This week, the Pacific Northwest College of Art will throw open the doors of a brand new building — or rather, an old building that’s been given new life.
It’s the historic federal building that towers stately over the intersection of Northwest Broadway and Glisan. Built in 1918 as the central post office, it’s housed an alphabet soup of federal agencies over the years. Among the oddities construction crews have come across: massive built-in combination safes for Customs Court, detention cells once used to house detainees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and enough acoustic ceiling tile to roof a small city.
Starting Monday, 511 Broadway will now house five hundred-plus art students.
PNCA President Tom Manley says “I actually first went into that building, I think around 2003 or 2004. The General Service Administration was trying to drum up interest among community organizations” who might be interested in using the building.
Manley’s first thought? “This is a really big building, and it needs a lot of work.” So Manley worked it. Ten years and $35 million later, the building is almost ready.
Our tour started at the top: a large white room with big windows that showed panoramic views of the bridges below and the mountains in the distance.
Project administrator Gus Baum has overseen the re-construction of the building, which PNCA
has christened the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design. He led us through the gilded Italian Renaissance Corridor at the heart of the building. , through the marble-faced hallways, and ornately carved wooden staircases.
“Because of time period when this was built, it was organized around light. The northern orientation allows for a tremendous amount of light to come throughout he building.”
Prize-winning architect Brad Cloepfil and his team at Allied Works dealt with these challenges, and the larger issue of the building’s essential character. “[The college] gave us all their needs, but as far as the architecture, we had to find it.” Cloepfil said. “It was a matter of an exploration.”
On finding the building’s character in a modern context: “I tried to find something in the building that was new, so people would know it had been touched. It was a historic building and a lot of it was restoration, taking things out. It was a matter of finding out where the possibilities for new space were. When we got into the analysis of the building, it seemed clear that the intersection between old sorting section and the tower was the place you could reveal old and new, we opened up the building in some way.”
On shaping the building’s central hub, housing commons areas, workspace, and libraries: “We discovered we could add the mezzanine, which is a curved form. We inserted this whole new floor, curved, suspended by cables, that’s the new piece woven into the old piece. ANd then, by opening up the atrium, you can see it all. We wanted an identity space for the building, so you’d know this is PNCA, the heart and soul of the building.”
On wrapping up the project’s process: “We’ve worked with PNCA for ten years now - it’s just exciting to be involved with a school and watch PNCA evolve… that’s been thrilling. And the project itself - if my career began with Wieden + Kennedy, finding a new building in an old building, then this is kind of the same legacy, trying to find the spirit in a historic piece. More than anything else, I think having PNCA in the Park blocks, in that end of the city is fantastic. it’s going to change that whole end of town.”
Here’s more from PNCA President Tom Manley on the project’s backstory.
Why move to the old post office?
We’ve been growing quite wrote a bit for the last ten years. About ten years ago we had 250 students. We’re now over 500. The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design will al low us to double out square footage in our main campus building. [Prior to the move] main campus is 65-thousand square feet. This [new home for PNCA] would be 140-thousand square feet.”
The building was donated by the federal government, and passed through by the city of Portland, which is leasing the structure to PNCA for $1 per year. That left PNCA $15 million to raise for restoration. Was it difficult to raise the money for the project?
Fundraising in a post-recession environment was challenging. We started lining up the project before 2012, and launched in 2012. $15 million may not seem like a lot but it’s always a challenge. We got the $15 million point three weeks ago. That’s 2.5 years before the campaign concludes. We feel really proud of that. We have good momentum to keep going and take care of some housewarming projects that we’ll have when we move in, and raise dollars to reduce long-term debt.
Why keep raising funds if you’ve already passed your goal?
We have lots of needs at the college. We probably will line up another campaign to meet more of those needs - scholarships, endowed chairs for faculty… the more we do now to make this the most hospitable center, we should.
Whats your idea for access to the building beyond the needs of students?
The conception since beginning was that first two floors would be semi-public spaces… the building is physically and programmatically as a platform….
What happens to to the old main campus building now?
We sold this building to a Seattle-based company. They’re planning to tear it down and put up two towers, residential and office. Some said ‘Oh, that’s terrible!’ If we could have afforded to hold onto this, we would have. But selling this allowed us to reduce the cost of borrowing and make this other project (511 Broadway) possible. We sold this building for close to $11 million. We paid for what we owed on it, and had about $7 million to put toward the [new] project.