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High school rebuild transforms not just the architecture, but its occupants

PMG PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - Renovation details such as hallways festooned with wood salvaged from an old gymnasium have turned Grant High School into a better version of what it always was.

It's lunchtime at the renovated and expanded Ulysses S. Grant High School in Northeast Portland, and the place is buzzing.

Beside a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass in the cafeteria, every table is taken and the soundtrack is enthusiastic laughter. Around the corner, a new entry atrium with built-in terraced seating is full of students too, playing chess and rehearsing dance moves, as are a pair of glass-ensconced meeting rooms doubling as hangout spaces at each end of the hallway.PMG FILE - Brian Libby

Lunch breaks weren't always like this at Grant — and not just because it's an open campus with a teenager-friendly McDonald's five blocks away. Only kids on the free-lunch program used to stick around at noon, for while the circa-1923 original school building always had good bones, its deterioration was only matched in dreariness by the collection of trailers and additions outside.

Thanks to a renovation and expansion completed this fall by Mahlum Architects, Grant has been transformed. According to principal Carol Campbell, not only have student behavioral issues dropped but "the whole atmosphere is different." Kids tell her the building feels like a college. Campbell recalls that her favorite moment was when a student told her simply, "I feel like people care about us."

The culmination of a five-year process that included a two-year student and community engagement effort as well as two years each of design and construction, the renovated Grant High is meant to be not just a vibrant, light-filled learning environment but a community asset as well. Its 500-seat auditorium will be available as a public venue, for example, at the neighborhood's request. The old hallways and classrooms also retain the essence of the old architecture, including a choir room memorable for its use in the movie Mr. Holland's Opus.

PMG PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - In redesigning Grant High School, Mahlum Architects struck a balance between creating a handsome new brick wing and clarifying the buildings original classical revival design.

While the project includes a handsome brick-clad new wing that meshes well with the original building, what's perhaps most compelling is how Mahlum's redesign clarified the original classical revival design by Knighton & Howell, which had become cluttered with ill-advised alterations. The architects also made creative use of old materials. Hallways are festooned with wood salvaged from the old gymnasium floor. Grant has become a better version of what it always was.

The ornamental entry to a gorgeous separate arts building, for instance, can be seen for the first time from across the courtyard because the old gym that used to stand there, a shabby 1950s addition, has been demolished. In back, the trailers have given way to a courtyard that allows students to enjoy the school's bucolic park-side setting.

As we've learned from recent renovations at Franklin High and Roosevelt High as part of this same bond-approved group of projects, there may be aspects of the rebuild that don't work perfectly for faculty and students, especially at first. Yet walking the hall of these renovated schools, perhaps Grant most of all, provides a glimmer of hope: that despite all the towering challenges ahead, maybe these kids can be raised and taught well enough to make a difference. If nothing else, they seem happy to be there like never before, and perhaps that's the first step.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com


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