Darcelle’s gets a boost into national history

Portland

Portland’s top drag queen Darcelle could be on her way to a big national stage

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Members of the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation voted unanimously Friday afternoon, June 19, to nominate the 53-year-old Old Town drag club to the National Register of Historic Places.

The committee recommended the nomination after an hour-long discussion about the club’s place in local and national history, and its key part of the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) history. They also asked that the nomination report be revised to highlight Darcelle’s spot in West Coast and national social history.

“The world knows all about who Darcelle is,” Walter Cole, the Portland female impersonator who has been Darcelle for 52 years, told the committee during Friday’s meeting. “And thank goodness for that. For many years we were closeted in our own clubs. We didn’t walk outside our front doors in our costumes. I’m very proud to be Darcelle.”

A first for the state

Darcelle’s Showplace in Old Town’s 110-year-old Foster Hotel building on Northwest Third Avenue is the first time the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation considered a local landmark for the national history list based solely on its connection to the city’s gay community. No other local site or building has been considered for nomination to the register based only on its connection to local LGBTQ history.

Most sites and buildings are considered for the national history list because of their architectural style, their connection to a local historic event or person, or their part in a historic district. Some local buildings named to the national register have mentioned their link to the city’s LGBTQ community, but they were listed for other reasons. This was the first to directly connect a place with the history of the region’s LGBTQ community.

Former architect and city planner Kristen Minor wrote the 64-page national register nomination report with Portland author and playwright Don Horn of Triangle Productions. They focused it on the nightclub’s significant historic period from 1967, when Cole bought the building and established his nightclub drag queen showcase, to 1975, before major renovations altered parts of the structure. (A 2007 seismic retrofit rebuilt most of the ground floor commercial area.)

Minor and Horn wrote that Darcelle XV’s club was important to the regional LGBTQ history because of “its open acknowledgment that drag was part of gay culture and that most of the female impersonators on stage were gay. This public acknowledgement was unprecedented during a time across the United States when being a homosexual was illegal and considered a mental illness, and drag was stigmatized even within the gay subculture.”

‘Goodwill ambassador’

A handful of people, including former Gov. Barbara Roberts, supported the nomination. Roberts told the committee that the 89-year-old Cole was a consistent “goodwill ambassador” throughout Portland, who offered help and support to a number of civic and political issues. She said the nomination would solidify Cole/Darcelle’s place in history as a gay man who fought for equality and rights for all people.

“Approving this nomination would be monumental,” Roberts told the committee. “Naming the club to the register would make sure it would be celebrated not just locally, but nationally.”

Pamela Pellett, whose family owns City Liquidators in Southeast Portland, told committee members that Cole was an “incredible businessman,” whose long-running business helped other Old Town merchants. 

“What he stands for is wonderful,” Pellett said. “I really believe this is important so that his legacy lives.”

The club’s nomination must be approved by the National Park Service, which maintains the national register. The process sometimes takes several months.

The National Park Service could return the nomination report to the state for more work if it doesn’t pass muster as a nationally significant place.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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