Rehabilitating & Modernizing Jim Fisher Volvo’s Historic Exterior

By Hennebery Eddy

Historical image of Barnard Motors c. 1949, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

Once set among other auto-related buildings punctuating the west end of Burnside Street’s “auto row” in Portland, the Covey Motor Car Co. property, now Jim Fisher Volvo, stands as the sole remaining auto dealership and service center representing this aspect of Portland’s downtown development.

Having worked with the owners on various small-scale interior improvements and a recent structural/seismic upgrade over the years, Hennebery Eddy took on the larger project of modernizing the building exterior and bringing the showroom, service center, and signage up to current Volvo USA franchise standards. After successfully educating Volvo USA officials on the benefits of the existing building cladding the team focused on preserving the notable green Vitrolite glass.

Jim Fisher Volvo dealership. Image courtesy R&H Construction.

Architecturally, the property is significant for the scale and uniqueness of its green pigmented structural Vitrolite glass cladding, installed in 1952 to modernize the dealership. Structural glass was typically utilized on storefronts and limited to a single-story installation or focused highlight area. This four-story, two-façade installation is unique; it is the largest known installation in the State of Oregon and possibly the United States. Due to the scale of its unique green glass cladding and the grand neon sign projecting from the roof, the Jim Fisher Volvo property stands out as the predominant mid-century style building in the neighborhood, serving as an area icon and navigation aid.

Rehabilitation and modernization of the Jim Fisher Volvo building required pushing the boundaries of auto dealership franchise renovation, a process typically prescribed by corporate standards. Working closely with Jim Fisher Volvo, we modified the facility layout to blend corporate design guidelines with historically sensitive solutions to preserve character-defining storefront windows and recessed entries.

At the exterior, brand standard-driven plans for metal panel cladding and contemporary signage were replaced with an approach that preserved the green pigmented structural glass cladding and landmark VOLVO sign on the roof. Ongoing collaboration with the City of Portland Bureau of Development Services to allow for deviation from standard signage requirements resulted in approval to replace non-compatible signage with a new compatible corner neon blade sign reminiscent of historic signage while also retaining the towering neon rooftop sign.

vitrolite restoration

Preserving the Vitrolite pigmented structural glass presented its own challenges. The design team hoped to find a match in a salvage collection for the two tones of green glass. Unfortunately, there was not enough stock available in the original colors to provide the large replacement panels. The design team pivoted: a common alternative is to replace broken Vitrolite panels with back-painted glass. This approach requires extensive sample mock-ups to provide a range of colors matching the natural color variations of the original Vitrolite. This approach, executed by R&H Construction, was ultimately successful, allowing for replacement of both broken panels and panels where previous sign installations caused damage.

Through the design team’s dedication and the Jim Fisher Volvo’s commitment to both the property and to keeping the business anchored in its existing location, this significant building has been preserved and revitalized to continue its legacy in service to the auto industry.