PNCA moves into the spectacularly renovated old Federal building on the North Park Blocks

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pacific Northwest College of Art students check out the work of high school artists in the Portland Metro Scholastic Art Awards show at the 511 Gallery at PNCA's new home. Class was in, Monday, at the 511 N.W. Broadway building, the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s new home on the North Park Blocks.

Art students ambled up the Park Blocks and along N.W. Glisan Street, fiddling with their lip rings and checking their Google maps.

They were coming to use the new Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design. Outside was a big Lee Kelly sculpture (“Memory ‘99”), with a sodden sleeping bag on its base. Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture led the design in a rare hometown project for the company.

Schnitzer, Kelly and Cloepfil are big, familiar names in Portland’s art and design worlds. But it’s the students and locals who will make or break the new space.

Mary Weisenburger, a painting student and senior in the BFA program, did not know about the 511 Building four years ago, when she and her parents toured PNCA on Johnson Street in the Pearl District. She sees it as a bonus that the new headquarters has arrived during her education. She toured the 511 Building last year, before this $32 million remodel.

“I like how they’ve painted all the walls white and all the spaces are more open,” Weisenburger says. “Before, it had like an ‘80s remodel, and it was really small and stuffy.”

“I love the natural lighting. I’m excited about doing classwork in the rooms with really well-lit spaces,” says Jordan Schilperoort, a thesis student in the General Fine Arts program. He’s a sculptor who uses multimedia, and sometimes social interaction, in his work.

Schilperoort adds: “I’m excited to see how we’re going to nest out the place, making it livable. The architecture is fantastic, and I think how the students feather the nest is going to make the environment happen.”

Construction continues through March, and is there still been a powerful smell to the hardwood floor sealant, oddly similar to painter’s turpentine.

Dahlia Cortez is a freshman BFA student who intends to go into animation one day. She loves the new place, from the large spaces to the sound studio.

“The teachers want you to try everything,” says Cortez, who is starting a costuming club for students who want to do cosplay (dressing up at conventions).

“I toured the other (Johnson Street) building with my parents, and we weren’t very impressed,” Cortez says. “The rain would sometimes leak on my paintings, or the windows didn’t open. But here it’s gorgeous, and the style and the detail downstairs are inspiring.”

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Pacific Northwest College of Art students check out  PNCAs new home.

The building’s opening marks a triumph for the private art school, which has gone from the basement of the Portland Art Museum, to a Pearl District warehouse with Rimbaud poetry encoded on the outside, to a grand Park Blocks edifice — albeit one surrounded by park sleepers and bus station characters.

School officials hope students will enliven the North Park blocks as they walk south to the Craft Museum and ArtHouse, the new student digs with washers, dryers and dishwashers in every unit.

Yothin Amnuayphol ran the coffee shop at the old building. On Monday, his vintage Citroen van, converted into the Yoburi Coffee food cart, was allowed to pull up to the steps of the new art school building and sell coffee, bagels and bento.

He’s a PNCA graduate who still dabbles in ceramic sculpture. That’s a reminder that art school may not lead to full-time jobs in art, and it exists in its own comfort zone. Weisenburger, the painting student, works for Amnuayphol (as well as doing work study). She prefers it to the busy, yuppie cafĂ© in the Pearl where she worked for two years.

“I got tired of being treated as subhuman by customers there.”

Gus Baum, PNCA’s Senior Director of Planning and Innovation, proudly showed off the building, which was built as a post office in 1919.

“The mail came in by horse and carriage to be sorted, at a time when electricity was rare and unreliable,” he says, explaining how the architect had sawtooth skylights uncovered and a new glass roof put in on the other side.

Much of the work was about returning natural light to the building. This involved removing dropped ceilings from various midcentury remodels (which were needed then to improve acoustics for office life) and restoring transom windows. The main east-west hallway, with its moldings and globe lights, feels like a PoMo Hogwarts. The tower section of the building houses classrooms, including a painting studio with huge windows and view north and east across the city.

The marble walls and floor tile have been saved, as have the gun safes that used to belong to the FBI. Even some of the dull metal doors from the 1950s have been deemed historic, as have some crime noir glass doors with decal lettering. The popular Animation School has its own sound studio — a metal box lined with acoustic foam. There are some rooms with large Apple computers, although students generally will be expected to bring their own screens.

Mostly, it’s about returning to 1919. It’s about taking an analog-era building and making it a place for Digital Natives to have face-to-face interaction, but with enough computers to get work done.

Not everything will look squeaky clean.

“This isn’t a true historic renovation project; this is the modernization of a building into an art school,” Baum says.

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cosplay fan and animation student Dahlia Cortez loves the schools new Schnitzer Center for Art and DesignThis means the guidelines, as laid down by the Department of the Interior and managed by the National Park Service, are not as strict as for a museum or famous public building. They are more about maintaining an authentic, nearly century-old look of the building from the outside.

The giant lanterns visible from Northwest Broadway will be relit and cleaned, but they proved too heavy to remove, and the curved glass was too hard to replace.

The mezzanine floor is thin, so it is not obvious from the street. The concrete slab is just eight inches thick, so it has to be supported by the cables, which, ironically, are visible from the street.

The challenge was to get people flowing into the main central space of the first and second floors. A mezzanine, a curved concrete rim held up by steel cables, will house an object study library and desks. It also provides a vantage point for people-watching.

The library will be three times larger than the one at Johnson Street, and will be open to the public.

“The more interaction and interface we have between the general public and what we’re doing here, the better off we’ll be,” Baum says.

But not too much.

Weisenburger has noticed some things are different.

“It’s not as come-and-go as the old campus,” she says. “We never had IDs and security guards before.”

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