The Portland Building Used to Be a Jazz Club That Hosted John Coltrane and Duke Ellington

A new architecture podcast examines Portland's forgotten history, one building at a time.

By Brendan Nagle June 25, 2019

You’re probably already familiar with the Portland Building—that stripey office building over on SW 5th with the blue tile base and the Portlandia statue out front—that is currently undergoing an extensive renovation. But did you know that before it was the site of a famous work of postmodern architecture, that space was home to a jazz club called McElroy’s? And did you also know that said club played host to jazz legends like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington? (Ellington even recorded a live album there.)

These sorts of hidden histories are part and parcel of a new 12-episode podcast from local architecture and design journalist Brian Libby, titled In Search of Portland 

Libby has been working full-time as a freelance writer for the past few decades, contributing architectural criticism to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and, on occasion, Portland Monthly. But podcasting is a new venture for him. Though he has some experience giving talks and lectures, he says the podcast format allows for him to be more relaxed at the mic, knowing that he can go back and fix mistakes. and allows him to step outside his usual box.  

“In journalism you’re often constricted by timeliness,” he says. “But (with the show), I’m really able to pursue whatever it is I think is most interesting, or worth investigating…I can really just follow my nose.”   

With In Search of Portland, he is able to blend his interests in design, culture, and history, not just speaking to a certain building’s architectural merit, but delving into the stories that lurk beneath the surface, and bringing those stories to a wider audience.  

For its first season the podcast covers twelve different spots around town—one per episode—with each episode finding Libby and guests plumbing the depths of Portland’s architectural history. While some of the subjects are well-known historic locations, like the Portland Building or The Armory, others are far less conspicuous.  

“Imagine you’re with a friend from out of town,” he explains. “So you’re going around pointing out different things around the city, and there are two sorts of things you would point out: there are the famous landmarks, and then are the shabby, more rundown places that you might not notice otherwise, but that have this incredible story behind them.” 

One episode focuses on St. Francis Hotel, torn down over a decade ago, which was a prominent location in the 1989 indie movie Drugstore Cowboy, directed by Portlander Gus Van Sant. 

Though Portland isn’t necessarily known for churning out famous people, Libby is fascinated by all of the people that have spent time in the city. (Elliott Smith, Mark Rothko, Gary Snyder, and Mel Blanc are a few of the figures that come up on the show.) And even beyond celebrities, he aims to uncover and document the rich “layers of history” that make up Portland architecture, especially because that history could very well disappear in the blink of an eye. 

Brian Libby (right) with Portland Art Museum curator and podcast guest Grace Kook-Anderson

“Not to get too morbid, but I’ve been thinking about the earthquake, and wondering ‘what if most of these buildings, these places, are destroyed?’ I’m thinking of [the podcast] as an act of archiving, a time capsule, because it’s very possible that one day this place and all of its history will be gone.” 

The official release date of In Search of Portland’s first episode is still up in the air, but Libby says to expect it sometime mid-July. You can listen to the show on the radio at XRAY.fm, or download it wherever you get your podcasts. 

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