.”

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.