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Love it or hate it, the Portland Building has a date with history

Architects hope national listing will prod city into action
by: Tribune File Photo The Portland Building’s design could earn it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Architect Peter Meijer wants the city to be a better steward of its historic resources.

Possible nomination of the 29-year-old Portland Building to national historic landmark status is, like the building itself, a little more complicated than it appears.

When the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation considers the building next week for addition to the National Register of Historic Places, it will also focus on an effort by local architects pushing the city of Portland to be better stewards of its historic resources - not just the Portland Building, but also parks, open spaces and other significant structures.

'It is a public building and the public is nominating it to the national register,' says Portland architect Peter R. Meijer, whose staff member Kristen Minor wrote the building's 40-page nomination report. 'But it begs the question: What is the city doing to recognize its stewardship of these properties?'

Meijer says 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 a better steward of its historic resources, especially this nationally significant building,' he says. 'It is important. It's what visitors see when they come here. We're being judged by those impressions.'

Meijer's three-person Portland architecture firm is behind the nomination effort for the building that three decades ago helped set the standard for a new 'post-Modernism' movement. The Portland Building is one of eight properties across the state that will be considered by the committee June 9 and 10 for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. The committee meets at Salem's Mission Mill Museum.

Meijer 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 The effort was intended to block demolition of the city-owned arena that could have been replaced by a baseball park.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 says.

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

Exceptionally important

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.

Nomination to the national register would ensure a place in history for the Portland Building - also known as the Portland Public Service Building. If the state committee agrees to nominate the building, it could take several months before the building is listed on the National Park Service's historic register.

Because it's a public building, anyone can nominate it to the national register. Only private buildings need the owners' permission to be part of the national register process.

Before the Portland Building can be nominated to the national register, however, it must overcome a hurdle in criteria, which usually limits the honor to properties that have been around for more than 50 years. Minor's nomination report says the relatively young building should still be considered for the honor because 'it is exceptionally important as one of the first physical manifestations of a new architectural style coming on the heels of the Modern movement.'

'The reasoning behind nominating it at this time is that it will raise some awareness of how important this building was (and is), whether or not one personally likes it,' Minor says.

It also was one of the first design-build projects in the nation, constructed by a joint venture between Portland's Hoffman Construction Co. and Pavarini Construction Co. of Greenwich, Conn.

No middle ground

Nicholas T. Starin, a planner with the city's historic resources program, says the city has supported the nomination, even though it had nothing to do with the process. Portland's Historic Landmarks Commission signed off on the proposal, offering only minor corrections to the nomination report, Starin says.

A handful of other historic buildings in the city that were less than 50 years old have been named to the national register, he says. Most notable was the Equitable Building on Southwest Sixth Avenue (also known as the Commonwealth Building) designed in 1948 by famed Portland architect Pietro Belluschi and named to the history list in March 1976 when it was only 28.

That building also was considered historic for its exterior aluminum skin design and its internal engineering systems, which were groundbreaking at the time, Starin says.

'The city won't object to the (Portland Building) nomination,' he says, even though Mayor Sam Adams and the City Council haven't weighed in on the decision.

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 terra cotta 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.

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 numerous national awards for his architectural designs and education.

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