HISTORY OF THE LAND & BUILDING

YALE UNION LAUNDRY BUILDING  

The 2020 gift of the Yale Union Laundry building to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) for the creation of the Center for Native Arts and Cultures (CNAC) represents a symbolic rematriation* of tribal land to American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native peoples.

According to today’s Portland Indian Leaders’ Roundtable, the land along the banks of the Willamette River where the Yale Union Laundry building was constructed were part of the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Wasco, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Bands of Chinook, Tualitn Kalapyua, Molalla, and many other tribes who made their homes…creating communities and summer encampments to harvest and use the plentiful natural resources of the area.

In his scholarly paper Too Small a Place: The Removal of Willamette Valley Indians, historian Ronald Spores suggests that the original tribal population of the area was approximately 15,000. But by the 1830s, after first small pox brought by non-Indians in the late 1700s, and then possibly a malaria epidemic, the population was reduced to approximately 2,000.

An entry in the Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes states that despite 1851 land treaties, white settlers continued to annex tribal lands. Finally, between 1855 and 1856, the United States government applied the policy of Removal to the Willamette Valley tribal population, relocating them to the Grand Ronde Reservation, 60 miles southwest of Portland.

THE LAUNDRY

The Yale Union Laundry is known among Portland’s arts and cultures community as one of Portland’s great historical treasures. An unidentified document from around 1911 in the Portland city archives contains a caption that reads, “This laundry employs 80 persons; is surrounded by vacant lots and blocks amounting in all to about five and a half acres that employ no one, buy no groceries, no clothing, no farm products. The building is a credit to the City.”

The following is an extract from the building’s 2007 historic nomination:

The Yale Union Laundry Building is an excellent example of a purpose-built commercial laundry building constructed in the early twentieth century in Portland. It is typical of laundry buildings that were built to meet the demands of the growing laundry industry. This industry was significantly associated with historical trends such as industrialization and the advancement of technology, the women’s labor movement and the rise of the middle class. The Yale Laundry building is located at 800 SE 10th Ave. It was built as a commercial laundry in 1908 in the Italian Renaissance commercial style and has Egyptian Revival elements. Two additions were constructed in 1927 and 1929, both of which expanded its use as an industrial laundry which served residents and businesses within the Portland community.

The Yale Laundry was built by Charles F. Brown. Charles Brown was born in Richland, MI, and entered the laundry business in 1892 in Superior, WI. He also built and operated an industrial power laundry in Duluth, MN. In 1908, he moved to Portland, OR, and built the Yale Laundry Company on SE 10th and Morrison as an industrial power laundry. Charles was married to Hester B. Brown, and they had a son—D. Howard Brown—who worked as Secretary and Treasurer of the Yale Laundry Company.

The Yale Union Laundry Building is an excellent example of laundries that were built and adapted to meet the needs of the growing laundry industry. When it was first constructed in 1908, it consisted of two floors, plus a basement, which contained boilers that heated the water for the wash. The central portion of the first floor was constructed with heavy support beams underneath to support the heavy washers. Both the first and second floors were originally designed with large open windows to allow for light and circulation. A large addition was added in 1927, and another in 1929. The first addition coincides with the year in which the Yale Laundry was consolidated into the Home Service Company. The expansion was needed to accommodate the trucks that were used for home delivery. The addition also included a lunchroom and restrooms for the employees and was built to comply with established union concerns regarding wages and working conditions. A permit was obtained on November 15, 1927, by the Home Service Company to complete work on the addition at a cost of $30,000. In 1929, an additional three bathrooms, one urinal, and one drinking fountain were installed at the Yale Union Laundry. This addition included expanding the lobby area, where some of richest, detailed finishes in the building are still found today. This is a reflection of the growing importance of the industrial laundry business during the early twentieth century.

The Yale Union Laundry Building is typical of a building that that was specifically constructed for the many tasks associated with the power laundry business. It is an example of a purpose-built building, rather than a building designed for other purposes, and then used as a laundry. A purpose-built laundry typically has brick walls, and its floors were made to withstand the use of heavy machines. It has several floors, which were used for the various tasks. The main floor was typically used for laundry delivery and pick up, checking, marking, and sorting. The lower floors (either the basement or the first floor) were where the washing, extracting, and shaking processes took place. The upper floor was used for mangling, starching, drying, and ironing.

The historic nomination indicates that there was not a laundry district in Portland. One possible reason for the Yale Union Laundry’s location, other than cheap land, was close proximity to a large gulch and pond, which would allow waste water in the basement sump to easily drain away.

The historic nomination indicates that there was not a laundry district in Portland. One possible reason for the Yale Union Laundry’s location, other than cheap land, was close proximity to a large gulch and pond, which would allow waste water in the basement sump to easily drain away.

YALE UNION CONTEMPORARY

According to YU Contemporary’s White Book, “The laundry operated until the mid-1950s, when personal washing machines became affordable for middle-class families. In 1959, an automotive textile fabricator, Perfect Fit Manufacturing, began operating in the building and did so until 2006. In 2008, the building was purchased by Alter LLC for the creation of [YU Contemporary].” Alter subsequently donated the building to YU Contemporary in 2011.

The White Book set forth YU Contemporary’s goals for the building:

YU [Contemporary] is a new and unique American art center forming in Portland, OR. YU will exhibit and host international contemporary art and performance in a restored and repurposed historical landmark building.

YU [Contemporary] will deepen the character of an already outstanding American city and aid in Portland’s contributions to the international arts dialogue through a commitment to the highest standards of arts production, exhibition, facilities, and performance. YU [Contemporary]’s resident artists will have more immediate access to the national and international arts world. They will be challenged and provoked by the exhibitions, events, society, and economy that will form around YU[Contemporary]. Conversely, artists from the global arts community will benefit from a welcoming venue with which to engage this city and its citizens. YU[Contemporary] will take a position alongside other regional arts organizations, and by working in collaboration with these institutions, it will help to strengthen the existing network and secure Portland’s role as a home and destination for artists and arts communities.

During its 12-year tenure in the building, YU Contemporary has presented over 100 physical and virtual events and activities in the space, as well as providing a variety of studios spaces for local and visiting artists. This experience has created a clear blue print for the Center for Native Arts and Cultures going forward. Following are two examples of that effort.

For more historical information about the Yale Union building visit, yaleunion.org

* The Indigenous concept of Rematriation refers to reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more Patriarchally associated Repatriation. It simply means back to Mother Earth, a return to our origins, to life and co-creation, rather than Patriarchal destruction and colonization, a reclamation of germination of the life giving force of the Feminine.

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