BY BRIAN LIBBY
It occurred to me on a recent tour of the renovated Washington High School that it belongs to a constellation of old buildings across the city that, while of disparate origins and original purposes, have now been transformed into offices for creative companies. Unless you’re a law firm or a major corporation or a government agency, to locate in a downtown office tower almost seems passé, while holding court in, say, a former automobile factory (the Ford Building) or cereal mill (Olympic Mills Commerce Center) or jazz club (Leftbank Building) is the mark of a creative company locating creatively.
Today the restored Washington High, a public school that first opened in 1924 (after its predecessor was destroyed by fire) and saw such alumni as Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling and pioneering food writer/chef James Beard matriculate within its doors, is a very different place from the original house of learning and the abandoned structure of a decade ago—not so much in terms of changed architecture as its better condition and improved vibe.
SERA Architects, which designed the renovation, took the right approach, one that was largely hands-off in terms of the aesthetics that made the building special, while still quietly adding new amenities. The building includes new heating and cooling, for example, as well as new plumbing, new electrical service, a new freight elevator, and is fully ADA-accessible.
When I first visited Washington High before the renovation, in 2005, it was set to become a refugee center for victims of Hurricane Katrina. I’m usually terrible about volunteering, but I remember scrubbing windows and hallway lockers there while thinking about the thousands of Louisianans disposed, and wondering what, if anything, the building might someday become. In 2009 I visited the school again, this time while it served as a location for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival. But for a time, a permanent purpose remained elusive.
Finally, after receiving a US Department of Housing and Urban Development grant for $665,000, in April 2009, an advisory committee was appointed by Portland Commissioner Nick Fish to develop the scope and program for the facility. The City of Portland spent a few years afterward exploring the use of WHS (which in 1978 merged with Monroe High and became known as Washington-Monroe High School) as a community center, which fell through.
But it was the late developer and historic preservationist Art DeMuro of Venerable Properties who made the current renovation happen after it sat vacant for decades. DeMuro passed away in 2012 before Washington High’s renovation could be fully realized, but the team at Venerable has certainly honored his legacy with the completion of this project.
Today the restored WHS is serving as the headquarters for local progressive grocery chain New Seasons (which occupies about a third of the building) as well as a host of other companies, such as Struck, Murmur Creative and Walker Tracker. Many of these smaller businesses, on the 23,000 square foot ground floor, have their own entrances. But part of the attraction to locating in this former high school is a sense of shared community and shared energy that comes to its 50,000 square feet of creative offices. A 2,600 square foot rooftop deck, for example, is an ideal party space.
There is also Revolution Hall, which was borne from the school’s former auditorium but is also gaining traction as a small venue attracting music, comedy and variety acts from the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band to comedian Marc Maron to National Public Radio’s “Live Wire!” show. Its wraparound seating makes it a spot for music, theater and much more.
Entering the brick building, which was designed in the classical revival style by architecture firm Houghtaling & Dougan with detailing such as a series of glazed terra cotta lions’ heads over the entrance and roman columns in front (etched with quotes about education from philosophers and famous politicians), it initially seems surprisingly unchanged.
Walking up the staircase, for example, one is greeted by the original display case, which still houses mementos from the school such as Rose Festival princesses and winning sports teams. (Besides Pauling and Beard, WHS’s alumni roster also includes former Seattle Seahawks coach Jack Patera.) The original lockers still are affixed to the walls of the wide hallways, which teem with natural light. Even the original IBM clocks still hang on the walls.
Even as I moved into the offices and a corner of the downstairs converted to a bar as part of the Revolution Hall build-out, they felt relatively unchanged from the old classrooms. The bar lists its microbrew offerings on an old chalkboard, and the main New Seasons conference room was simply created by adjoining two classrooms.
In the years ahead, it will be interesting to see how the surrounding neighborhood transforms. To the east is the Buckman neighborhood of single-family homes, and due to its centrality, it is already gentrifying fast. To the west, however, is the Central Eastside, which is changing just as much. Lower Morrison and Belmont Streets are already home to renovation projects like the Yale Union art museum and Grand Central Bowl, as well as eateries like Bunk Sandwiches. There is also talk of large new apartment and condominium projects, which could bring added foot traffic but also bring new challenges of parking and rising rents. But it’s not Washington High School’s responsibility to enact the right balance of neighborhood progress and livability.
The good news is that while it never became the community center that the city explored, it nevertheless has become a building that attracts people. And for that it earns a high grade. The same energy that once inspired great scientists and chefs and athletes can live on—only now you don’t need a hall pass.