Gasco
David H. Sutherland & Co. got its start in 1951 when Sutherland took note of surplus coal outside the Portland Gas & Coke Building. A few years later, the building was abandoned and an adjacent gasification plant shuttered. (Photo courtesy NW Natural)

Last month at Portland’s Sentinel Hotel, David H. Sutherland & Co. took home the Generational Development prize at the 2015 Excellence in Family Business Awards ceremony.

The 64-year-old company, a global supplier of composite and specialty products for aerospace and other high-performance industries, traces its beginnings to the agile mind and ambitious nature of the World War II bomber pilot for whom the firm is named.

David Sutherland was a social worker for the Veterans Administration in Portland when he noticed a pile of surplus coking coal briquettes outside the Portland Gas & Coke Building on Highway 30 in Northwest Portland.

Sutherland knew the briquettes were just the sort of material war-ravaged, rebuilding nations like Japan needed, so he started working his connections to see if he could find buyers for them in Asia.

He succeeded, and thus was born the company that last month was honored by the Oregon State University College of Business’ Austin Family Business Program.

The Portland Gas & Coke site, meanwhile, was in the early 1950s charting a much different course. The company, now known as NW Natural, in 1913 had built the plant on west side of the Willamette River, just south of where the St. Johns Bridge would open 18 years later. The Portland Gas & Coke Building, which was used for administrative purposes, and the rest of the facility were shuttered by the end of the decade as natural gas lines reached Portland, rendering obsolete what the plant had been constructed for: manufacturing gas from coal.

The building, which came to be known as Gasco, featured gothic architecture and became one of Portland’s most intriguing and photographed structures; described by its fans as an “industrial cathedral,” it was the last remaining structure from the gasification plant.

Vacant since 1958, abandoned and decaying – and also contaminated inside and out from plant activities – Gasco stood watch over Northwest Portland until this fall. That’s when NW Natural began demolishing it rather than spend roughly $2 million of ratepayer money just to stabilize and clean it (the demolition had been delayed to give a community group a chance to generate funds to save the structure, but the effort fell well short).

While the building itself is now gone, one part of Gasco lives on – and on the same campus that hosts the family business program that honored the company that got its start via surplus coal on the Gasco site. In 1988, NW Natural donated Gasco’s four-sided tower clock to Benton Hall, the first building of what would become Oregon State University.

And the Gasco tower survives as well.

Reports Melissa Moore, NW Natural’s corporate communications manager:

“We preserved the clock tower and are currently doing more abatement on that in hopes of donating it to the community member who had tried to raise money to save the building.”

Benton Hall
Since 1988, the Gasco clock has been marking time at OSU’s Benton Hall.
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