When Burt’s Bees cofounder and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby bought 660 Congress St., she planned to convert the downtown apartment building into an artist colony for fashion designers. Two years later, it’s a dump that’s attracted a group of people who … well, let’s just say fashion is not their thing.
Built in the Queen Anne style of the late 1800s, the Victorian’s historic façade is what initially drew Quimby. But her efforts to renovate the three-story brick structure have been stymied by a city board’s opinion of what historic buildings should look like.
Quimby bought the property in 2009 for $350,000 — less than half the price the previous owner paid for it two years before. Her plan to convert its seven apartments into artist studios could have cost her an additional $400,000, due to a city ordinance that makes developers pay fees when they take housing units off the market. But after considerable debate, the Portland City Council agreed to consider this endeavor a “project of special merit,” and waived the fees.
Quimby’s $1 million restoration plan envisioned studios for fashion designers and textile artists on the top two floors, and a sleek gallery on the first floor where their work would be displayed. The artist-in-residence program would have provided up to six designers with work space, food and a stipend, plus housing at a different location.
After the tussle over the housing fee, the next setback came in January of last year, when a vandal pried open the back-alley door in the middle of the night and set the interior ablaze. Firefighters had to break windows to extinguish the flames, so Quimby had them boarded up (though a family of pigeons still manages to enter and exit through a hole).
Then Quimby encountered another unexpected obstacle. The city’s Historic Preservation Board rejected the design her architect submitted. This came as a shock, Quimby said. Knowing the board follows strict guidelines, she’d hired an architect with experience renovating historic buildings.
According to Quimby, the sticking point was the plate-glass showroom windows she wanted for the first-floor gallery. The existing bay windows were refurbished in the early 1900s; there’s nothing Queen Anne about them. But Quimby said the board deemed their preservation necessary because they originated during an “era of significance.”
“It was very disturbing to me,” Quimby said. “I didn’t want to spend all this time and money and not get a design that reflects what the building is supposed to be used for. I didn’t know where to go from there. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That’s why it’s still sitting there.”
The added expense of fixing fire damage and redesigning her plans doubled the estimated renovation cost. “The project was spiraling out of control, both cost-wise and time-wise,” Quimby said.
So she suspended work on the dump last summer and redirected her energies toward restoring the Roma Café/Bramhall Pub a couple blocks west on Congress Street. The Quimby Colony at the old Roma will be similar to the project she envisioned for 660 Congress St. — an artist-in-residence program for fashion and costume designers — but without a gallery space on the premises.
Meanwhile, people who own businesses near this dump have been grappling with the problems it fosters.
Michelle Souliere, owner of The Green Hand Bookshop across the street, said “there is not even a pretense of maintenance” to keep the dump from deteriorating. The building has become “a nexus of reprehensible activity,” she said, ranging from drug use to brawls. She frequently calls the cops to disperse groups of addicts, drunks and vagabonds who’ve made the two stoops of 660 Congress their nighttime hangout.
A “no loitering” sign was installed over one stoop, and the graffiti on the boarded-up windows has been painted over a few times, but that’s about it. Souliere said the relatively inexpensive and simple step of installing motion-activated lights would be a big help. Last summer, a resident who lives off the back alley shouted to disperse someone peeing on the building. The urinator responded by hurling a brick through the neighbor’s window, Souliere said.
Next door to the dump, at The Fun Box Monster Emporium, a toy and game shop, owner Tristan Gallagher said the adjacent building “has done more damage than a bomb.” Loiterers there heckle his customers and trespass drunkenly into his store.
Quimby’s original plan was “awesome,” said Gallagher, a rock musician who’s married to Souliere. But Quimby’s lack of engagement with the dump and its neighbors over the past year is troubling. “She needs to talk to us,” Gallagher said. “We would like to figure something out with her. It’s killing business, and it’s awful.”
Quimby said she’s been unable to find a buyer for the property who’s willing to tackle the high renovation costs and strict historic preservation standards. But she hasn’t completely abandoned it, either.
Last December, Quimby announced that she is hiring former Portland Museum of Art director Dan O’Leary to run the Quimby Colony and two of her charitable foundations. O’Leary has overseen major renovations of historic properties in the past. Quimby said his experience and recommendations will help her decide how to move forward with this dump in the coming months.
Until then, keep dodging those bricks.
— Chad Frisbie
About this series…
That’s My Dump! is dedicated to investigating run-down and/or abandoned properties in the Portland area. Stumped by a dump in your neighborhood? E-mail dump hunter Chad Frisbie at email@example.com, and maybe he’ll poke around that one next.