Lobbies & Loyalty

I may play music by night, but I spend my days Clark Kent-style, in an office building in downtown Portland. The Yeon Building was built in 1911, when my great-grandmother was a 12-year-old girl growing up in East Portland. She could probably see it even from her side of the river— for close to two years the Yeon was the the tallest building in Oregon.

Every day I smile at the strange synchronicity: my 86-year-old great-aunt also worked in the Yeon, on the sixth floor, for much of her impressive thirty-year career as a surety bond manager. She reached the highest levels of an entirely male field, navigating through an old boy network under the professional name K.M. Brophy instead of Kathleen so that clients would judge her by work and not by her gender. Kathy waited in the same lobby for the same elevators, stared at the same deco ceilings as she ascended to the office where she would spend her day as she still does, firing off orders and having them followed.

I couldn't help but think of this when I arrived at the office this morning and the ever-present construction crews tasked with renovation had shut down two of the elevators to tear down those art deco ceiling panels. I had flashbacks to my last office building, the Loyalty Building on 3rd & Alder, in which a dedicated crew daily stripped away the quirky, charming aspects of the lobby— a beveled mirror, a malachite-green marble floor, a deco credenza— to create a bland, marketable, 21st-century entryway. The lobby of the Loyalty, which had always made me feel like a femme fatale walking into a film noir, was only a shadow of its former self by the time my company relocated to the Yeon.

I stood in the elevator this morning and looked up at at the unconventional, soon-to-be-removed panels and thought about Kathy doing the same, rising upward through the floors of what was, exactly a century ago, the tallest building in a hundred miles.