BY BRIAN LIBBY
Dear readers, I feel like I owe you an apology.
Here I am, passing myself off for the past 18 years or so as someone who knows and has experienced the best of Portland's architecture. And yet I have to make a confession: last week I entered a downtown Portland building I had never been inside, and it wowed me enough to ask myself, "Why I haven't I been here until now?"
Portland is a small city, and I would have thought I'd visited all the architectural gems in the downtown core. But the First National Bank building at SW Fifth Avenue and Harvey Milk Street (formerly Stark) was waiting for me all these years. It took ZGF's remodeling and re-imagination of this 1916 building, first designed by Boston firm Coolidge and Shattuck, to get me inside. It's now known as Expensify, and it's not simply a faithful restoration of a wonderful work of Beaux Arts architecture. The design inserts contemporary spaces into the Beaux Arts shell, making Expensify in many respects a hybrid of new and old. But it's a limited hybrid, because except for a pair of floating conference rooms in the back of the building, and a few surface material changes, the architects largely let the original First National Bank building (which was also formerly known as the Oregon Pioneer Savings building, and more recently was a Bank of the West) continue on as its resplendent self.
One of the reasons that I've paid relatively little attention to this building is it stands within a block or two of some other early 20th century bank buildings that also possess a kind of heroic classicism: the US National Bank building from 1917 at Broadway and Stark and the Bank of California building from 1925, both of which were designed by the top local architect of the early 20th century: AE Doyle. But that ought not to have been an excuse, because while the First National Bank wasn't designed by Doyle, Coolidge and Shattuck had just as much pedigree if not more. The firm was first founded by the iconic 19th century architect Henry Hobson Richardson, part of the so-called holy trinity of American architecture along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Richardson died in 1886, so Shattuck and Coolidge was its successor, but still was responsible for landmarks like the Art Institute of Chicago, the original quad and buildings at Stanford University, and a host of train stations around the country.
The other reason I've probably stayed away from First National until a few days ago is that perhaps even more than most such Beaux Arts bank buildings, this one seems to say, "Keep out." From the street, it's very hard to see inside, so the building's Greek ionic columns and white marble cladding seem to almost act as the fencing for a fortress.
However, a few seconds after entering what's now called the Expensify headquarters, the expletives started to pour from my mouth like a drunken sailor in a perfect storm.
The four-story building's signature feature is a three-story atrium that begins on the second floor. It was a little strange to enter the building and first come to a dark ground floor with relatively low ceilings that was empty and has not been renovated at all. It's being saved for a later phase of Exensify's renovation when this quickly growing app company needs more space. But those ground-floor spaces are to the left and right as you enter, and a new wide, steel and oak-clad stairway is there to extend an invitation upstairs, into the atrium.
To be honest, I had no idea such a big atrium was inside this building. And it's not just that it's a three-story volume. The entire roof is a skylight, calling to mind a Victorian railway station. The offices wrap this atrium, with only glass and more huge Greek columns separating them so sunlight pours in from above and from the north and (to a lesser extent) the east. So often with renovating old buildings and houses with such architectural pedigree the question becomes how to introduce more natural light. That's not a problem at Expensify. Even the front facade, despite not being one you can see through well from the street, drinks in light thanks to 18-foot-tall windows on the second floor screened by X-patterned bronze grilles. Inside, the patterned grilles create beautiful geometric shadow patterns.
There are two major contemporary additions to the First National Bank's original architecture. One of them, a catwalk-like bridge across the third floor, was added decades ago. ZGF's intervention was to add two metal-clad, glass-faced contemporary boxes that function as small, quiet meeting spaces and connect to multiple floors with stairways tucked behind them. Nicknamed treehouses, the boxes are cantilevered from the back wall, with usable space (including even a swing) underneath. It makes for a striking juxtaposition to see these boxes amidst the three-story Beaux Arts volume, but each one makes you appreciate the other. In particular, I enjoyed how being in these boxes or the stairways just behind them allows you to get an up-close view of some of the old building's details, such as a brass-plated clock along the upper back wall or the curvy ornamentation at the top of an ionic column.
If you work in a three or four-story space shaped like a square donut, I'm sure being able to take a shortcut across the donut hole saves a lot of steps. But it's a little unfortunate that the first bridge couldn't have been removed when ZGF's contemporary boxes and stairs were added. The latter renders the former somewhat obsolete.
Yet it would be a mistake to suggest that this project is anything but a winner. As a recent Architectural Record feature made note, throughout there is a "thoughtful rigor" to how new and old intersect, and a remarkable attention to detail.
"For example, patterns of oak leaves and acorns on the historic bank vault doors led to the selection of oak for flooring and millwork," James Gauer writes. "The boardroom paneling pattern and the gabled pavilion tops refer to the classical X motifs in balustrades and grilles. The juxtaposition of gold leaf and dark bronze inspired a metalwork palette of brass and blackened steel. And vertical window proportions informed the glazing of the 'treehouse' conference rooms. All of this was executed with a high level of craft."
What's also interesting about Expensify is the approach to office design. In essence, this project extends the open-office concept to its natural conclusion. Whereas most open offices shink down the size of workstations to gain additional communal space, removing cubicles and discouraging personalization of any one little desk, Expensify eliminates the desk altogether.
Working here seems like working in the library of a prestigious East Coast college. Employees sit at a long communal table where laptops are okay but no desktop computers with large monitors. I was told by on ZGF'er on my tour that Expensify's CEO wants to encourage face-to-face ineraction and discourage people from looking at big screens all day. There are a variety of places where one can go to work with a laptop: not just the big communal tables but assorted couches and club chairs, a cafe, and a series of enclosed pods on the third floor that are almost like little Monopoly houses carved out of wood. But there is no group of desks to be found anywhere.
When I explained this to my partner, who works in the corporate world, her first question was, "You mean they won't allow any dual monitors? I couldn't work like that." I have never used dual monitors, but it's a reasonable point. Still, I do like the principle Expensify is pursuing. There has been a lot of push-back in recent years against open-plan offices, but I suspect that pushback is partly about transitioning from sizable cubicles to small impersonal desks.
It sounds almost counter-intuitive, but could the elimination of desks altogether change that conversation? In a way, it could make people frustrated with their shrinking desks even more frustrated with not having a desk at all. Yet on the other hand, perhaps it could make the desk conversation obsolete and transition more fully the idea of what an office is.
About five days after visiting the project, I find myself wondering: what other great architectural spaces in Portland have I missed? I mean, surely there are any number of great houses I haven't been to. But Expensify is a reminder that even after nearly two decades, I can still stumble upon something unseen and sublime. A job like mine, writing about and commenting on architecture, always implies a certain expertise. Yet today I'm reminded of something an Oregonian editor once said to me: that our job is to learn in public. Somehow I both do and don't hope there are more undiscovered First National Banks out there, because it would mean I'm really not on top of things like I thought I was, but that there are still opportunities to be surprised and delighted.