Lincoln High: An urban league of its own
COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE
Over the past decade, several Portland public high schools have seen modernizations of their historic campuses, including Grant, Franklin and Roosevelt from 2016-19, as well as Benson's current reconstruction. Now comes an entirely new building for the city's oldest high school, Lincoln, and a unique one compared to those campuses.
Six stories at its tallest point, the new building actually qualifies as the only high-rise public high school west of the Mississippi River. And it's precisely the high density that makes this new Lincoln successful, with a sense of urban energy that's unlike virtually any other high school in Portland.
Founded in 1869, this school has existed in numerous locations, first at the North Central School in the present-day Pearl District across from the Portland Armory and later at Central School downtown, where Pioneer Courthouse Square is today.
Lincoln's first stand-alone building was at 14th and Morrison, a gorgeous 1885 Victorian design with a clock tower. From 1911-1951, the high school was located on the South Park Blocks, in what today is known as Lincoln Hall (part of Portland State University); here famous alumni like painter Mark Rothko, cartoon voice artist Mel Blanc and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder matriculated.
The circa-1952 building Lincoln is now vacating, in Goose Hollow, has produced internationally-renowned graduates like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and Oscar-nominated singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Yet its location, facing the noisy Interstate 405 trench, left something to be desired.
The new Lincoln is located on the same Goose Hollow site, but hugs the property's northwestern corner at 18th and Salmon, across from Zion Lutheran Church and the Multnomah Athletic Club. This was a logistically practical move allowing the new Lincoln to be constructed where the track and football field had been, eliminating the need to displace students; the old building will subsequently be demolished and a new athletic field built there.
Building along Salmon also places Lincoln in a more vibrant urban setting, with MAX trains regularly passing by and Providence Park just a block away (half its field can even be seen from the school's uppermost floors). It makes Lincoln feel like a school in the city center for the first time since its South Park Blocks days. The new building's compact footprint also allows Lincoln's large glass-walled lobby (which doubles as a cafeteria dining room) to look out on a newly restored 17th Avenue, which had been eliminated in the school's 1950 construction.
In its main six-story wing to the north, the building's first several stories are laid out in an oval shape, with classrooms, stairways and a library hugging the northern perimeter, giving way to a curving hallway that encircles administrative offices and a 500-seat auditorium. Upstairs, a mix of classrooms and specialty spaces — artist studios, a weight room and a culinary-arts kitchen — make Lincoln feel like a hive of activity. In the adjacent two-story structure, a dramatically wide lobby staircase leads to a multi-court gymnasium on the second floor, creating a striking two-level public space.
There are times when the new building felt less transparent and full of light than I expected. While the lobby and corner staircases enjoy floor-to-ceiling glass, some of which is strikingly angled and indented from the building facade, the classrooms themselves come with smaller windows and can seem plainer. At moments the new Lincoln feels grand, and other times the building can seem relatively utilitarian.
Even so, this is a Portland high school in a class by itself: a place that feels collegiate and sophisticated, as if attending here gives one a chance to do something special — like several Lincoln alumni already have.
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).
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.