Michael Graves’s famous Portland Building is undergoing a renovation so extensive, it may be de-listed from the National Register of Historic Places.
On a recent afternoon outside the Portland Building, the massive copper Portlandia statue sitting atop its entrance was still encased in scaffolding—the marine goddess’s outstretched hand poking the edge of its white plastic sheathing—as part of an ongoing $195 million renovation and reconstruction.
Despite being a famous landmark designed by architect Michael Graves, and one of the first major Postmodernist buildings in America, the building (owned by the City of Portland) was ultra-value-engineered when it was constructed in the early 1980s, and leaked practically from the start. A few years ago, the city decided renovation was critical if it was to have any functional future.
Although it’s on schedule to reopen at the end of the year, an audit critical of the renovation process is assuring that this seemingly always-controversial design story adds another chapter. City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero found a lack of transparency as the budget has grown to $214 million, and that equity grants to improve the diversity of the construction workforce had not been spent.
Perhaps most notably, the June 12 audit noted the city was “on track to meet the baseline renovation goals but will fall short of other aspirations.” In particular, “the exterior design chosen to address water leaks will result in the circa-1982 building’s delisting from the National Register of Historic Places.”
That actually remains to be seen, for de-listing is a lengthy process that would only commence after construction is complete. But the audit is a reminder of how much this major work of Postmodernist architecture is being transformed. Indeed, the city’s most recognized building has now been given an entirely new facade in a different material. An aluminum over-cladding will completely cover the original painted concrete (which was not removed because it serves in a structural capacity).
The Portland Building’s darkly shaded windows, which contrasted against the cream-colored facade paint, have been replaced with clear glass to add natural light on the interior. Its ground-floor loggias, meant for retail, will now become part of the lobby, glassed in for further light.
While the changed glass unmistakably alters the building’s exterior, it’s the over-cladding that has particularly drawn preservationists’ ire—much as the changes proposed in 2017 by architecture firm Snøhetta for the postmodern AT&T Building in New York City did (those were later nixed as the building was given landmark status by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission).
“If you cover the character-defining features, how is that historic preservation?” said Kate Kearney, president of the Oregon chapter of Docomomo, an organization that advocates for the preservation of modern architecture. “Personally, I don’t think that holds up. I just find it very odd that these high examples of an architecture movement are really being altered or completely erased from our architectural heritage.”
The audit’s release included a written response from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler which disputed some of the financial findings, arguing that the equity grants were always intended for release at the end of the project and citing a series of City Council briefings on budget changes. But the matter of the Portland Building’s National Register listing and potential de-listing is left unaddressed.
When asked whether there was any explicit requirement that the listing itself be maintained, auditor Tenzin Gonta, who works under Caballero, cited project records “that reference historic integrity being part of scope. Each references the listing on the National Register as background about the building but not maintenance of that status as a specific goal.”
So is historic integrity (broadly defined) the city’s mandate for the renovation of the Portland Building, or did it have a duty to maintain the National Register listing by conforming to federal preservation standards, which warn against alterations to a building’s historic features and fabric?
In fact, the City of Portland never sought National Register status for the building from the National Park Service. The building was nominated in 2011 by a local architect, Peter Meijer. “It was never a goal of the project to maintain its National Register listing,” said Kristin Wells of the City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance, contradicting the auditor’s finding.
Preserving the integrity of Michael Graves’s design was very much on the city’s mind, Wells says, with one caveat: “We needed to fix the exterior leaking problem once and for all. Keeping punched windows in a concrete shell sets us up for leaks again. At the end of the day, you’re still relying on caulking and re-caulking every five to 10 years. We do not want to be back in this situation again.”
A third-party consultation in 2016 by Michael D. Lewis, of Ohio-based Facade Forensics, supported the looser approach. In a letter to the city, Lewis argued the concrete facade and its punched windows “could not be corrected by restoration-type repairs limited to traditional preservation techniques.”
What would Michael Graves, who died in 2015, think of the renovation? During his last visit to Portland in 2014, the architect gave his blessing to substantial changes. “The windows will have clear glass now, I’m sure,” Graves told me. “The spandrel glass will go away and we’ll have clear glass there. So the building will be lighter.”
But what about the new facade material? Graves didn’t speak specifically to the idea of metal, but the original design solution, painted concrete, wasn’t his first choice, or even his second. Patrick Burke, a principal with Michael Graves Architecture & Design who joined the firm during the original construction process, also gave the over-cladding his blessing.
Replacing the facade of a 20th-century landmark has certainly been done before, as at Lever House, a 1950s tower designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and the Secretariat Building at the United Nations headquarters, both in New York City. The difference, of course, was that those were in-kind material replacements, not a new material altogether.
“But it still sets up this conversation,” said Erica Ceder, an associate with DLR Group, the architecture firm overseeing the renovation. “How do you deal with preservation when preserving original details and materials could be detrimental to the lifecycle of the building?” Even with de-listing from the National Register on the horizon, the Portland Building renovation is on track to earn a LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council thanks to its added energy efficiency and natural light.
Wells thinks more postmodern buildings will face these same questions as they adapt to contemporary needs, and argues that pragmatism is necessary. “With Postmodernism, it’s not about their materiality,” she said. “The materials are just a way to express the idea behind the building: a lot of color and historical references. But Postmodernism had a lot of experimental approaches to construction, and there were a lot of failures. Is it our responsibility to preserve the faulty constructability, or to maintain the larger idea it was trying to express? We felt it wasn’t about painted concrete.”
The irony of the audit’s release earlier this month was that architects from DLR Group, along with Burke, had just delivered a presentation about the project at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects in Las Vegas. They half-expected criticism for altering an architectural icon, but it didn’t come, they say. “I felt a lot of warmth in the room,” said Carla Weinheimer, a DLR senior associate. “There was an understanding that one should not replicate details that are going to fail again. There’s a way to be respectful and, especially in these times, provide something that allows the building to live over the next 50 to 100 years.”
Weinheimer said of the aluminum over-clad, now that installation is complete: “The final result exceeded all of our expectations, in terms of the quality and the precision and the degree to which it truly replicated the design intent, and the colors and forms in the existing building. And it’s that phrase—design intent—which is so important to making sense out of this.”
There’s a reason all the historic-preservation talk is about the exterior. “I didn’t do the interiors,” Graves quickly reminded me in that 2014 interview. “I’m blamed for them, because of the [dark] windows. But I didn’t do the interiors of the building.”
With its drop ceilings, lack of windows, and over-reliance on fluorescent lights, the Portland Building was always unpopular with city employees who worked there. Even the air quality was bad, with mechanical systems and their air-intake vents hidden on the second floor, right over the automobile-clogged street.
But as was abundantly clear even while visiting on a recent cloudy day, the Portland Building’s interior has undergone a metamorphosis. Despite the smallness of most of its windows, these offices are full of natural light. “The old glass that we pulled out of the building had a visible light transmittance value of 7 percent,” Ceder said. “The replacement glass is 77 percent.” Because the drop ceilings have been removed and the exposed concrete painted white (Weinheimer calls this postmodern classic “Brutalism in a dress”), surfaces act like a mirror for the sunlight.
When city staffers who worked in the original Portland Building have toured in recent weeks, “the change is so dramatic that there’s nobody who is neutral in their response: It’s universally one of awe,” Weinheimer said. “It’s now a building that people want to be in, maybe for the first time.”
Whether the changes are true fixes can’t be known until employees have returned and worked in the building for a while. But if the renovation is ultimately deemed successful by the city and by a majority of the architecture community, this won’t be the last renovation to a landmark that puts ideas before materials—and functionality before inclusion on the National Register.
In the case of the Portland Building, at least, its designer would probably be fine with that. After all, what’s Postmodernism if it’s not reinterpreting history?