Heritage Assets: Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Heritage Assets: Portland Center Stage at The Armory

The restoration and adaptive reuse of the Armory makes it the first LEED Platinum performing arts theatre on record

Spring 2020 | Written by Jeff Harder

The Armory in Portland underwent a $36 million renovation over 15 years. It is the first LEED Platinum building on the National Register of Historic Places.

Decade after decade, it was impossible not to notice The Armory, a behemoth of a building adorned with castle-like turrets and parapets lying just north of downtown Portland, Oregon.

First built as a 19th century training facility for the Oregon National Guard, the building devolved into whitewashed disrepair over decades, becoming one among many abandoned buildings and warehouses in a place that few had reason to visit. Even fewer had ever been inside the Armory, yet its Gothic Revival architecture made it an enduring local landmark.

“We used to call it the white castle,” says Cynthia Fuhrman, who first moved to Portland in the late 1980s. “Everyone knew this big, white castle was here, but most people in town didn’t even know what it was used for.”

Nearly a decade and a half after a $36.1 million transformation, however, The Armory is an essential part of Portland’s revitalized Pearl District neighborhood. As the 55,000-square-foot home to Portland Center Stage (PCS), the city’s largest professional theater company, where Fuhrman now serves as managing director, an ordinary year might see 150,000 attendees walk through brick arches facing 10th and 11th Avenues to take in a range of productions like “Cabaret,” “West Side Story” and “In the Heights,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that kicked off the most recent Portland Center Stage season to record crowds.

Left: Sharon Park is the associate director of The Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation for the Smithsonian Institution. Middle: Interior balconies of Mexico City’s historic town hall, Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento. Photo: Tania Victoria/Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México. Right: Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento. Photo: Tania Victoria/Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México

Beyond hosting 420 performances by Portland Center Stage, The Armory is also a popular community gathering space, presenting as many as 350 events a year, from art exhibitions to concerts to the occasional wedding. Meanwhile, in the green building realm, The Armory is adorned with superlatives: It’s the first LEED Platinum building on the National Register of Historic Places, the first LEED Platinum facility in Portland, and the first LEED Platinum performing arts facility on record.

More importantly, The Armory is a 129-year-old testament to an overlooked truth: Preserving historic buildings and pursuing sustainability can be perfect companions.

In fact, rather than being liabilities or obstacles to green development, historic buildings and other heritage assets can have major, inherent advantages when it comes to sustainability.

“You have to start with the embodied carbon footprint,” says Sharon Park, associate director of The Office Architectural History and Historic Preservation for the Smithsonian Institution. Park previously administered the National Park Service’s Historic Tax Credit program. “If you have a building that’s already built—whether it’s simply an existing building or a historic building—and you’re reusing the existing structure, that’s a huge offset for the carbon footprint compared to new construction. That’s a real incentive to renovate buildings, salvage materials, and repurpose and reuse them.”

Granted, not every old building is suitable for a sustainability-focused renovation. “It’s a very special team that will do [historic] preservation and LEED certification,” Park adds. “An owner has to decide that they’re going to balance preservation while upgrading for sustainability, and for the people who do it—well, my hat is off to them.”

However, old buildings—particularly preindustrial buildings—are frequently durable and timeless. Take Mexico City’s Antiguo Palacio del Ayuntamiento, a roughly 100,000-square-foot Baroque government building that was first constructed in 1527 and, almost 500 years later, became the first building in Latin America to achieve certification under LEED for Building Operations and Maintenance. Its bioclimatic character—with thick walls and two courtyards providing ventilation and natural lighting—was complemented by a roof renovation to reduce heat island effect, improvements in water and energy efficiency, and other upgrades.

Revitalizing historic buildings can also become points of community pride, contributing to a sense of place and telling a bigger story. “If we bought a lot of the same size and built a 55,000-square-foot building and put our theater in it, would we have the same success as being in The Armory? I don’t know,” Fuhrman says. “It just feels like being in The Armory and the sustainability aspects of the project have been so much a part of our brand, and have been a big part of the success of the theater company.”

In 1891, The Armory was first built as an annex for the Oregon National Guard, where guardsmen practiced maneuvers—and, at the underground firing range, marksmanship. (Each year, the National Guard still dispatches members to The Armory for a color guard ceremony.) The original layout comprised two wide-open stories under a roof held up by elegant arched trusses made of Douglas fir, all shielded behind an imposing red brick exterior.

Within a few years, however, it was reimagined as a community gathering space, hosting boxing matches, marching band rehearsals, and even speeches from presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, where crowds as large as 6,000 filled wooden bleachers. “We like to think that, in terms of performance and community conversation, back then there was a little bit of the DNA of what we do now,” Fuhrman says.

By the time the city’s fire marshal warned the building was unsafe in 1928, though, audiences had already begun flocking to the city’s new municipal auditorium, and The Armory began a decades-long decline. After the Blitz-Weinhard Brewery purchased the city block on which The Armory was sited in 1968, The Armory was mothballed.

By the turn of the 21st century, artists and young professionals began flocking to the surrounding area, generating new interest in the neighborhood and spurring the creation of The Brewery Blocks, a five-acre shopping, residential and business district. Redevelopment throughout the Pearl and River districts continued, but The Armory remained dormant and with an uncertain future.

Associate director Marissa Wolf (seated) and managing director Cynthia Fuhrman of the Portland Stage Company at the Armory.

Eventually, however, its local significance transformed into popular support. “The Armory was considered by all to be a treasure that had to be saved and repurposed,” says Phil Beyl, LEED AP and director at GBD Architects, the firm behind The Armory’s design. A key challenge, Beyl adds, was finding a suitable tenant. In 2002, after false starts with a series of retailers, the late Bob Gerding—co-founder of Gerding Edlen, the Portland-based real estate development firm behind The Brewery Blocks—had an epiphany: “Why not a theater?”

As it happened, Gerding sat on the board of Portland Center Stage, an independent theater company founded in 1988 as an offshoot of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. By the early 2000s, after years of putting on plays and musicals at outside venues like the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Portland Center Stage sought its own venue to foster further growth. Bob Gerding became a driving force behind the theater’s embrace of sustainability. “Gerding Edlen saw the greater good that a community resource like a theater could bring to their Brewery Blocks development,” says Beyl.

Gerding Edlen and GBD—which was also lead architect on each building in The Brewery Blocks—insisted on high building performance throughout the new development in Pearl District: three buildings in The Brewery Blocks are certified LEED Gold, and one is certified LEED Silver.

When it came to The Armory, the project team decided to aim even higher. “Early LEED analysis and brainstorming amongst the designers, builders and developers showed that we had a better than fighting chance to earn enough points for LEED Platinum,” says Beyl, who sits on the Portland Center Stage board of directors. “That was enough to establish Platinum as a primary goal for the project.” With Portland as a city at the vanguard of green building in the 2000s, those ambitions only spurred further excitement around the rehabilitation of such a recognizable property.

The Armory today performs 30% more efficiently than the building code specifies. The theatre company recycles and reuses as many materials as they can between the 420 performances it hosts throughout the year.

Since it was GBD’s first performing arts venue design commission, the firm teamed up with a leading theater designer for the restoration. The project’s $36.1 million cost was financed through what Fuhrman describes as a “complicated package,” including cash fundraising from donors, public investment, New Markets Tax Credits, and Federal Historic Tax Credits. In 2006, construction began in earnest.

Renovating a long-abandoned building from the 1890s brought a host of challenges. Since the design-build team couldn’t alter the building’s exterior walls, heavy equipment used for excavating inside had to be taken apart and reassembled before and after. “They called this the ship-in-the-bottle project,” Fuhrman says.

The Armory, because of its old indoor firing range, demanded extra effort with lead mitigation. Replacing the decayed roof was an even thornier obstacle. “We had to replace the original wood roof structure with a noncombustible assembly to enable the development of the Henry condominium building next door,” Beyl says. This became a point of contention while trying to secure critical tax credits. “It was a battle that raged for a long time before winning approval.”

During construction, crews diverted 95% of waste away from landfills and locally sourced significant portions of building materials. While the roof had to go, the project was able to salvage the original 1891 Douglas fir beams.

The building’s conversion took place during a five-year period when Fuhrman lived in Seattle. When she returned to Portland for the venue’s opening in 2006, she was astounded at its transformation. “To see the outside restored to its original red brick was beautiful, but also very historic. Then you walk through the front doors, and you’re struck by this super-modern environment of concrete, light and steel.”

The Armory is a testament to the idea that preserving historic buildings and pursuing sustainability are a perfect pairing.

Beyond combining postindustrial aesthetics on the exterior and a decidedly modern ambiance within, the theater facilities include the U.S. Bank Main Stage, a showpiece with 515 orchestra seats and 75 balcony seats, all with extra leg room. Two floors down, there’s the Ellen Bye Studio, a 199-seat space with a stage that can be reconfigured for a variety of layouts, including in-the-round seating. Other features of the facility include a two-floor public lobby, surrounding mezzanine, a costume shop and gallery spaces.

Throughout the building, the design incorporates a variety of sustainability features: a rainwater-collecting cistern that redirects graywater to flush the facility’s toilets, a chilled beam HVAC system, LEDs and automated skylights to maximize natural lighting, and ventilation outlets for the passive heating-cooling system on the floor of theater seats.

Integrating electrical, mechanical and information systems has led to The Armory performing 30% more efficiently than the building code specifies, along with changes in day-to-day operations. “[Usually] you build a set, put a show on stage, and when the show is over, you take the set apart, tear it up and throw it away,” Fuhrman says. “As a rule, we try to make sure we strip everything and recycle and reuse as much as we can.”

Fuhrman, who handled communications for the city’s Office of Sustainable Development before migrating to Portland Center Stage in 2008, saw visitors from as far as Russia, Hungary and Belgium visit the space specifically for its reputation in sustainability circles.

“Internationally, people were coming to Portland to learn about green building, and The Armory was always on their tour route.” Beyond LEED certification, the theater earned accolades from The Urban Land Institute, the American Council of Engineering Companies Oregon and Forbes magazine.

Individual historic assets have individual burdens, but when a structure has spent generations as a feature of the physical landscape, it finds a home in the community’s consciousness. “The Armory has been in Portland’s awareness for so long and had kind of an aura of mystery—nobody knew what it was, they hadn’t been inside it, or maybe their dad had gone inside a long time ago—and the excitement of seeing it come back to life has been huge for us,” Fuhrman says. “We do amazing theatrical productions, and we hope that’s the main reason people come in the building. But we actually know this from our audience surveys: There’s something exciting about walking into this giant, historic structure and being able to spend the evening here, having a different kind of experience.”

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