Background image of An ariel view of the Natural Capital Center parking lot from the northwest as the Portland streetcar arrives. The steretcar stops outside the Natural Capital Center.

Natural Capital Center

How do you turn a building into an experience of social, environmental and economic connectivity?

In the late 1990s, Ecotrust wanted to find permanent headquarters. We also wanted to create a place that embodies the future that our organization is working toward. Thanks to an extraordinary gift from philanthropist and founding board member Jean Vollum, we undertook one of our riskiest and most rewarding ventures: We bought an 1895 warehouse, reclaimed many of its original materials, and transformed it into The Natural Capital Center.

After a century as a hub for the goods of the industrial economy, our building has become a focal point for a new economy in which “Natural Capital” — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience. From the native timber we used and preserved to the daily business and events that keep the building humming, the Natural Capital Center is an evolving expression of our commitment to the long-term wellbeing of people and nature.

The history of our building

Although we’ve shaped the most recent chapter in the history of this building, it lived many lives before we came along.

John McCracken, a wholesale building supplies distributor, built the warehouse as shipping was gaining significance for the growing city of Portland. The late 1800s saw the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and increasing investments in the Port of Portland.

Situated between two freight yards and near a third, the McCracken warehouse was intended to stow supplies traveling between West Coast destinations. Alongside the building’s loading docks ran short rail spurs, known as team tracks, sized to accommodate a team of horses. Concrete ramps also brought horse teams and their shipments through the center of the building.

By the 1930s, the team tracks were accommodating trucks more often than horses. As many as 32 trucking companies rented a loading door or two in what became known as the Centennial Truck Terminal. Inside, a small café and the Terminal Cigar Store ran until 1940.

The most recent owner before Ecotrust was Rapid Transfer & Storage, a small, family-owned trucking company that moves goods around Oregon and Washington.

The building stands a testament to the craftsmanship of the workers and the quality of the materials they used. It’s an example of Classic Richardsonian Romanesque style, which flourished between 1885 and 1990. Nearby Union Station is another example. These massive, heavy-looking buildings feature flat roofs and parapets, recessed round-arched entries, arched window openings, and stucco and brick facing.

In its earlier life, few passersby would have admired its beauty. But this architectural landmark comes from a moment when even out-of-the-way warehouses were being built with a new sense of identity and permanence.

Of 163 downtown office buildings, the Natural Capital Center is one of only five built before 1900. It is a historic survivor through a century of tremendous change.

The renovation

Although the old McCracken warehouse was in disrepair when we came along, it was structurally sound. We loved its size: The building, loading area, and parking lot occupy a full city block.

We loved its location: We had hoped to find a central site very near downtown that was easily accessible by bike and public transport. Also, when we acquired the building in 1998, the derelict neighborhood — now known as The Pearl District — was rapidly changing into a lively, mixed-use urban neighborhood with kid-friendly parks.

And we loved its age: From the moment we went looking for a building, we knew we wanted an old one to anchor us in the region’s history and provide contrast and continuity for the new life we hoped to bring inside.

“For really new ideas of any kind…there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error, and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” –Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The rebuilding project was uncharted territory. Our goal was to couple historic restoration with environmental innovation. With a tremendous team of developers, architects, designers, and green building experts, we took stock of the materials already within the structure and were able to reclaim or recycle 98 percent of our construction debris — from the recycled paint to the old tires that became rubber flooring to the benches on the street made from old granite curbs. We set the city record for recycling materials.

The contractors created an entire wood shop within the walls. Almost all of the doors were custom build from the salvaged native Doug Fir within the building. Aside from what they found within the structure, they sourced timber from a nearby deconstruction and purchased FSC-certified, sustainably harvested wood — itself an expression of the work Ecotrust does to support healthy working forests.

In famously rainy Portland, we protect the Willamette River from storm water runoff by filtering and absorbing all of our rainwater in bioswales and our ecoroof. To save water — our summers are secret droughts — we accrue 32 percent water savings through low flow fixtures.

When we opened for business in 2001, the Natural Capital Center became the first restoration of an historic building to receive LEED — Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design — gold rating, the benchmark for “green building.” We made compromises along the way to retain the historic character of the structure, including keeping the original windows and tall ceilings. In the end, the natural light that streams in and fills the broad atrium was critical to the LEED designation.

The materials, water and light are all ecosystem services that contribute to the life of the building and the people within.

Many green historic renovations came on the heels of this redevelopment. We were a test case that proved that investing old buildings with new technology can provide economic, environmental, and social returns.

A view looking down into the atrium of the Natural Capital Center, which is full of light. A group surrounds Spencer Beebe, Ecotrust founder, who is standing next to a tall stump talking into a microphone.
Spencer Beebe, Ecotrust founder, talking in the atrium of the Natural Capital Center.

Doing business here

The Natural Capital Center is home to over two dozen diverse organizations and social enterprises that share our commitment to people and nature.

More than 200 people work here — from asset managers to pizzaiolos, watershed restoration planners to acupuncturists, dynamic map designers to fair-trade coffee advocates. In our open office spaces and shared kitchen, we have the chance to spark new ideas and build unusual alliances.

The building is also a public gathering place. Our atrium and rooftop terrace are open to the public and well used as informal meeting places.

Gathering community

Every year, the Natural Capital Center hosts more than 500 events and has seen five million visitors since our doors opened in 2001.

Our venue spaces are a unique opportunity for the community to participate and directly contribute to the work we do throughout the region to inspire fresh thinking that creates social equity, economic opportunity, and environmental well-being. And, with an ongoing commitment to green practices in our building, we’re making sound choices that complement the growing field of environmentally-conscious event planning.

Our gathering spaces are another expression of the Natural Capital Center’s embodiment of the interconnectivity in nature. Each space can be rented individually, divided to create a sense of intimacy, or combined to open up nearly the entire building to a community gathering.

Learn more about Ecotrust Events, the spaces available at the Natural Capital Center, at our dedicated events website,

The Billy Frank, Jr. Conference Center

Natural Capital Center. The space is named for a regional hero and inspirational figure who featured prominently in championing Indigenous fishing rights and salmon restoration.

“You have to give a lifetime to what I’m talking about. You can’t just be here today and gone tomorrow. You have to tell this story of change continually for the rest of your life.” — Billy Frank, Jr.

Billy Frank, Jr. (Nisqually) was deeply respected in Native and non-Native communities throughout the Pacific Northwest for his efforts to uphold treaty-guaranteed fishing rights for Native peoples. Born in the Nisqually traditional territory in western Washington state, he was arrested more than 50 times in the 1960s and 1970s. For the rest of his life, he was one of our country’s most effective and credible voices for clean water, flourishing salmon populations and the ecosystems where they thrive, and collaboration rather than isolation.

In 2003, Billy Frank, Jr. was an Ecotrust Indigenous Leadership Award nominee for his unwavering commitment to protect treaty rights and his care of Native people. That same year, we were pleased to name the conference center in his honor. He was also the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, and received the Albert Schweitzer Prize for humanitarianism, among many other awards.

Billy Frank, Jr. walked on May 5, 2014.

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