June 24, 2016
by Hannah Jennings-Voykovich

Ashes, Art and Architecture: The Rich History of Simple’s Homebase

Simple’s new office has a rich history that is packed with tales of industry, fire, and artistry. Learn more about our quest to find out about past iterations of the space, and proposed plans to ensure its continued legacy.
Hero Image – Taylor Electric – Photo Credit – Anton Legoo – Source – PSAA

Visitors who gaze out the windows at Simple’s new homebase come across a curious sight. The outdoor parking lot is encased by what looks like ruins—cinder block walls with gaps for windows, held together by steel reinforcements, and covered in graffiti. What looks like an unfinished or abandoned project is actually a deliberate homage to the history of the building site, which has seen a range of different activity in the last ten years.

Ashes to ashes

The space where Simple’s homebase sits has been used by various different businesses since it was built in 1936. In the 1990s, Taylor Electric bought the building, and used it as a storefront and warehouse for around four million dollars worth of electrical equipment for more than a decade. However, on the night of May 17, 2006, a stack of pallets outside the building caught alight, creating a fire that quickly breached the walls of the business, and took almost 24 hours to put out.

Soon after the fire, Taylor Electric lined up a plan to rebuild and sell the premises, but the sale fell through, and the shell of the old building was frozen in time until 2012.

Fire – Photo Credit – Anton Legoo – Source – PSAA

Photo Credit: Anton Legoo. Source: Flickr

Art incoming

The temporary fencing and trespass notices that surround the premises were a poor deterrent to the local artistic community, which turned the charred remains into a blank slate. Tiffany Conklin of the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) remembers fondly how the building came alive over the time, and became a well-utilized site for artists, photographers and performers.

She says, “It was a perfect raw grimy aesthetic canvas, exactly what graffiti artists and photographers like. It’s not uncommon for artists to find, occupy, land use derelict and abandoned spaces like this inside and outside the city. Art without permission often happens in the cracks of the urban fabric, outside the watchful eye of neighbors and police; the Taylor Electric site was perfect.”

Puddle Pic – Photo Credit – Anton Legoo – Source – PSAA

Photo Credit: Anton Legoo. Source: Flickr

Conklin says the site was highly visible and central, and that it offered the bonus of a beautiful downtown view, which appealed to the artists who used it.

She says, “There are literally thousands of photos out there. Over the decade of its existence, this charred concrete skeleton served as the city’s most famous and accessible space to view and engage with graffiti art—a showcase for local, regional, national, and even international art. It was our unofficial free wall.”

Setting the scene

It wasn’t just artists who utilized the former Taylor Electric site. Once the walls were bursting with color and artistic flair, local businesses started using the space as a backdrop for photo shoots and promotional materials.

Society Nine Pic

The site caught the eye of Lynn Le, CEO of Society Nine, a company that specializes in clothing and gear for women in combat sports. The former Taylor Electric building featured in the company’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $50,000.

Lynn says, “We wanted a rugged location that echoed the energy of female fighters—beautiful but gritty, dark, tough and fierce. The post-industrial demolition look fit well with the story we wanted to tell, which is—in the darkest of places, beauty rises.”

Changes afoot

As the shadow of the recession began to wane, developers Killian Pacific took note of the former Taylor Electric site, and bought it, promising to breathe new life into the area. By 2015, plans became public, and the artistic community realized that the sun might be setting on their free space. However, when plans were realized, Killian Pacific had a surprise in store. Plans for the new development featured one crucial sentence:

ORIGINAL WALL REMNANTS TO REMAIN. ADD STRUCTURE SUPPORT AS NECESSARY.

Conklin says, “Many were surprised the developer chose to keep some of the old walls, and actually liked the graffiti so much they left and incorporated it into the new development.”

Simple’s Valarie Hamm Carlson, who was part of the team that created the design aesthetic for the new building, says that the team was immediately on board with the developer’s plan to incorporate the existing art space.

“Over the years, the walls had become a canvas for expression, so preserving the graffiti that was already in place made a lot of sense to us.” She says. “During the design process, we were also pretty intentional about making our new space feel welcoming and well-crafted, not shiny-new and corporate. By keeping the walls intact, it’s kind of like we were able to graft our new building onto the foundation of an old one. We’re both honoring the history of the neighborhood and adding to it.”

Conklin says, “Many in the street art and graffiti community were excited and thankful that the space is being archived and remembered in a positive way, and being supported by the new tenants.”

Ryan Bikes Pic

Looking ahead

While Simple is getting down to business in its new homebase, this isn’t the end of the road for the artistic community. PSAA is currently pitching to honor the Taylor Electric site with a program of art exhibitions, live painting and projection, as well as a series of murals, and a historical website. While plans for exhibitions and murals are still yet to be confirmed, a groundswell of interest—and funding—has already begun to take hold.

For groups like PSAA, it’s important that artists be granted access to sites like Simple homebase so that they can continue to express themselves while they paint the town red, and yellow, and purple, and green…

Conklin says, “When a city loses a relatively free space for art, the graffiti that was once concentrated there will disperse and spread. Humans have been doing graffiti since ancient times; it doesn’t just disappear, and it never will.”

Ryan Hoods Pic

Disclaimer: Hey! Welcome to our disclaimer. Here’s what you need to know to safely consume this blog post: Any outbound links in this post will take you away from Simple.com, to external sites in the wilds of the internet; neither Simple nor our partner banks, The Bancorp Bank and BBVA Compass, endorse any linked-to websites; and we didn’t pay/barter with/bribe anyone to appear in this post. Lynn Le and Tiffany Conklin are not Simple customers. And as much as we wish we could control the cost of things, any prices in this article are just estimates. Actual prices are up to retailers, manufacturers, and other people who’ve been granted magical powers over digits and dollar signs.