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Oregon nominates its first LGBTQ establishment to National Register of Historic Places

Rhinestones are Forever

Oregon nominates its first LGBTQ establishment to National Register of Historic Places

Walter W. Cole, better known by the stage name of Darcelle, has owned and operated Portland’s Darcelle XV drag cabaret since 1967. (Another Believer/Wikimedia Commons)

Portland, Oregon, cabaret Darcelle XV Showplace, home to the longest continually running same-locale drag revue in the United States, has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places by Oregon’s State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation.

This is the first time that the nine-member group, which is a division of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, has nominated a site strictly because of its links to the LGBTQ community. Octogenarian drag performer Darcelle XV has owned and operated—and for many years, headlined—the club since 1967, two years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City. As one of seven Oregon sites nominated by the committee earlier this month, Darcelle XV Showcase is the splashiest of the lot, which also includes the German Baptist Old People’s Home and the Eugene Greyhound Bus Station.

“While the end of the period of significance is less than 50 years in the past, the number of LGBTQ-affiliated bars, restaurants, drag clubs, or other commercial spaces that opened in the pre-Stonewall era across the United States and that still operate under the same owner, much less in the same location, is vanishingly small,” reads the site’s 64-page registration form. “Darcelle XV Showplace stands out from other drag clubs of the pre-Stonewall era for its public alignment with gay culture, illustrated by its gay owner performing onstage and the multiple drag events supported and sponsored there. No other drag club of the time managed to operate so openly in support of the LGBTQ community.”

As the Portland Tribune clarified, other Portland buildings with loose ties to the LGBTQ community have been nominated in the past but were put forth because of their architectural significance or for other reasons. Darcelle XV Showplace is the first site in the state to be nominated with its LGBTQ associations as the defining factor.

Darcelle, an 89-year-old Portland drag queen.
Darcelle, the 89-year-old proprietress and star attraction of Darcelle XV Showplace in Portland. (Sarah Mirk/Flickr)

“There are no other properties like this,” committee member John Arroyo explained to Oregon Public Broadcasting. “It’s interesting to think about how evolved the Portland LGBTQIA+ scene is but how it’s not really landmarked. And I think that’s a really important consideration in this nomination.”

The nomination report, written and prepared by former architect and city planner Kristen Minor and author and playwright Dan Horn, not only offers exhaustive architectural information about the 110-year-old building that the club is located in but also goes into great detail about the rich history of drag in Portland and mentions other historic, female impersonation-centered entertainment venues on the West Coast and beyond, many of them long gone.

As detailed in the report, the disappearance of trailblazing drag cabarets, along with established watering holes catering to an LGBTQ, clientele in general, continues today. “Across the United States, many venerable gay bars and clubs are closing, some a victim of high rents and gentrification and some due to the process of assimilation, or the commodification of gay culture as cosmopolitan chic.” The New York Times also recently published a feature on how New York City’s gay bars, many already endangered, are “facing an uncertain future” during the coronavirus crisis.

But if any gay-owned bar or nightclub can survive a pandemic, it would seem that Darcelle XV Showplace, a sequin-studded testament to longevity that it is, would be it.

Sign for Darcelle XV cabaret in Porland
Darcelle XV: A Portland landmark with legs. (Adam Jones/Flickr)

Walter W. Cole, a Portland native and married father of two, purchased the club in 1967 when it was known as the Demas Tavern, a seedy dive bar on NW Third Avenue and Davis. The space itself is located in the old Foster Hotel building, an unadorned, three-story brick commercial structure completed in 1910 that contributes to the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District, a riverfront area just north of downtown Portland that was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Reads the summary of the nomination report, which is likely one of the few documents of its kind to include both building elevation drawings and a supporting photo of a basement wig storage room:

“As a nightclub and drag venue, the aesthetic of Darcelle XV Showplace reflects the improvised, low-budget, and self-reliant illusion of glamour that resulted from its development during this era when drag was celebrated mostly behind closed doors due to gay discrimination and the threat of harassment. The club interior has changed over time, but retains its essential components illustrating its use as a drag venue and strongly reflects the same character as the space had by the early- to mid-1970s.”

Cole began to develop his Darcelle XV alter ego shortly after taking over the Demas Tavern and soon thereafter came out as gay, leaving his wife. Demas Tavern transitioned into a drag venue in 1969, and in the early 1970s was renamed the Darcelle XV Showplace after its owner and star performer—a performer who turns 90 this November and for several years has held the title of world’s oldest working drag queen.

The club opened reopened with limited seating earlier this week after being shuttered during the pandemic and, before that, Darcelle was still performing on stage four nights a week per The Oregonian.

“Our doors have been open to everybody in the world and certainly the world knows about who Darcelle is. Thank goodness,” Darcelle told Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The National Park Service is expected to announce which nominated sites will be added to the register in November. You can find a full list, current as of May 2019, of LGBTQ places designated as National Monuments and National Historic Landmarks in addition to listed properties on the National Register of Historic Places here.