Last summer, James and Lisa Long’s dream came true when they sold a rental house in Portland and purchased the 94-year-old Flavel Building at the southwest corner of Ninth and Commercial streets. The building was the last piece of real estate owned by the locally famous Flavel family in downtown Astoria.
“It’s a really nice building,” James Long said. “We walked in and were like, ‘Wow. This is available?’”
The couple started by sealing the roof and restoring the building’s brick facade. Not much work was needed to Drina Daisy, a popular local Bosnian restaurant the two frequent, and a corner office space they are trying to rent out.
Now James Long has begun a restoration of the building’s third and largest storefront at 943 Commercial St., a former clothing and department store that historic restoration expert John Goodenberger once described as “arguably the most elegant commercial space in town.”
The Flavel Building is the first commercial restoration for the Portland-area residential contractor. His wife, Lisa, is a real estate agent who runs a property management company. He visits Astoria twice a week, staying in an apartment building the family owns. To enter the storefront, he peels back the chicken wire fence meant to dissuade loiterers from the large alcove and glass display case, before lifting sheets of plastic hung over the windows to hide the inner storeroom from passers-by.
Inside 943 Commercial St. is an expansive main showroom surrounded by art deco armoires, counters, changing rooms and other vestiges of the former tenants. Skylights provide the space with natural lighting, along with the white color scheme. A dual staircase in the back leads up to a large, U-shaped mezzanine looking over the space.
But the grandiose former storefront, vacant since the mid-1980s, is marked by years of neglect.
A layer of dried pigeon guano marks much of the space. A leak in the roof created an indoor waterfall that ate a hole through one corner of the main floor to the basement. The mezzanine needs a structural assessment to see if it can still safely hold crowds.
“The Flavels’ philosophy is that the tenants take care of the maintenance,” said Ken Bendickson, co-owner of Drina Daisy with his wife, Fordinka Kanlic, since the mid-2000s. “And so when there weren’t tenants, there wasn’t any maintenance.”
The plan is to patch and clean the storefront, reconnect electricity and start recruiting possible tenants in the next few months, James Long said. His first thought was that the space should be a clothing store again, something the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association has identified as a need with the departure of J.C. Penney Co.
“We just kind of have to trust the market, that people are out there looking,” Long said. “The obvious things are an art gallery or something like that, but it could also be a restaurant.”
Like many other buildings in Astoria, the Flavel Building grew out of a large fire that consumed much of the downtown core in 1922. Construction on the building finished in early 1924, after which Astoria Florist and Bell Bros. Jewelry became the first tenants.
Eastern Outfitting Co., started in San Francisco in the late 19th century, became the first major tenant at 943 Commercial St., staying until 1952, according to Goodenberger’s account. Ter Har’s clothing store entered the space in 1977.
“The ceiling was falling down, and it just totally stunk,” Jeff Ter Har recalled. “We basically gutted the building.”
After five years in the space, Ter Har said, he left amid rising rents. Szender’s, a clothing store opened across the street in the Mary and Nellie (Flavel) Building in the early ’80s, moved in briefly after Ter Har’s before the space went vacant.
Mary Louise Flavel, great-granddaughter of the famed Capt. George C. Flavel, had agreed to fix or sell the family’s properties, seen as a blight downtown. Portland transplants Marcus and Michelle Liotta took over and have been restoring the Mary and Nellie Building on the north side of Commercial Street. James Long hopes theirs and his family’s restorations will help pump life into that section.
“For better or for worse, they have been present in Astoria history since the beginning,” he said of the Flavels. “It’s definitely (got) a special cachet to it.”