Rendering of the renovated Portland Building
courtesy DLR Group Rendering of the renovated Portland Building

On a sunny August afternoon, Carla Weinheimer, AIA, a senior associate at DLR Group, is beaming. She’s standing in front of a photograph inside the Michael Graves–designed Portland Public Service Building in Oregon. The photo, more than 30 years old, shows the revered Portlandia statue being transported down the Willamette River, destined to be mounted over the building’s entrance. “Look at all these people celebrating, on both sides of the river,” she says.

It might be a sunny day, but you wouldn’t know it standing inside the Portland Building. In the lobby, there’s nearly a complete absence of natural light. That’s one of the reasons that DLR Group, working with the City of Portland, has embarked on a $195 million restoration of the 15-story municipal office structure. The other reasons: The building has been plagued by water leaks, structural issues, and mechanical deficiencies.

Both DLR Group and the city argue that the restoration will help realize Graves’s original vision for the project. The first major building in the United States designed in a postmodern style, the Portland Building suffered from extensive value-engineering. “It’s pretty darn exciting to be part of remedying all of the problems,” Weinheimer says. “It brings up the building to what it needs to be.”

A rendering of the renovated building
courtesy DLR Group A rendering of the renovated building

From the beginning, the Portland Building has been a lightning rod for controversy, inspiring both love and hatred among residents for its provocatively colorful, flamboyantly neo-historic design. Now the renovation has inspired a fresh wave of criticism, especially from preservationists who fear that the proposed changes will get the building delisted from the National Register of Historic Places.

A Long-Term Solution
When the Portland Building opened in 1982, it was a defining moment for the city, which had historically shied away from commissioning ambitious, trophy-like buildings. Then-Mayor Frank Ivancie even predicted Graves’ building would come to be regarded as Portland’s Eiffel Tower.

The existing building
courtesy DLR Group The existing building

The project added a welcome dose of color and whimsy to the city: It looks like a giant wrapped birthday present, complete with faux garlands affixed to two sides of its exterior. But the mayor’s prediction never came to pass. The local design community largely derided the project, most notably the city’s favorite architectural son, midcentury master Pietro Belluschi. He called it an “oversized beribboned Christmas package” and warned that “today’s shock value may well be tomorrow’s drag.” It didn’t help matters that the building was built cheaply, with a budget of $29 million (about $74 million today, adjusted for inflation).

The renovation will give the building a new aluminum exterior and rainscreen over-cladding that will cover the original concrete-and-tile façade to reduce leaks and the corresponding façade erosion. “This is a long-term solution for this project,” says Kristin Wells, a construction project manager for the city. “In our kickoff meeting, the first thing we said was, ‘We will absolutely solve our envelope issues—period.’ ”

courtesy DLR Group

The building’s dark glass will be replaced with clear glazing, retail spaces in the ground-floor loggias will be removed to expand (and daylight) the lobby, and mechanical equipment will be moved from its original second-floor location to the roof to improve the quality of air intake. “It’s not a rote way of doing it,” Wells says. “But it’s the right way to do this.”

Graves Rallies Support
Three years ago, the fate of the Portland Building was largely uncertain. “My reaction is we should basically tear it down and build something new,” city council member Dan Saltzman told The Oregonian in January 2014; he went on to call the building “a nightmare for people who work there.”

The possibility of demolition prompted Graves to return to Portland, despite his declining health (he passed away about a year later). Speaking to a packed audience at the Portland Art Museum, Graves joked that he’d expected one of the city’s many food trucks to park outside, in order to sell tomatoes that attendees could hurl at him on stage. Still, he argued that the project should be saved. “I would be devastated, I know, if any of my buildings came down,” he told me after the event, “not just in my lifetime but ever. They are your children and you love them all.” Graves gave his blessing to a restoration that would substantially alter the building, including switching out the glass and changing the covered loggias on the ground floor.

“It was a building built cheaply and had a lot of problems. Michael knew that,” says Patrick Burke, AIA, a principal with Michael Graves Architecture & Design. “Michael’s intent was shapes, colors. In truth, he loved working with nice materials when we had higher budgets. But he was also very quick to do what he needed to do to be within budgets. Michael would have been open to talking about other materials.”

A comparison of the existing and renovated façade
A comparison of the existing and renovated façade

Graves initially had chosen a glazed terra-cotta tile façade. “He was so excited,” Burke recalls. “He thought it was going to be this sparkly building in a rainy climate. Then the contractors told him, ‘It’s not going to happen’ because of budget.” The city also rejected Graves’ suggestion of stucco because of maintenance concerns, instead proposing painted concrete. “Michael said, ‘I don’t care if we make it out of oatmeal.’ ”

Violating the Historic Integrity?
Yet the scope of the proposed changes to the building has rankled some preservationists. No one, including the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission, which approved the redesign in August, has questioned the new glass, even though it will noticeably alter the building’s composition. Much of the façade has tiny square windows. Where glass was used more extensively, in large swaths in the middle of each of the four sides, it usually had spandrel panels behind it, preventing any natural light from entering. The dark glass “actually was a mistake,” explains Burke. “[Architect-of-record Emery] Roth put it in, supposedly for energy efficiency. Michael blew up. They said, ‘Too late, we bought black glass.’ ”

The problem has been more with the aluminum over-cladding. In a letter to Ian P. Johnson, the associate deputy state historic preservation officer for Oregon, Lisa Deline, a reviewer with the National Register of Historic Places, wrote that the over-cladding, “if undertaken, would destroy the historic integrity of the building and necessitate its removal from the National Register.”

The existing loggia
The existing loggia

Local architect Peter Meijer wrote the building’s National Register application (because of its significance, the project was listed in 2011, well before the usual 50-year benchmark for being deemed historic). Meijer believes the over-cladding is a matter of anti-leak overzealousness. “What the city said was, ‘We want you to give us a warranty for 10 years.’ A repair of the existing façade will get you a warranty for three to five years, depending on the sealant, but not a 10-year warranty. The city raised the bar on their expectations to the point where there is only one solution: to completely cover it up with a brand new skin. But metal panels will really never be able to have the same look as a painted concrete building.” Meijer also believes the over-cladding will create more of a tunnel effect for the already-small windows, thereby eliminating the gains in natural light made by swapping out the dark glass.

DLR Group and the city both insist that adding the rainscreen was the only viable solution. “We currently have tiles adhered directly to the concrete. No one in the city believes it’s a condition we can replicate,” Weinheimer says. “It became clear to everyone, every consultant, that tile replication needed to happen in a rainscreen format to be safe and to perform over time.” Once they decided to use a rainscreen over the tiled portions of the façade, doing the same for the concrete portions was a matter of performance and aesthetic continuity: keeping the façade’s depth consistent.

The city’s façade consultant for the project, Michael D. Lewis, AIA, of Ohio-based Façade Forensics, supported the approach. In a letter to the city, Lewis wrote that the building’s defects “could not be corrected by restoration-type repairs limited to traditional preservation techniques.”

A mock up showing one of the new aluminum panels set against the building's existing façade
courtesy DLR Group A mock up showing one of the new aluminum panels set against the building's existing façade

Recently, DLR Group did a mock-up, affixing an aluminum panel to the building’s exterior. To a surprising degree, the panel resembled the original façade, which might be problematic in its own right. “I think where the discussion starts with the Portland Building is the idea of over-cladding and calling it preservation,” says Theo Prudon, FAIA, president of Docomomo US. “You could call it interpretive restoration, I suppose. But interpretations of history are always problematic. When you go into a historic building, there’s a process of making clear what you did is new. I think there is a concern that the new interpretation will be seen as the real thing. It’s an age-old discussion in preservation. How far do you take it?”

Patrick Burke believes that the answer revolves largely around the needs of the workers in the building. “You have an obligation to the users. I think you should let the buildings live. Michael was asked that question many times. He said, ‘Do it. I’d rather see my buildings get updated than be out of date and out of step.’ ”

The Portland City Council issued final approvals for the restoration in mid-September. In a way, the project—expected to be completed by the end of 2020—will itself be postmodern. By blurring the lines between what is old and what is new, Graves’s building is once again confronting history on its own terms. Only this time that history is its own.