Brian Wannamaker

Art With Architecture

WORDS Courtney Tait | PHOTOGRAPHY David Bentley

At the entrance of 321 NW Glisan, a 1920s Old Town office building with views of the Willamette River on one side and the West Hills on the other, hangs a chandelier made of antlers. The artistic lighting is a new addition to the building since it was bought in January 2015 by Brian Wannamaker, the prominent Portland developer considered responsible for the initial chic transformation of North Mississippi Avenue.

Reflecting Wannamaker’s passion for merging art with architecture, the antler chandelier signals a new era for the building and, perhaps, for Old Town. “I think adding additional creative culture to Old Town enhances the experience for everybody,” says Wannamaker. Christened simply, the Falcon, the building represents a continuance of Wannamaker’s efforts to support the arts elsewhere in the city as well.
Leasing the building’s first three floors is the Pacific Northwest College of Art. It’s a fitting tenant for Wannamaker, who is a supporter of the college and founder of the Falcon Arts Community on North Albina, which features 50 apartments and studio spaces for 27 artists.

It remains to be seen who will lease the other four floors of 321 NW Glisan, but with Wannamaker’s gift for recognizing the creative potential of Portland’s historic structures as well as its people, the future of the building, and of Old Town, is an exciting prospect.

Wannamaker shares his perspective on Portland’s evolution, the role of art in society, and the vision for his next project — a winery with an adventure experience.

PI: You’re Canadian, from Oakville, Ontario. When did you move to Portland and what drew you here?
BW: For starters I am an immigrant. I moved here in late November of ‘86. I was young, 23, and was unsure what I wanted to do with my life. At that time, Portland was a sleepy town with a lot of beautiful aspects to it. Fortunately I had a green card so I just thought I’d come and live here where my brother had settled. Portland now has a lot of energy and momentum, a lot of young creative energy. Back then it had just gone through a recession and was switching from big timber industry into something else; no one really knew where it was going. I recognized there were a lot of beautiful old buildings, many forgotten and neglected and relatively affordable, whereas the Toronto area was not affordable. I got excited about the concept that I would be able to own some real estate. Back then you could buy a house for 30,000 dollars in what would eventually be an expensive neighborhood now, like Irvington.

PI: What’s the real difference if you were to look at staring out in a similar business
in Canada?

BW: Well, for starters when I moved here I was amazed the government wasn’t intervening in my daily life. In this new environment it seemed to me there was a real opportunity to be creative and come up with new ideas and execute them. In Canada I felt there was no real entrepreneurial opportunity. The government felt so controlling I was unclear what I was going to do as a career – perhaps pump gas? As Canadians, we got lot of negative propaganda to influence our thoughts on the United States. There was something like a list of five negative ideas about the States that every Canadian could simply recite. But now that I’ve lived here it is amazing to look back. My mind is solutions oriented so when I first moved here I would ask myself, why does America have all its problems? And my first thought was, people have too much freedom here. If the government would give them less freedom then they wouldn’t have all these problems like homelessness, handguns, all of the uninsured, healthcare problems, etc. Then over another few years I realized freedom is the true strength of America. Here, you are allowed to succeed or fail, or simply stand on your own merits. It’s a much more diversified society. It’s not all pretty, and definitely not perfect, but in America, people have the opportunity to make a better life – and successful people have the opportunity to help.

PI: OK so at age 23 years old. How did the ‘American Dream’ or opportunity start for you?
BW: I started a shipping and receiving company. It wasn’t an interesting business; I drove a forklift in and out of trucks. It eventually made me enough money that I saved a $3,500 down payment to partner with my brother, and buy my first house. It was a duplex with hardwood floors, a fireplace. It was my start. As I continued to pursue other property to acquire, Portlanders would give me input on locations. Some interesting people use to tell me if I crossed Broadway and below 15th (into Irvington) someone would shoot me. I was told that often. One of the advantages I had as an outsider was that I was flexible and had no preconceived ideas about the city. Without preconceived ideas, I believe I had an advantage in that head space to see more opportunity.

PI: You invested early on in Mississippi Avenue. That took a little vision at the time.How were you able to see the potential?
BW: So, I was living on 7th and Tillamook. I had already bought the Falcon on Albina but it wasn’t an art community yet. On the drive from my home to that building I would drive down Mississippi and see these old beautiful boarded up buildings sitting there. So I made a decision that no matter what might happen, I was going to buy some of them. The first building I bought, I renovated and leased to the restaurant, Gravy. That was in about 2000. Then I bought right across the street and leased to the Crowbar, and Video Verite, and then just continued to buy along Mississippi.

PI: Did you ever get resistance as you bought these properties? Some people don’t like change or progress? Your thoughts? BW: Yes, at times. I have bought most of my property on the fringe, but the truer reality was most people appreciated that their property was increasing in value. Properties values increased 10 fold in just a few years. Property demand creates appreciation and that gave them the power of choice. They weren’t stuck unable to sell – they could actually sell and make money or stay on and enjoy the ride.

PI: I’ve noticed the Falcon name has been used on a variety of your buildings. Why?
BW: Because tenants who live or work in any of my buildings directly contribute to supporting the artists in the art studio spaces through their rent payments, and I want them to know they are part of that community. It can be confusing at times, but the brand has history. It was called the Falcon before I bought it, and since I own two large parrots and I’m a nature and animal lover, I thought it was a sign I should roll with it.

PI: When considering property to buy, do you prioritize the opportunity of what can be done with a building, or are you more drawn to its character?
BW: They go hand in hand. The character will offer opportunity. I’m more of a historical renovation type – those are the buildings that I love. Over time the character of the building will give inspiration to what can happen in there. When I bought the Falcon on Albina, the occupancy was 14 amazing tenants and the rest was gang infested or empty. As I started to work on the building I started to fill it up. I wanted to build an environment of diversity living within the building. I was working with a variety of non-profits to meet this goal. The idea was to have people with disposable income living with people on fixed incomes. At the time some of these tenants were on a fixed income making $565 a month and from that they were supposed to somehow live, pay their rent, buy groceries, etc. I found this really difficult to believe. So I came up with this idea to freeze the original tenants’ rent at $325, and as the neighborhood attracted new tenants, I would price the other apartments at market value. From an economic standpoint, it’s a cost averaging idea, but from a cultural aspect, the older tenants bring value beyond money. It was easy to come up with this idea when I started thinking in terms of value instead of money. I also saw another opportunity to not just impact my building, but the neighborhood as well. And since I have a passion for the arts, I built out 14,000 square feet of the basement into 27 artist work spaces, and included a gallery. It’s really quite an interesting space. I structured a similar ‘support the artist’ model for the studio rentals. I asked myself, what is the value to the whole that these artists are bringing? So the art studio tenants mostly set their own price.

PI: You personally select the 27 artists at the Falcon Art Community. What do you look for in a prospective artistic tenant?
BW: In the painter category I support more realism, figurative, highly-skilled painters, and less abstract artists, partly because I think abstract artists are supported fairly heavily elsewhere. The way I’ve tried to curate the space has a lot to do with the energy of the people, their work ethic, the energy they bring to the place, and frankly their exceptional abilities. I want everybody to get along and add that next unknown energy component, to build something higher than what any individual can bring. It adds a sense of community.

PI: For people who are unfamiliar with the Falcon Art Community, how would you describe what it’s like? What might a person find if they walked through the doors?
BW: I hope it will be inspirational, starting with the visual art when you first walk in. I like that it’s a surprise. Walking in off of Albina you’re not expecting to feel like you’ve entered a museum. At various moments in time, there will be a lot of artistic people there, studio doors open. X-Ray Radio might be interviewing Chuck Palahniuk in their studio, or Jeremy Sherrer might be mixing a Modest Mouse record, Peter Zuckerman writing a new book with his door open, or Samir Khurshid painting another masterpiece. There are too many incredible artists to name here. Alexander Rokoff (one of the original painters with a studio at the Falcon) said sometimes it feels like Santa’s workshop. It’s a lot of energy and people creating a lot of amazing works in a beautiful space. I’m working on a live performance space called the Ghost Bar, where Falcon musicians can raise money for themselves by performing. It should be done by the end of the year.

PI: Where does your love of art come from?
BW: When I was a kid I was a musician, trained in classical piano. Somewhere in the process of that I also enjoyed paintings. I’m not sure where those impulses came from, but I have an appreciation for all of the arts. The Falcon Art Community idea was inspired by knowing a grouping of artists were working hard but struggling to survive and prosper. It seemed like if I was able to help that group stay focused on their work by supporting them somehow, amazing things could happen. And they have.

PI: What sort of art are you personally drawn to?
BW: I am into very classical skill driven work. I like what I would consider more contemporary, so more figurative. I can appreciate many mediums but masterful fine paintings pull at my heart. Musically, I’m an indie rock guy.

PI: In what ways do you think the art scene in Portland has evolved in the last 10 years?
BW: The question becomes, what are people classifying as art? There’s a strong craft movement here. Every micro niche seems to be exploited in Portland, which makes it a really dynamic place. We can walk into a coffee shop, where they get the beans directly from the grower, and they roast them, and then you’re handed a sample of a $4 graham cracker s’more, that the other guy has gotten the chocolate for, and is making his own marshmallows — it’s remarkable and goes on and on into beer, cocktails, wine, etc. Is that art? I don’t know, maybe. But it’s that vein of craftsmanship that we appreciate.

In the art category, it feels to me that the craft of painting is not embraced in Portland the same way as the other craftsmanship driven creations are. So that’s part of the mission at the Falcon, to support people who work at the craft of painting, at the craft of music, etc., which are a lifelong endeavor. So in terms of how it’s all changing, I think it continues to evolve in a positive way. There are always more and more original ideas that transfer themselves to artistic endeavors.

PI: What role do you think art and artists play in society? Why are they important or even essential? What about art as an investment?
BW: Art documents a moment in time, of where the culture is. I think that’s important. I like to go back and look at things from the 20s and 30s and 50s, going back with the art and seeing that snapshot of the culture. I think art influences the culture of the future as it also impacts the culture of the present. It inspires people on a variety of levels to just imagine possibility. Art is very personal, but very alive and well as an investment and overall can secure high value. In my 20s as I was getting into real estate, my mentor Barry Beutel, a very accomplished real estate investor, was flying to South America purchasing original paintings. Barry was smart, and as my partner he told me he wanted to invest in paintings so he bought a lot of them and we bought one together.

It was an original Iturria. Then Barry said, “You watch, this painting will be worth more than the real estate in time.” I said, ok whatever. In 1992, I wanted out of our partnership and we were splitting assets. Barry said to me, “Here’s what I will do… we have a 16-unit apartment building on 26th and Halsey. You give me the other half of the painting and I will give you the other half of the apartment building.” So I did. I love the idea that the real estate can pay for paintings initially, but eventually the paintings are worth more than the real estate.

PI: You work hard at what you love and have a lot on your plate. What are your hobbies?
BW: Well, I have a massive passion for collecting paintings. Very specific paintings. I can’t help myself. They are just so beautiful and amazing to live around and fortunately I have the ability to own some. That’s a hobby and big passion. But, at this point in life I have found myself switching directions. I have a four-year-old boy, so that has re-prioritized my time and investment strategy. Before the arrival of my son I was going to develop a really interesting building on Fremont and Mississippi that included a bachelor pad. But as I was getting ready for a family, I sold some commercial property and invested downtown, and in my home. I also acquired some property in Underwood, Washington (Washington side of Hood River area) and built a vineyard. The location has miles of wilderness around it. Growing up in Canada, I spent a lot of time in the woods. I want the opportunity for my son and me to connect with nature together, whether in the gorge or here at my home. I love the fact you and I are sitting here in the west hills having a glass of wine doing this interview looking out at the city, and two beautiful coyotes trot through the back yard… this place, this city, is just awesome!

PI: You have a winery as well?
BW: Wannamaker Estate Vineyard is in Underwood, WA, in the Gorge, across from Hood River. It’s a beautiful parcel of property in the wilderness. I have a four-year-old son, and because I grew up having access to the woods, I wanted him to have that experience. I looked at this parcel for years, and three years ago decided I would buy it.

Underwood has the propensity to have some of the great chardonnays in the country. I planted an 18-acre vineyard. By September I’ll have first harvest. I want it to be a winery with an adventure experience. We’re building tree houses for people to sleep in, and hiking trails and possibly a music venue where the stage is a 1950 farm truck. I’d like it to be a beautiful place where people can get out of the city, have fun, and stay the night.


PI: Your newest building is 321 NW Glisan in Old Town. What drew you to purchasing in this area, and this specific building?
BW: A few years ago I wanted to purchase a building in Old Town, one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. I didn’t end up with it, but it got me spending time in Old Town, looking at the old buildings. The building I bought had sat empty for a long time. It’s a historic building from the 20s, and had been retrofitted beyond current standard for everything. There was a tragedy in it in that the owner passed away before completing the building. In the process of spending time in Old Town, this opportunity came up, so I decided to purchase it and see where it would go.
PI: It’s leased in part by the Pacific Northwest College of Art. What excites you most about this tenancy? BW: I want to be supportive to PNCA. It’s a great organization. They recognize how important creativity is. Moving into the future, I believe creativity is one of the most important directions that we can teach people. PNCA has that philosophy too.

PI: What’s next on the horizon?
BW: What I’ve learned is if I stay receptive, the next thing will show up and I just have to recognize it. Otherwise, stay focused on Old Town, the art community and the arts, and the oasis of being able to get back out into the wilderness with my son.