Is Portland’s First Denny’s Worthy of Preservation?

Burnside Elevation of Proposed new restaurant to replace the Galaxy. Image from BDS Public Notice for the project.

According to the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS), the owners of the Galaxy Restaurant at 909 E. Burnside plan to demolish the exiting building and replace it with another single story restaurant. This raises a couple of interesting questions.

The Galaxy Restaurant - 909 E Burnside - Home of Portland's First Denny's Restaurant. Image from

First of all, unless there are irreversible structural issues, why demolish a building only to replace it with something that will serve the same essential purpose and will do nothing to add housing density or other social benefits to the community? Such a demolition is a waste of resources and energy. Even if a large portion of the building is “recycled” that doesn’t take into account that those materials will need to be re-manufactured in some way in order to be useful again – meaning the consumption of additional energy on top of what it will take to tear the place down. And even with best practices a large amount of demolition waste would also still be generated. Then of course, you have all of the new building materials, which would require even more energy and resource consumption…

Secondly, is something like Portland’s first Dennys even worthy of preservation? After a little research, it appears that this location was indeed Portland’s first Denny’s Restaurant, opening in June 1963. It was used to promote franchise possibilities for the Denny’s chain, and was modeled after the prototype Denny’s Restaurants founded in Southern California a decade earlier. The “check mark” design is one of those trademark patterns from the era of “Googie” architecture – something that we don’t have a lot of (remaining and intact) here in Portland. Not far away at NE Grand and Hassalo, is another early Portland Denny’s. If Oregonian employment ads are correct, that location seems to have opened within a year after the Burnside location.

Denny's Grand Opening Advertisement from The Oregonian, June 8, 1963

So what do you think? Is Portland’s first Denny’s worthy of preservation?

Let’s start the new year with a healthy discussion on this topic.

Happy New Year!



Filed under Historic Preservation, Modernism + The Recent Past, Sustainability

15 responses to “Is Portland’s First Denny’s Worthy of Preservation?

  1. Mary-Margaret Wheeler-Weber

    I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not, but it sure makes me think of <a href="http://www.notfoolinganybody.comNot Fooling Anybody

  2. Sounds like a terrible waste of money. Save the building, the money and the time and just do a period appropriate remodel. If you remodel, they will come.

  3. George Kramer

    Save the thing… have a little vision.

  4. CJ Cox

    No doubt the new building will be touted as GREEN and a model of environemental efficiency. How then to bring this issue out to a larger public. Shame them into retaining on environmental grounds– if not for preservation alone.

  5. Gabi

    This place is not only an establishment of high esteem within the kareoke community, but it has become a phenomenon amongst people who want a different “keep portland weird” kind of experience.
    First off, they have an aquarium that spans an entire wall space, stretching behind the circular seats that hold loyal customers out on the town to sing a few good tunes.
    There are local kareoke-ers that really probably wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, really. If we examine the options, chopsticks 1, 2 or 3 just wont cut it, and the Alibi? Who’s willing to go to out there to sing kareoke?
    There is also the fact that they serve chinese food, LATE!

    So there are alot of things that need consideration here, but lastly I find that the architecture of this building is rare and unique, something Portland has always proclaimed that it promotes.
    let’s save the Galaxy, who wants another boring urban hotspot topped with a trendy cocktail list and clientele who wouldn’t have had the chance to experience the beautiful understated GALAXY.

  6. This is an original Denny’s prototype design (1958) by the prolific and imaginative Los Angeles architects Armet and Davis. They contributed a great deal to the Googie style. It’s documented in my book Googie: Ultramodern Roadside Architecture (Chronicle Books, San Francisco 2004). Of course it should be preserved and reused as a restaurant, and the owners will profit: a 1949 Bobs Big Boy in Burbank was landmarked in 1993 over the owner’s objections, but once it was landmarked they embraced its historical character, restored it, advertised it as an original 1950s drive-in, and it became one of the most profitable Bob’s Big Boys in the chain. ( Same thing with a 1958 Harvey’s Broiler in Downey, restored and reopened in 2009 as a Bob’s Big Boy. ( And anyway, throwing away a building is very un-green — you are wasting all the embodied energy that went into building it.

  7. Bert Bedeau

    The owners need to get in touch with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office in Salem, get the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places and take advantage of the 20% Rehabilitation Tax Credit to adapt the building to their needs. Demolition would be a waste, a cultural crime and possibly financially stupid. As for the new design, why go for fakey-fake moderne when you have authentic George Jetson sixties space-age architecture? Talk about a marketing opportunity!

  8. Evan

    First of all, I’m pretty sure the Galaxy has the same menu and prices as the Ambassador at 47th and Sandy. They have the same owner, don’t they?

    Second, if this is what they’re planning, then obviously we haven’t done much to try to revitalize this area. Just turning it into a couplet isn’t enough; you also need to incentivize mixed-use development. Can’t we put apartments on a second story?

    Third, the Galaxy is a shithole. I love it very much. I went there at least weekly when I was in college, and I’ve been there a lot since as well. It has plenty to recommend it over Chopsticks, the Ambassador, and the Alibi, but from an objective standpoint, it’s a shithole. Should a building be preserved just because it’s old? I don’t think “first Denny’s” is a piece of history worth going out of the way to preserve.

  9. Preserving a building because it is uniquely historic (old) may be one possible reason for preservation. Another, more important reason is to save it because it is good architecture that adds something irreplaceable to the city. Great cities have a variety of buildings and styles that give them character, visual interest, and memory in depth. From the exterior, this building retains its energetic, ultramodern roofline (so different from the cliched parapet and tower of the proposal), and orginal materials such as stone walls (the Googie style, rooted in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic architecture, contrasted hi tech roofs with natural stone pillars and walls growing out of the earth). The interior was dramatically open to the city through the wrap-around windows, not cut up with small square windows. Even the sign structure (though not graphics) are original and add to the energy of the design. Is much of the original interior intact?

  10. Great comments! I lean strongly towards preservation – a period-appropriate rehab would address the sh–hole factor of an earlier comment.
    And perhaps this raises a broader need for a “checklist” of criteria for preservation-worthy mid-century buildings. Let’s face it, examples of fine craftsmanship will be rare!

  11. hillary adam

    there will come a time when this building will be demolished. whether it’s now or later who knows, but it is a one-story building on a major thoroughfare in a neighborhood targeted for development, so unless it is protected, it will come down someday. demolishing a unique one-story building that houses one of the remaining gritty (and loved) establishments on burnside for a new one-story building with no character or history is a waste. i hate to be rude, but the proposed building looks like a suburban drive-thru rip off and is basically a slap in the face to all that is unique about old school portland.

  12. Pingback: PreservationNation » Blog Archive » Preservation Round-Up: Gaga Over Googie Edition

  13. We’re all singing to the choir here for the most part. The most dangerous period in the life of a building is between 40-50 years of age … old enough to lose its original freshness, but not old enough to have developed recognized historic value. Aside from the preservation issues, the primary reason to keep the old Denny’s is texture. I’ve lived here most of my life (and I’m no spring chicken, kids) and much the cool old stuff is gone … replaced by a lot of post-70s neo- architecture.
    I’m okay with replacing it with something else … as long as ‘else’ is better design and adds to the texture of the built environment. The replacement is pretty darned boring … nothing interesting or notable in it. I just can’t stomach the trade off between cool and vintage with dull, lifeless, strip-mall mediocrity.
    So … what’s the strategy to save this building?

  14. Trixie

    One of the most amazing things about Portland is that it largely escaped the horrific “redevelopment” of the 1970s, and managed to keep so many great older buildings intact. As I drive around other cities, I see the fruits of misguided “redevelopment” of the past 50 years, in the form of utilitarian, styleless, buildings.

    In demolishing mid-century architecture, the same mistakes are being made. Buildings of the 30s and 40s were demolished in the 70s and 80s, because they weren’t “old” enough to be significant or appreciated. It usually takes 40 to 50 years for people to appreciate and value good or noteworthy architecture (though I doubt there will be any great movements to save anything from 1975 on in America, unless you’re into cinder block, concrete tilt-up, or faux Spanish architecture.)

    The rush to demolish the kitschy, Googie-style, buildings is wrong. There are other ways to create a restaurant space there without destroying the character of the place. We’re losing our cultural references… in a sea of strip malls, box stores, and PNW-style buildings.

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