A landmark threatened from within
Sometimes it's not tragedy, but fear of it that can damage a community.
Such may be the case at the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center in Portland. This century-old landmark and its tenant of 25 years, the Northwest Children's Theater and School, are seemingly being threatened by an effort from within.
In 1909, the first Christian Science church west of the Mississippi was built in Northwest Portland, in a classical Beaux Arts style with Roman columns and a magnificent dome, courtesy of prominent Chicago architect Solon Spencer Beman. By the 1970s, though, with its congregation dwindling, the church decided to donate the building to the neighborhood, provided it serve the community and its historic architecture be preserved.
For the past 45 years, that's exactly what has happened. Today, you'll find numerous nonprofits there, not only the Children's Theater but also the Portland Child Art Studio and others — all geared towards enlightening and entertaining children. More than 65,000 people pass through the building's doors each year. In this grand architectural setting, the wide-open sanctuary now stages children's productions of The Wizard of Oz and Robin Hood under its dome.
But like any century-old building, the former church needs work. Its elevator and entrances aren't ADA-compliant, the roof leaks, and most importantly it is built with unreinforced masonry — the most vulnerable to earthquake. That's why over the past decade the Northwest Children's Theater has acted more like an owner than the owner, investing $1.1 million compared to tens of thousands by the NNCC itself.
To properly retrofit the building seismically, it may take $5 million or more. The theater's leaders, including founder Judy Kafoury, remain optimistic a full seismic upgrade will happen. And unlike their landlord, the Children's Theater is adept at fundraising, with public and private sponsors including the Meyer Memorial Trust, Zipcar, Umpqua Bank and the Murdock Charitable Trust.
Along the way, however, it's become clear the theater could raise more money as the building's owner. That's why the NNCC board has been willingly negotiating to sell the building to the theater at a greatly reduced price. Yet there's also no risk, because, the current negotiations call for ownership to revert back to the NNCC if retrofit funds aren't raised.
Even so, the sale has a vocal contingent in Northwest Portland sounding alarms. Last month a quartet of self-described "mavericks" successfully ran for NNCC board positions against its own recommended candidates, in order to halt the sale.
This isn't a story of good guys and bad guys. These new board members believe they're looking out for the neighborhood's interests. They have no personal financial stake. And they're right about one thing: a big earthquake is coming.
In a series of interviews, the new board members insisted that razing the building is not their intent. One argued that it's the parking lot they covet for development, not the old church. They're only trying to keep children safe, the mavericks say — the same children whose theater they imagine taking away — while erroneously suggesting that the theater's fundraising hasn't been successful.
Yet the conversation always then turns to notions of what else could be done with the land, which they note has increased in value. If they sold to a developer looking to build housing, one new board member suggested, they might get a community swimming pool out of the deal. In a letter to community members and in online comments, some have suggested demolition is practically a foregone conclusion.
As it happens, the Children's Theater and other nonprofits occupying this old church are not only ideal tenants, enriching the community exactly how the Christian Scientists intended when they gave away the building, but they also give this Portland landmark its best chance to be restored. Citywide we face a big challenge in earthquake-retrofitting our old masonry buildings, but life without them would be even more costly. Thankfully, the city and state are in the process of crafting a new series of incentives to help building owners do the right thing.
In the meantime, while a massive earthquake could come tomorrow, it's likelier to come in our grandchildren's time. Today there is only one truly immediate threat to this grand old building, and it's human rather than geological.
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