Old school, new school
Hundreds of local dignitaries and Gresham High School students crowded the student parking lot Wednesday morning for the groundbreaking of a two-year project to renovate and largely rebuild the historic school.
As a drone buzzed overhead on the chilly, gray morning of April 4, what Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis declared "a great day," a student choir sang, a band played and VIPs spoke.
Katrise Perera, Gresham-Barlow School District superintendent, said the current building "has been maximized and given its all," but added, "the end is near."
The turning of the dirt at 1200 Main Avenue signals the beginning of a major overhaul of the historic Art Deco structure that is expected to take about two years. About 70 percent of the school will be replaced as part of the district's building program funded by the $291.2 million bond school district voters passed in November 2016.
Demolition will begin on July 1, starting with the auditorium and childcare facility at the Main Avenue and Division Street area of the campus.
With a hint of irony, Principal Michael Schaefer said it will be "an exciting time as we move through the next 24 to 28 months."
Students will attend school in the old building as the new one goes up around them, having to park several blocks away at East Hill Church, which has caused some grumbling.
When completed, the new facility — with the visually expansive glassed-in lobby of the new auditorium — will create a visually striking anchor at the corner of Main and Division Street.
In the new building, the busy student entrance will be flipped from the Main Avenue front to what is currently the back of the school, while the baseball field will remain in place along Division Street.
"The students will have a student commons for the first time," Schaefer said of the dozens of changes the project will bring. "They've had only a small cafeteria" to eat lunch and gather.
The first designs for the remodeled high school would have demolished the iconic Works Progress Administration-constructed facade along 1200 N. Main Ave. But there was resistance to the first designs, led by Bemis along with developer and Gresham Design Commission member Mike McKeel. After considering citizen feedback, the design was reworked to preserve more of the features and vintage sculptures from the 1940 building exterior.
"To lose that piece of our history would be tragic," Schaefer said in response to a question.
The architect for the original building was Truman E. Phillips, a prominent Works Progress Administration designer. Paid for by $133,000 in bonds, construction started on July 11, 1939.
Students began attending classes in the north wing starting in February 1940. The cornerstone was laid at the main entrance the following December, when the school's enrollment was 880 students.
Other schools in the district also will see improvements from the bond money. Barlow High School is getting an overhaul and a sports stadium. East and North Gresham elementary schools are being replaced. Hall and Hollydale elementary schools and Deep-Creek-Damascus K-8 will get 16 new classrooms to ease overcrowding. All district schools will see security upgrades.
Gresham-Barlow School Board chairman Kris Howatt summed up the Gresham High project, saying, "It'll be a little tough the next few years, but it'll be worth it."
For more information about the Gresham-Barlow 2016 school bond building program, visit gresham-barlowbond.org.