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Portland Building gets a place on national history list

Michael Graves' unusual building now a federal historic landmark
by: Jim Clark The Portland Building designed by architect Michael Graves includes the Portlandia statue reaching toward Southwest Fifth Avenue. The building was named in late October to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Portland Building is now a part of national history.

The 29-year-old building designed in the early 1980s by architect Michael Graves was named in late October to the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service, which oversees the national history register, announced the decision Friday.

Naming the building to the national register is the culmination of several months of work by Portland architect Peter R. Meijer and staff member Kristen Minor, who wrote the building's 40-page nomination report.

The State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation nominated the building for national register consideration in early June. The process was completed when the building was named to the register Oct. 25.

Meijer said in May that the nomination was to primarily honor the building that launched the post-Modernism architectural movement across the country. But it also was intended to prod the city into taking better care of its historic properties and sites.

'I think we are trying to tell the city that it has to be better stewards of its historic resources, especially this nationally significant building,' he said. 'It is important. It's what visitors see when they come here. We're being judged by those impressions.'

Post-modern movement

Meijer's three-person Portland architecture firm was behind the nomination effort for the building that three decades ago helped set the standard for a new 'post-Modernism' movement.

Proponents of the nomination say architect Michael Graves' 1982 unusual vision is one of the first examples of post-Modernism design completed in a major city. They also say the structure should be considered an example of a high-profile building constructed in the 'post-Modern Classicism style' popular between the 1960s and the 1980s.

The Portland Building was Graves' first major architectural commission, coming after an April 1979 city design contest to construct a new public building on a Southwest Fifth Avenue block next to City Hall. Eleven design-build teams answered the city's request for proposals for the new building. Those were whittled to three, and the Graves-designed building was selected.

Graves was a Princeton professor who had designed small projects up to that point - mostly residential buildings - before coming up with the 'jolt of color' that eventually became the Portland Building. Graves' design included a colorful façade and sculptor Raymond Kaskey's three-story Portlandia statue, which was installed in 1985.

The 15-story, 362,422-square-foot building was constructed for $28.9 million using bright green tile and off-white stucco exterior with mirrored glass, an earth-toned terracotta tile and a sky-blue penthouse. Graves also designed the building's interior lobby and second-floor public spaces. Portland's Zimmer Gunsul Frasca architecture firm designed the city office space.

Reminding the city

Graves' unusual design touched off an uproar of criticism among the public and architects. After some minor tweaking on the design, the city broke ground in July 1980 and completed construction by October 1982.

'People either love or hate the Portland Building,' Meijer says. 'There's no middle ground. But whether you love or hate it, it is still significant on a national level.'

Since the late 1980s, Graves has gone on to design several major buildings across the nation. He also has earned national awards for his architectural designs and education.

Meijer also was the driving force behind the 2009 national register nomination of Portland's Memorial Coliseum. The effort was intended to block demolition of the city-owned arena that could have been replaced by a baseball park. The Portland Building nomination isn't designed to protect an endangered structure, just to call attention to the need of the city's historic buildings, Meijer said.

'We want to remind the city of its obligation to these structures and resources,' he said.