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Touring the Gerding Theater

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Today the new Gerding Theater, home now to Portland Center Stage in the remodeled armory building next to the Brewery Blocks, threw its doors open for a media tour. Grand opening is set for this Saturday, October 1, with a party and live music out front.

Walking through the big glass doors on 11th, it was exciting to see the space for the first time. The interior lobby is the theater’s most impressive space because of its volume. The second floor has been cut open into a large oval shape to reveal the full height of the original armory. A few years ago I happened to walk past an open door into the armory while it was being gutted for reconstruction. Like an airplane hangar, it was just one big open space. There was an iconic feel, but also a kind of spiritual quality. I got a sense of that spirit again today standing in the lobby.

The greatest beauty this building has always had, both in the past as an armory and even today as a theater, is its huge arched wood trusses on the ceiling, made from old growth Douglas fir more than a century ago. And in that lobby, looking up through the double-height space, it’s easy to see the beauty of pure structure they embody.

Inside, the theater space itself seems very nice. There’s a lot of legroom compared to most theaters, and it feels more intimate than the Newmark Theater, where Portland Center Stage was before. There’s also more slope to the seating rows, so, as PCS artistic director Chris Coleman joked, “You’ll be able to see over Arlene Schnitzer’s hair.”

As many already know, the GBD Architects-designed Gerding Theater is the country’s first historic building to earn a ‘Platinum’ LEED designation, and also the first performing arts facility to do so. It’s 29% more energy-efficient than code requires, it keeps and uses all its stormwater (for toilets), and there are all kinds of innovative mechanical systems. There are also skylights throughout, helping to fill this fortress with natural light.

Another thing I really like is that the theater intends to be open to the public day and night whether there’s a play on or not. There’ll be a café, and people are encouraged to use the lobby as a public meeting area. This is a real trend for arts facilities that the Gerding Theater’s architects, client and developer have rightfully embraced.

I do have a couple of small quibbles:

When you look up at the trusses, the ceiling is clad in some kind of corrugated metal. To me that ceiling looks like a tool shed, or a Quonset hut. I don’t remember how this material relates to what was originally there, but either way, I’d have preferred something else, aesthetically speaking.

From the outside, the entrance to the armory also clearly seems to be on the 10th Avenue side. That’s where the original ‘First Regiment Armory’ sign is, as are other small cues like steps leading up to it and huge wooden doors. But that’s the back of the Gerding Theater. Its entrance is on the 11th Avenue side. This seems counter-intuitive to me, like the Jubitz Center’s entrance at the Mark Building that isn’t an entrance.

Also, the concrete used extensively in the floors and oval-shaped atrium didn’t quite seem the beautiful, smooth-as-marble concrete you’d find inside the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, for example, or in lots of Japanese architecture. I think a really first-rate concrete would have made an exquisite contrast to the roughness of the preserved exterior walls from the original building, which the team has done such a great job of revealing. But a project like W+K probably had a much higher per-square-foot budget.

The armory also posed a challenge similar to the Masonic Temple when it was transformed last year into a Portland Art Museum expansion. In both cases, you’re dealing with largely window-less, fortress-like buildings that were meant to keep people out. The armory even has windows meant originally for rifle barrels, and God knows what the Masons were doing inside their bunker of a building. So how do you make the architecture more open and inviting without compromising the historical integrity of the original structure? I’m not sure either the PAM’s Mark Building or the Gerding Theater completely solve that riddle, but it also may not be fair to ask them to do so.

Meanwhile, there’s tons to love about this building, from its matchless levels of sustainable materials and methods to the sublimely coarse, castle-like textures and dramatically large-volume spaces inside. My first impression is I’m not quite sure I saw the pristine modern jewel I wanted inside. But by no means could or should it stop the Gerding Theater from becoming an instant landmark.

by Brian Libby, 2006

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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