The Portland Building's Type III Historic Resource Review was presented to the Historic Landmarks Commission on Monday. They heard testimony from three representatives of the City's team proposing the renovation of the famous building, and from two groups opposing it.
The famously dark and leaky Portland Building has a $195 million seismic upgrade and new rain screen planned. Parties argued over whether this new surface would change the historic nature of the building. The proposed rain screen would be made of powder coated aluminum tiles, and at the base, glazed blue terracotta tiles.
Too radical a change to the building could see it removed from the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, which is run by the National Park Service. Removal from the list is something no one in the room seemed to want.
At the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting, of the four volunteermembers of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission present, two seemed to be ready to approve the design and two were undecided, pending further information.
New testimony will be taken until 5 p.m. on July 3, and the commission will rule on July 24 whether to approve the design.
The big issue with the rain screen is that it will cover the original exterior, which is brightly painted cast concrete. Opposing parties argued whether that changes the original intent of the building. It could be that it looks more like the original drawings than the oft-retouched building that stands there now, which is bounded by Fifth and Fourth avenues and Main and Madison streets.
A slideshow showed 12 versions of Graves's design. For example, the painted blue garlands seen high on the building's sides were originally intended to be three dimensional, as though they were flapping in the wind. That idea was nixed by high costs, when it was built in 1982.
The building was the first civic major work of postmodern architectural style in the United States.
The commission had a list of things it wanted added to the renovation, including interpretive materials in the lobby, reducing the size of the air-handling units on the roof, and replacing rectangular interior light units with square ones, since the square is a theme in Graves's design.
Speakers sprinkled facts about the building throughout the afternoon.
The city had two design advice requests in 2016, when the applicant provided photos of the conditions. They showed how a lot of the systems weren't designed for the way they were installed, such as storefront windows instead of curtain wall windows, which are held in place by sealants and trap a lot of moisture. The concrete walls have insulation behind them, which gets soggy causing air quality issues.
Another air issue is that the air intake for the ventilation system is on the second floor, sucking in air from the bus mall. The new design would move that to the roof, where the air is cleaner, freeing up space in the building for an atrium.
The painted swags and capitals would be replaced by metal ones.
Dark and mirrored glazing would be replaced by clear glass, bringing in much-needed light.
At the second design review, the commission did not shoot down the idea of a rain screen when it was presented.
Commissioner Matthew Roman, a historian by trade, showed concern that the new blue tiles around the base of the building were too big, or at least if the black grout between them could be switched to blue, the difference wouldn't be so pronounced.
Kristin Wells, construction manager for the City of Portland, explained that the large, blue tiles at street level are necessary because neither tile makers nor contractors will work with the old small size — many of which are buckled, cracked or hanging off.
Asked whether the late Michael Graves would be bothered if it went off the registry, Patrick Burke, partner at Michael Graves Architecture and Design in Princeton, New Jersey, said "I'm not sure it was important to him." Burke very much supports the redesign. He remembers the team working on the design in 1982 and painted a picture of a staff frustrated by budget limitations imposed by the owner, the City of Portland.
Nor was Graves as concerned with building finishes as the commissioners seemed to be. "I heard him say 'Let's use bleeping oatmeal if that's what it takes.'" As part of his classical Greek touch, Graves also considered hiding the rooftop machinery under a box that ironically referenced the temple on the Acropolis in Athens.
This gave fuel to the argument that this historic preservation case is more about preserving an idea — the backlash against grim Modernism — than a bunch of building materials. Add that it's a working building, not a museum, and the Applicants felt they had a case for making the building into a comfortable office block for at least the nest 50 to 75 years.
Dan Everhart of Restore Oregon said it was the commission's mission to preserve historic buildings and urged them to deny the "irreversible alterations" in the proposed remodel of this "icon of Postmodernism."
Afterwards he told the Business Tribune, "While they're concerned about the listing they're not certain if the proposed project would result in that delisting. And to further complicate it, there's no indication the ruling body would be able to comment in the allotted time, and the city doesn't seem willing to extend their land use process."
He said the national register does matter. "It's a marker for how buildings are perceived and designated. It's the loss of the architectural integrity of the building that would trigger the delisting that's important to me."
Delisting would be a black mark on the city of Portland. "If they approve a project that results in delisting, that's contrary to their mission."
Two against two so far
Kate Kearney of DoCoMoMo Oregon, which seeks to document and preserve Modernist buildings, said the group opposed the use of metal cladding, adding that it can warp over time. "We applaud the team for not demolishing this building and seeking an option to fix it." But she said the applicants (the City and DLR Group) were using the national registry nomination against the building, and they were arguing the materiality of the building does not matter compared to the idea of what the building represents. Kearney is an Associate at Peter Meijer Architect, which has suggested ventilated stucco or high fiber quality cement panel in stead of aluminum.
Peter Meijer strongly objected to the redesign in an op-ed in the Daily Journal of Commerce last week.
Wells, for the City, argued that they were replacing a painted surface with another painted surface.
By the end commissioner Roman said he was not swayed by the materials argument. "I don't love the changes in scale of the tile but generally I can support the proposal."
Commissioner Wendy Chung, a lawyer, said she was worried about setting a precedent, in allowing an historic building to be so changed without seeing more alternatives. Examples of other listed buildings that had been restored, such as the BMA Tower in Kansas City, the Equitable building in downtown Portland, and the Lever House, did not convince her because no case was exactly like this one.
Dr. Kirk Ranzetta, a Senior Architectural Historian for consulting firm URS is the chair of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission.
Ranzetta urged the applicants to try asking the National Park Service again, as the latter may have been objecting to an older proposal.
Commissioner Annie Mahoney said she overall supported the application.
Afterwards, Kristin Wells, told the Business Tribune, "We have some work to do to move it forward." She said it is quite possible to do a rain screen in a different material, "but in this case, trying to retain the differential relationships between the material transfers, the most appropriate material we found was aluminum."
Wells said they now have to reach out to the Parks Service again, "and we'll see what other testimony comes in."
If construction did go ahead and the building was delisted, "I don't think there would be a huge effect because the building would remain standing for a long time, probably longer than I'll be alive."
She said the Portland Building is one of a kind.
"It is a unique building, so on a national level we are going to be struggling with how do we preserve Modern and Postmodern buildings. It will provide further dialog for moving forward. The standards are based on historic buildings from older times, when crasftmanship was much more what they were about. But it might move us into a place of relooking at what preservation means for this type of building."
If the Landmark Commission rejects the application the applicants can appeal. Then the City Council has the final say. In this case the City would be appealing to itself.
If the Landmark Commission approves the application, then anyone on the record can appeal, and it would also go before the City Council to see if the building work would go ahead.
"It's very likely that one way or another, you will see an appeal," said Everhart. He added he could not say who might appeal if the applicant wins. But Restore Oregon is very much on the record.