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Portland Architecture from Brian Libby: Contemplating Keller Auditorium's renovation or replacement.

COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE


COURTESY PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - Keller Auditorium is due for seismic upgrades — but so are many old buildings in Portland.

Depending on your point of view, Keller Auditorium's planned transformation — announced earlier this month following a study of its seismic vulnerability — is either right on time, way overdue or needs to wait its turn.

Yet it's only a question of when, because downtown needs the Keller as much as fans need a stage for "Hamilton" and "Carmen."

First opened in 1917 as the Municipal Auditorium, this was the original home of the Oregon Symphony. Soon after its completion, the building acted as a makeshift hospital and morgue during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Just after its 50th anniversary, the Municipal reopened in 1968 as Civic Auditorium, following a reconstruction that retained only 17% of the original structure while trading traditional style for modern. PMG FILE PHOTO - Brian Libby, Portland Architecture.

Keller Auditorium has always been busy, hosting touring Broadway productions and serving as home base for the Portland Opera, Oregon Ballet Theater and other local arts ensembles. In fact, its robust ticket sales help underwrite other city-owned venues. That we'd be looking to renovate or rebuild Keller at another 50-year increment would seem to be right on time.

Admittedly, this venue has never been beloved, playing second-fiddle to the famed Keller Fountain across the street and receiving mixed reviews for its acoustics. In 1970, legendary New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it "a building of unrelieved blandness."

I actually harbor a warm-fuzzy affection for what I still think of as Civic Auditorium, where I attended my first stage performance as a 5-year-old in 1977 with my mom (to see Broadway hit "The Wiz"). But on that warm summer afternoon, I do remember wanting to frolic in the fountain instead of going inside. Especially on its windowless north, east and south sides, the Keller's architecture is downright oppressive.

As city leaders contemplate three options for Keller Auditorium — a bare-bones seismic retrofit (estimated cost: $119 million), a modest renovation ($215 million), and complete replacement ($245 million) — I'm guessing one of the first two will win out, because Portland habitually seeks cost-cutting over ambition (and good local firms over great out-of-town architects).

Over 20 years ago, several major local arts institutions commissioned a study that found the need for a major new concert hall in Portland. The study generated not even the slightest momentum. Will it be different this time?

A new multiblock site would better enable a true world-class venue. But the combination of auditorium and fountain is special, and a relationship that has never been fully taken advantage of. We could start by closing Third Avenue between them.

The Keller arguably also needs to get in line. After all, the city of Portland has been trying to renovate Veterans Memorial Coliseum for over a decade. Besides being a vastly better design, the coliseum offers a size niche (about 10,000 seats) that otherwise doesn't exist in Portland, meaning in its absence some concerts and traveling shows would skip the city.

Keller Auditorium, on the other hand, is about the same capacity (about 3,000) as the nearby Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The truth is, we need both the Keller and the Schnitz, because they have different stage configurations and both are busy. But shouldn't a Keller rehab come after the coliseum?

Even so, after years of pandemic-induced boarded-up buildings and protest-related unrest, downtown Portland needs a positive jolt, and investing in the arts is a proven way to build vibrant communities. For any ambitious world city, there would be little to deliberate.

Seismic stability is the impetus, yet we should renovate or fully replace Keller Auditorium not just for safety's sake. It's an opportunity: one of the best downpayments we can make on downtown Portland's future.

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 (portlandarchitecture.com).


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