This Wednesday (August 11) at 12:30, I will be giving a talk in the outdoor courtyard of the Portland Art Museum (between the two buildings) as part of the “Midday Art & Cart” series. The talk will be devoted to the architecture of the two buildings and local food cart Koi Fusion (whose Korean tacos I love) will be serving lunch. The Art Museum is located on the South Park Blocks at 1219 SW Park Ave.
For those of you who can’t make it to the talk, I wanted to pass on what to me is one of the most interesting and personal narratives of the two buildings comprising the museum and the men who designed them. Both were talented, but one got famous while the other died tragically young.
Pietro Belluschi, the Italian native-turned Portlander who designed the principal PAM building (now renamed the Belluschi Building in his honor), is the famous name remembered today. After the Art Museum was built in 1932, it helped launch Belluschi to a celebrated career. His portfolio would come to include the Equitable Building, also in downtown Portland (known today as the Commonwealth), which is credited as the world’s first glass curtain walled office building, the forerunner of thousands of future glass and metal façades. Belluschi also gained fame for many midcentury modern house and church designs as well as the Pan Am Building (with Walter Gropius) and Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center in New York.
The Mark Building, which sits next door to the Belluschi Building, was originally built in 1924, just eight years earlier. Designed by native Portlander Frederick Fritsch who learned his trade at the celebrated firm Whidden & Lewis, it is everything its next door neighbor is not. And Fritsch unfortunately had a future afterward that was as short lived and tragic as Belluschi’s was long and successful.
Pietro Belluschi, 1958 (image courtesy Life magazine)
Fritsch, a Portland native, was just eight years older than Belluschi and had been a World War I veteran. Fritch also married Oregon’s first licensed architect female, Mary Goodin, in 1928. But unfortunately his life ended tragically early. He suffered from a painful illness that forced him to retire at the age of 38, in 1931. Which, ironically, was right about the time Belluschi’s building was being constructed. Fritsch wound up committing suicide five years later, although his wife lived to be 93.
Belluschi said in 1931 of the modern style he was fighting for the right to see built as the Portland Art Museum’s home that the “…standard mask called ‘style’, whether Georgian, Italian, or English, is just a bad formula, and only our lack of imagination has tolerated its application on buildings where a new set of ideas had to be given a new form....Let us not try to twist the body to fit the suit but let us build a new suit consistent with the body.”
The Masonic Temple didn’t just embrace a pre-existing historical style, but a whole array of them. The building itself may have been based partially on one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. It’s also got Greek influences in the stone colonnade and Persian influences in the window grilles. Then inside there were rooms with Moorish, Norman, and Louis the 16th styles.
Belluschi was clearly making a statement with his building that he’d wanted to go in a different direction than this design by Frederick Fritsch. It took an intervention from Frank Lloyd Wright on Pietro Belluschi’s behalf to convince the Art Museum’s board of trustees to approve what was then a boldly clean-lined and functional space. But more than 80 years later, the two architects’ work is still bound together. And since the Art Museum purchased the Masonic Temple in the 1990s and transformed it into the Mark Building in 2005, they share exhibit space and even an underground tunnel for a connection.
Although I believe the 2005 renovation and expansion by Ann Beha Architects could have been more of an interesting hybrid of old and new building, it was probably the right thing to do for the building to retain the Masonic Temple rather than tearing the building down to build an entirely new exhibit and gathering space, especially given that the latter building’s original ballrooms remain often used by the museum and the community. And one must not forget the practical fact that the expansion added several floors of natural light-filled space for viewing modern and contemporary art. Plus, the more you learn about the curious connection and divergent fates of Belluschi and Fritsch, the more the two buildings seem siblings.
It also goes to show that whatever the creative discipline, be it architecture, music or painting, while there are always a few iconic names who produce something lasting at a young age and are never heard from again, more often than not success is dependent on survival, and having the opportunity to put in years and years of work to make yourself a success. It wasn't a coincidence that Pietro Belluschi got that Art Museum commission. He'd been a museum member for years before his building was completed. He'd also left Italy for America at a young age and, despite his old-world personal elegance, worked his way up the ranks as a student at Cornell and then a young immigrant in Portland. Belluschi earned everything he got as a legendary architect, but unlike Frederick Fritsch, fate also gave him the opportunity.