Portland Drag Club Nominated to National Register of Historic Places

Mid-way through national Pride Month, and LGBTQ civil rights are seeing landmark victories. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals are now federally protected from discrimination at the workplace. Closer to home, Portland drag house Darcelle’s Showplace is being recognized for its own special place in LGBTQ history. 

In Portland’s Old Town, Darcelle’s has been a longtime local landmark, as has owner Darcelle XV (alias Walter Cole) who at 89 is the world’s oldest performing drag queen. Now architect/city planner Kirsten Minor and author/playwright Don Horn want to make that status official, nominating the 110-year-old Foster Hotel – which houses the drag club – to the National Register of Historic Places. This would mark the first time that an Oregon building has been recognized as historic based solely on its place in LGBTQ history. 

The hotel is not the pristine piece of historic architecture which the National Register likes best. It has undergone multiple renovations over the years, especially to accommodate changes to Darcelle’s. As Minor told the Portland Tribune, “The club and the building have changed quite a bit. It’s not frozen in time. It’s an entertainment venue.” Instead, Minor and Horn’s application focuses on the place of Darcelle’s in LGBTQ history, and that community’s place in Pacific Northwest history. 

Horn did extensive research on the club’s history before approaching Minor in order to turn his notes into the formal document which was needed for submission to the Register. Together, they created the 64-page document which they used to nominate the hotel to the Register. 

The nomination has the support of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission. As chair, Minor had to recuse herself from the decision.  

Minor told the Tribune, “I know there’s a lot of people really hoping that if this goes through it will kind of open the door for other listings under the same general theme.” 

Other LGBTQ landmarks have entered the Register, but for different historical significance or architectural features.  

The 1894 Imperial Hotel at SW Broadway and 4th Ave. was involved in the “vice clique” scandal of 1912 in which several prominent Portland men were revealed to be part of an underground gay community, an incident which led to the passing of much more oppressive laws against gay sex later struck down by the state Supreme Court. The hotel was named to the National Register in 1985 for its glazed terra cotta exterior. 

The 1910 Selling Building on SW Alder St. near 6th Ave. held the office of Dr. J. Allen Gilbert, who in 1918 helped Dr. Alberta Lucille Hart transition to life as Dr. Albert L. Hart. Gilbert agreed that Hart would be better off if allowed to transition, instead of being subjected to any of the alleged “cures” in vogue at the time. The building was named to the national register in 1991 because of its architectural style. 

The next step for Darcelle’s is for the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation to decide at its meeting on June 19 whether to nominate the Hotel to the National Register of Historic Places, along with other nominated sites such as the Downtown Forest Grove Historic District, the German Baptist Old Person’s Home on Northeast 81st Ave., the New Fliedner Building on Southwest Washington St., and the Postal Employees Credit Union building on Southeast 10th Ave. This meeting will be conducted over Skype and will be viewable by the public.  

Any sites nominated by the state committee will be referred to the National Parks Service, which has authority over the National Register. The Parks Service’s decision is liable to take several months.   

By John M. Burt