Sifting Through the Wreckage of Olde Reed

An unassuming three-story building blends into the skyline on the corner of SW 11th and Jefferson. The first floor corner room is mostly glass, scrawled over with writing in paint from Portland State University students. The room was used for several years as a classroom for the PSU field work program. The next two storeys are hardly more impressive: some brickwork covered in a drab beige. This building, unimpressive as it seems, is Olde Reed, in the most literal sense. 

We met on the corner on Friday, March 14th to see Reed’s first building before it is demolished to make way for a 15-story tower, which will most likely be more glamorous than the last vestige of the original campus. Our group consisted of Mike Teskey, director of Alumni and Parent relations, Mandy Heaton, Laurie Lindquist, Tom Humphrey and Kevin Meyers from Public Affairs, Gay Walker ’69 and Mark Kuestner of Special Collections, Chris Lydgate ’90, Editor of Reed Magazine and your Grail representative. 

The superintendent let us inside the building now called Jefferson West. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness broken mailboxes, litter, crumbling brick, and a musty smell greeted me. The building has undergone many transitions since it left the hands of William T. Foster and his 50 students: it was home to the Cordova Hotel, the Mural Room, the Jazz Quarry, and an adult movie theatre. The top floor includes 80 apartments which once provided living space for some of the city’s poorest residents. 

We poked around the poorly lit basement first, using our phones as flashlights and not finding much except rubble and old theatre seats. Heaton, however, hit the jackpot when she discovered a pair of handcuffs covered in faux tiger fur behind a torn couch with the key still in the lock — perhaps a relic from the theatre’s heyday. 

A floor up, remnants of the previous inhabitants littered the apartments: old newspaper clippings, paintings nailed to the walls, and broken mirrors. Using a photo of students assembled for the inagural commencement of classes we tried to determine where the exact location of the first class had been. We were looking for a fairly large and tall space with columns, and windows that spanned most of the height of the wall. Humphrey noticed a tree behind the students in the picture, with several thick branches extending from the stump, which made it seem most likely that the classroom was on the first floor. We hadn’t looked in the storefronts yet, making it a definite possibility. 

But first, like any good Reedie, it was onto the roof. Teskey was the first one up, with Lydgate and myself in hot pursuit. We squeezed into a narrow stairwell and then up a splintery wooden ladder out into the sunshine. The roof was covered with muddy puddles. We eagerly set off to check out the view, imagining what Reed students in 1911 might have seen on their first day of classes. Spying an old wine bottle lying on its side, half-submerged in a pool of water, Lydgate jokingly cried, “a vintage libation of Olde Reed!” 

Yet, the roof proved to be unfruitful as for our quest, so we retreated back inside. At this point we lost most of our party, leaving just Lydgate, Meyers, Humphrey and myself to solve the final mystery: where was the original classroom? 

The last room the superintendent took us into was the one used by PSU for their field study program. It was empty, except for the several columns that punctuated the space, with light streaming in on all sides from the ample windows. Was this perhaps the classroom? As we pondered I glanced outside and noticed several trees lining the street. The trees were reminiscent of the one Humphrey had seen in the photo and, upon closer observation we could see where original, lower, branches had been cut to preserve new growth. 

The romantic in me likes to think that we did find the original classroom, and that its final use, in a continuation of the tradition, had been as a classroom. 

As we left the building and walked away from Olde Reed, we realized that we were the last Reedies to set foot in the same space used by those pioneering 50 students on the first day of classes. When they listened to President Foster give his opening speech they could not have known that they were beginning something that would continue more than a 100 years later, in a room that their academic ancestors would enter for the last time one sunny Friday in 2014.