by Manu SharmaJul 11, 2021
Considered to be one of the United States’ most liberal cities, Portland, Oregon is a hotbed of some of the country’s most interesting arts and culture organisations. While it may not have the showmanship of Broadway or the glamour of Hollywood, Portland has a strong appreciation for creative experimentation - and the city has thrived because of it. Take, for example, Portland’s largest professional theatre company, Portland Centre Stage at The Armory, which is based out of a stunning historical building that was once, as the name suggests, an armoury. The building was originally constructed in 1887 and then expanded into a military assembly space in 1891. Even today The Armory’s fortress-like façade stands stolidly in the heart of Portland’s commercial district, and in almost direct contrast to its own shiny, modern interiors.
Historical preservation in the United States is governed by the Washington DC-based National Parks Service. When it comes to architectural restoration, the body has extremely strict guidelines in place to ensure the authenticity of the original structure is kept intact. One of the consequences of this is that when a new owner appropriates a historical space, they are made duly aware of its legacy. In fact, it may well be their motivation for moving in, in the first place. This is especially true of companies that engage with the arts and culture - companies that are, by nature, invested in the heritage of the spaces they inhabit. Over time, their contemporary identities begin to filter through the façade of the city’s history, making for an interesting dynamic that bleeds through past and present.
“We had to work within the historic rules,” explains production manager, Creon Thorne, of the restoration process, “so we couldn’t make any changes to the shell.” The company’s programming and spatial requirements called for 80,000 square feet of usable space, but within the shell of the original armoury building, which they were not allowed to change in any way - so they could only manage about 20,000 square feet. The project team, led by local firm GBD Architects and property developers Gerding Edlen, devised a creative way of working around the historical guidelines; they excavated about 25 feet underground, thereby extending the theatre’s capacity to about 56,000 square feet. “We wanted a bigger rehearsal hall, a couple of smaller classroom spaces for our activities, and a second smaller rehearsal space maybe,” says Creon. “We gave up some height in the studio theatre, just because we couldn’t excavate down anymore. So those were the trade offs…but we were very willing to do it to get the space.”
There were more minor aspects of the building that required some negotiation as well. The Armory is designed according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines, but some of LEED’s specifications went against the rules of historical preservation. For example, the many skylights that are scattered over the roof of The Armory are not historically accurate. The roof of the original building had been almost entirely solid with just one central skylight but LEED required the building to allow for a lot more natural light. “This was the first time LEED had encountered historic building, and historic preservation requirements, so the project team really had to have many conversations, and many trips back and forth to D.C,” explains Creon. Eventually, both teams had a building they were happy with.
The Armory was always intended to be an assembly space. While the National Guard used the original building for its own drills and marching routines, it also rented the space out for cultural programmes. From wrestling matches to opera concerts and even political debates, The Armory has almost always been a space for all manner of public assembly; and this is a heritage that the company is keen to preserve. In fact, when the space went up for auction in the 1990s, it was being eyed by a number of commercial establishments that may well have brought in a lot of immediate revenue. However, the then-developer Bob Gerding (whose name is now on the building) chose to bank on Portland Center Stage. “Luckily Bob really believed that these commercial projects were not as good a long-term investment in the neighbourhood as having a real arts hub,” says Creon, “and creating a home for Portland Center Stage in the midst of what was rapidly going to transform into a vital neighbourhood for the city.”