The Dekum Building

and other Richardsonian stonework

Portland Oregon



The Dekum Building commands the southwest corner of SW Third Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Portland. It's a friendly building, solid, with a strong personality and its own mysteries.

First, "Dekum" is for the businessman Frank Dekum, born in Bavaria in 1823, who came to America with his parents to settle in Belleville Illinois, then St. Louis, where his parents died. He was apprenticed off to a confectioner. In 1851 Dekum and his fellow-apprentice-lifelong-friend-and-business-partner Mr. Bickel went west through Panama to chase gold. (No canal yet. Before the canal, this meant a 28-mile walk through the Panamian jungle from one ship to another. They laughingly called these guys "Argonauts".) Fortunately their case of gold fever only lasted a couple of years. They settled in Portland and sought their fortune in soda water, candy and baked goods instead.

He amassed enough of a fortune to graduate to banking and minor railroading. A 1911 source has him responsible for the first sizable brick building in Portland, and all the buildings on Washington between 1st and 3rd (most of them gone). Dekum's local impulses led him to spend $300,000 on Oregon granite and Oregon stone, Oregon lumber from Oregon timber, bricks from Oregon clay.

So that's Mr. Dekum.



About the building?

Well, you can see it's a big thick block. Grand two-story arches and a rusticated base which is either granite or sandstone -- I take it for sandstone. An interesting third-story interruption.

From floors four up through seven, a change in color and long height-emphasizing arches cause visual contrast and tension. (The eye asks, is it a strong building? (yes) ...or is it a tall building? (yes) ...or is it a strong building?...) And the arches are grouped in a rhythmic 2-3-1-3-2 pattern, with the center arch two windows wide and slightly shorter with an amazing floral burst of brick-colored terra-cotta to occupy the spandrels. And then another modest floor to top it off.

A great example of Richardsonian Romanesque, in the "office block" category, as opposed to all of Richardson's asymmetrical churches. Love the rustication. "Rustication" is so common a word you forget what a deft visual trick it is, to make it the building seem carved out of ancient rock.

Both faces of the building are the same, although the carvings have slight telling differences. Both faces have two entries, a central Romanesque arch heading going into the retail space, and then side entrances at the farthest corners leading to the lobby. The external carvings on those side entrances continue onto the inside surfaces -- the reveals -- and that trick works like it should, leading your eyes and your body right through that portal.



(Round arch, Third Avenue side. Note how the carving above the Green Man extends to the stone block behind -- partly, anyway.)



About the architects?

Well, it's credited to McCaw, Martin and White. That's Richard H. Martin, Jr. (1858-1950), William F. McCaw (1850 - circa 1899), and the joker of that deck, Frederick Manson White (1863-1952).

Pretty clearly, we owe this building to White.

White was born in 1868 in Derby England, and was the nephew of famous Beaux-Arts and Richardson-trained architect Stanford White. That's what's widely repeated, anyway, and the source might be "Who's who on the Pacific Coast" by Franklin Harper, dated 1913. That source also indicates that Manson White's mother was Lady in Waiting to Queen Victoria, and that he's a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. His father is listed as John T. White.

Well, there's a problem. All of the biographies say Stanford White only had one brother -- his older brother, Richard Mansfield White. Dick, they called him.

Maybe there were unofficial White brothers who had to leave the country. I certainly don't know. The Lady in Waiting business seems funny. The similarity of McKim Mead and White with McCaw Martin and White seems funny. Manson White's career arc seems funny.




Well, whoever F. Manson White came from, he arrived in Portland and brought this lively Richardsonian style with him. He went to work for McCaw and Martin who had already been around awhile. This event was no sooner than 1888, when White graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and no later than 1891 when his name officially shows up on West Hall. He quickly became a partner, then set out on his own apparently in 1894.

Of the eleven structures below, five strongly resemble the Dekum, and one IS the Dekum.


McCaw & Martin

New Market West, 66 SW 2nd Avenue, White possibly involved based on stylistic similarities, 1889

West Hall at Willamette University (now Waldschmidt Hall at University of Portland), White possibly involved, 1891

The Dekum, White probably involved, 1892

Haseltine Building, 133 SW 2nd Avenue, White probably involved, 1893


F. Manson White

Auditorium Building and Music Hall, SW Third between Salmon and Taylor, 1894

Imperial Hotel (now the Hotel Vintage Plaza), SW Broadway and Washington, 1894

The Sherlock Building, SW Third and Oak, circa 1896

The Multnomah County Poor Farm, Troutdale (now McMenamin's Edgefield resort), 1911

The Flatiron Building (now Ringler's Annex), NW Burnside and Stark, 1917

Woodrow Wilson Junior High School (now Lincoln School Condominiums, on the NRHP), Eugene, Oregon, 1924

Hotel Corvallis, Corvallis, 1927



(Round arch, Washington side. Note how the keystone Green Man is entirely different than the other arch, how the backing stone is also partially carved, and look at that checkerboard pattern.)




About the carving?

That's what I'm really interested in, and that's what makes it particularly Richardsonian.

It's skillful. Two different kinds: terra cotta modeling above, direct stone carving below. The stone work is a lot like the work of John Evans, who was Richardson's regular collaborator and who carved the same sorts of patterns and Green Man faces on Richardson's classical projects. It's a little more planned-out here and a little less gratuitous / weird / fresh than the classic examples, but this is 15 or 20 years after.

If there's any comparable stone carving in Portland, it's on the nearby Auditorium Building -- a few faces -- and a little on the former Imperial Hotel -- a nice brick floral frieze, and nutty lettering above the side entrance.

Both of those are also credited to Manson White. I'm convinced he hired somebody from back east.

I sure would like to know who.







Copyright 2009 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.