Today I took a tour of the circa-1916 federal building at 511 NW Broadway that is being taken over by the Pacific Northwest College of Art with the school's president, Tom Manley, and communications director Becca Biggs. The tour was a few minutes late getting started, which actually was good news, because after passing through the security x-ray machines, I was free to peruse the ground floor lobby a little bit on my own.
511 is going to be a magnificent space for PNCA, which was evident as soon as I entered the thin but cavernously high-ceilinged lobby. There is marble everywhere, lots of ornate detailing, and even ceiling panels that have tons of artful workmanship put into them. Upstairs doors and door panels are clad in unpainted stained wood; the doors even have these frosted-glass windows that look they should have the name "Philip Marlowe" stenciled on them. And there is lots and lots of space here. PNCA ought to have plenty of room to grow.
Wherever you go in this building there are wonderful little tarnished gems. It looks pretty drab and dreary right now, of course. The building has federal agency offices upstairs and some Department of Immigration services on the ground floor. The main activity in this grand entrance area, though, is chitchatting between security guards, building maintenance and housekeeping staff. Plenty of working offices still remain here; those were off limits. But there are lots of empty rooms and spaces that we were able to see upstairs - dark places with low ceilings walls that will be removed.
Although this is a historic building to which certain strictures will apply in terms of preserving the original structure, it has already been changed numerous times. I believe originally the building was for the Postal Service. Both on the ground floor and upstairs, there seem to be many, many opportunities to knock down walls and raise ceilings. In fact, to do so would appear to better honor the original architecture than the current interiors do. Over time this grand building was made into somewhat drab offices. But the bones here are incredible. In fact, there's plenty of flesh and skin to go along with it.
While it's a big heavy building that will hold its thermal mass well (staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter), and it can seem imposing from the street with a lack of transparency, this is actually meant to be a building teeming with natural light. There are numerous huge skylights that were actually covered during various renovations; all of which, needless to say, will be made back into skylights.
There is also quite a nice view or, to be more specific, many different view corridors and framed looks at Portland. That includes a rooftop that could someday be a spectacular hangout or party spot, and which my tour guides and I got to glimpse for a few minutes. One side looks down on the post office across Hoyt Street and Union Station just across Broadway, with the Broadway Bridge, the Willamette River, and the Pearl District in the background. The other side looks toward downtown. Even though it's really just some leftover space adjacent to the rooftop mechanical systems, this could be a special little place to have a party or woo a potential donor (or both).
Merely a serviceable renovation of this building as a new building for PNCA would be great news for architecture in Portland on its own. It's got a lot of great stuff to keep. But as previously mentioned, the architect for 511's renovation will be Allied Works and Brad Cloepfil, which makes the notion of a modern building emerging from this dusty, hulk of an old building an extra intriguing one. As Manley and I were walking down a marble back stairway talking about what Allied might do, I said, "This could be Wieden + Kennedy 2." Manley corrected me and said, "No, this building has a lot more to the original than the Wieden + Kennedy building ever did." So it will be interesting to see how Brad and Allied bring the building alive and how much of that is just opening and cleaning it up versus introducing certain material or spacial modernity inside as well.
511 occupies a strange presence, or at least it has until now. It's a wonderful early 20th century work of architecture on one of the more prominent streets in the center of the city. Yet because it's been closed to the public for so long and kept a very discreet profile, it seems a whole generation has gone by without even the architecture enthusiasts and practitioners among us noticing much that the building is really there. In a few years, that's going to change in a big way. And with the post office being vacated, freeing up that land to re-development (although hopefully some of the original building stays), with a MAX line soon to be going nearby, this whole area seems poised to really go through a metamorphosis over the next decade.
Of course the Portland Public Market had also sought 511 Broadway as a home for itself, and I hope there is a place for them in this area. That said, having now been inside this grand old building, I don't see it as a place for a public market with produce and salami and artisan goods for sale. As has been bandied about in the comments following some of my previous posts about this issue, I think a better home for the public market would be the current Greyhound station two blocks east of 511 - contingent, of course, on the bus company's willingness to move. Or if not the Greyhound station, it seems there are a lot of other nearby parcels with potential for the market, which I'll bet a lot of hungry PNCA students would like to patronize, as would the condo residents.
And as I understand it, in addition to PNCA being able to renovate the 511 building itself, the back parking lot is eventually going to be converted to a new segment of the North Park Blocks. The budget doesn't appear to be there for it now, but if the funds were to become available, what kind of landscape architectural wonder might be conjured there, between PNCA and a renovated post office site at the new edge of the Park Blocks?
Congratulations, PNCA. You've just won a landmark of a new home, and then some.
by Brian Libby, 2008
Published with permission of Portland Architecture