“DON’T PICK AT IT TOO HARD,” Keller Auditorium operations director Ed Williams said jokingly as I ran my finger along one of the building’s sidewalk-level façade panels, made of beveled quartz over concrete. “That started to deteriorate practically while they were installing it.”
“If you look closely you’ll see lots of the panels have had to be reattached with pins,” added City of Portland spectator venues manager Karl Lisle.
Our tour hadn’t even begun, yet this venue’s age and deterioration were already apparent. So too, though, was a still-striking urban setting. A few minutes before meeting up with my tour guides, I’d arrived early to take in the wondrous Ira Keller Fountain across the street—the most acclaimed work of design in Portland’s history—its urban waterfall back in operation after months with the water turned off.
This portion of downtown, heretofore known as the South Auditorium District, has recently been rebranded as the Fountain District, yet both names are incomplete. It’s the auditorium-fountain combo that anchors what’s otherwise a place of parking garages and drop-ceilinged office buildings, creating a sense of place. If Keller Auditorium is noticeably run-down, its setting remains compelling—which a refresh would only enhance—and its role in this corner of downtown is vital.
If the preamble outside Keller Auditorium and its decaying quartz was grim, the tour’s first indoor stop inside made me giddy: a chance to go behind the curtain and stand on Oregon’s largest performance stage, peering out at its 3,000 seats. Over the next hour, that duality only continued: beautiful vistas and curious historical features alternating with facility and space deficiencies highlighted. “There’s some big choices that need to be made about reinvesting in Keller or perhaps replacing it,” said Lisle from the stage. “I want to make sure you leave this tour understanding how the building is put together structurally, which is one of its biggest deficiencies, but not its only deficiency. It’s extremely obsolete in a lot of ways.”
Three Options, One Conundrum
IF CITIES DEMOLISHED prominent concert halls and auditoriums whenever they were threatened by structural and physical issues, we’d have no Carnegie Hall in New York, no Royal Albert Hall in London. We can probably all agree that Keller Auditorium is not at those landmarks’ level of architectural excellence. Its setting and its bones mean that there is great potential here, at a time when downtown needs its cultural landmarks more than ever. Yet to close Keller for repairs would be to turn off the revenue stream that makes such investments possible. And it would be a quintessential historic-preservation folly: to dismiss the 50-year-old building even as we appreciate 100-year-old buildings. Yet the Keller is both.
Opened in 1917 as the Public Auditorium and designed by New York’s Freedlander & Seymour, the building was rebuilt at its half-century mark, reopening as Civic Auditorium in 1968. Now an additional 54 years have gone by, meaning Keller Auditorium (as it was renamed in 2000) is overdue for its makeover. With Oregon Ballet Theater and the Portland Opera calling this venue home, and with the hall regularly hosting Broadway tours, this is a busy venue despite its age and blemishes. And after the release this year of a City of Portland-commissioned engineering study by Miller Consulting Engineers that cited the need for approximately $120 million in seismic retrofitting, there’s a sense of urgency.
But there’s also a conundrum. A more substantial Keller Auditorium rehab is on the table, estimated at $215 million (and reducing capacity to 2,500), but so too is the possibility of replacing Keller Auditorium with an entirely new venue in a different location, estimated at $245 million in construction costs (and not including the potential cost of buying land, or of demolishing the Keller).
“We’re wanting to keep our minds open, to really hear what people say and think about the Keller and long-term needs, spend more time really delving into the options because we really haven’t done that,” Robyn Williams (no relation to Ed), executive director at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts, told me after the tour.
Downtown Portland’s relatively small blocks mean the Keller doesn’t have much loading-dock space, and compared to a modern concert hall, its back-of-house facilities are cramped and utilitarian at best. Yet what’s really driving consideration of replacing the Keller with a new auditorium elsewhere is that the City of Portland can’t afford to lose the booking money lost during a shutdown, which can’t be covered by existing venues like Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
“You couldn’t do a Broadway show at the Schnitz—the stage is much smaller. So the Keller is really important. It’s where P5 makes the money that we need to help subsidize the use of our venues by local nonprofits,” Robyn Williams added. “It’s really the venue that makes or breaks us. If Keller suddenly just evaporated and there was nothing to take its place, we would be in really deep financial trouble.” To renovate the existing Keller, “We’re probably talking at least two years of shutdown and that’s a huge financial loss. If the decision was, ‘Let’s renovate,’ we would have to figure out how we keep operating. How does P-5 survive?”
Yet there’s also a group of property owners near the Keller who commissioned their own engineering study, and believe there’s a way to rebuild without total shutdown. Before we rebuild or tear down the Keller, there’s a lot to unpack.
Big Stage and a Fountain
THIS SOUTHERN PORTION OF DOWNTOWN PORTLAND is rich in history, but much of it is covered by concrete and asphalt. Across Clay Street from Keller Auditorium’s northern border, where the KOIN Center now stands, a century ago was the home of celebrated women’s-rights leader Abigail Scott Duniway and the headquarters of her Equal Suffrage Association. To the south of Keller Auditorium is the South Auditorium urban renewal area, which in the mid-20th century wiped away a neighborhood of mostly immigrants, including the families of legendary artist Mark Rothko and cartoon-voice artist Mel Blanc.
Going further back to when the Public Auditorium opened in 1917, it enjoyed a dramatic setting at the southern edge of the Great Light Way, an illuminated series of arches over Third Street meant to emphasize this, not Seventh Street (later renamed Broadway), as downtown’s retail spine. The Public was also the city’s first major standalone performance venue; before that, the First Regiment Armory Annex had scheduled events between marching drills. The Public, or the Municipal Auditorium, as it was soon renamed, served as the Oregon Symphony’s original home, and boasted one of the west’s largest pipe organs. During the pandemic of 1918, the venue actually served as a quarantine site and, unfortunately, a temporary morgue. Perhaps even more grimly, this building hosted a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1921. For the next four decades, though, on its stage were a succession of memorable concerts, plays and more mainstream politicians’ oratory. Jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Stan Kenton played on live albums recorded there, as did rockers Tom Petty and Neil Young. President Harry Truman spoke there in 1948, and so did President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, as well as soon-to-be elected John F. Kennedy on a campaign stop in 1960.
Reopened as Civic Auditorium in 1968, now in a Brutalist architectural style by Keith Maguire of the Portland architectural firm Stanton, Boles, Maguire and Church, one of the reborn venue’s first big bookings was rock’s Led Zeppelin. But to borrow from one of the band’s early hits, New York Times architecture critic Ada-Louise Huxtable certainly didn’t have a “Whole Lotta Love” for the building when she visited in 1970, calling Civic Auditorium “a building of unrelieved blandness.”
Yet the Civic was no lead balloon. With its enlarged stage, touring Broadway shows filled the auditorium’s calendar, as I saw first-hand in 1979, as a seven-year-old, attending with my mom a performance of the hit musical The Wiz. Be it concerts or musical theater, this was the city’s principal major-concert venue, still more than a decade before the Paramount Theater was renovated into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and the adjacent Portland Center for the Performing Arts was constructed in the 1980s, collectively re-establishing Broadway. If Civic lost luster after those competitors took its most high-profile acts, it still had the Keller Fountain—or as it was known originally, the Forecourt Fountain.
Designed by the great San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin in collaboration with Angela Danadjieva, his lead designer, the fountain is credited with ushering in a whole new era of landscape architecture in America, inspired by nature yet rendered in a modernist language: a kind of cubist Cascade waterfall in the center of the city. With Halprin’s Lovejoy Fountain Park and Pettygrove Park to the south, the Forecourt Fountain was the end of a processional, culminating at this two-block public space with fountain and auditorium. While she may have disliked Civic Auditorium, Huxtable called the Forecourt Fountain upon its 1970 opening “perhaps one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.”
If city leaders decided to build a new Keller Auditorium on a different site, it would be severely damaging to the neighborhood, which is otherwise a place of mostly parking garages and offices. What would it do to Keller Fountain Park? Instead of the forecourt to a people’s auditorium, it could become the foreground to a condo.
All this was on my mind as the tour began in earnest, upstairs. After briefly pausing to look out at the fountain and the West Hills from the wall of third-floor lobby glass, we saw the spotlight projection booth above the last row of seating, its walls signed by countless production crew over the years: Cats in 1987, Evita in 1983, the Joffrey ballet in ’89, West Side Story in ’95 and Anything Goes in 2013. We saw modest dressing rooms, and a very small VIP space with soft lighting on concrete-block walls. We peered at giant industrial fans pushing conditioned air into the auditorium, and walls of control panels for the house lights. Then we stepped into the asbestos-covered attic above the auditorium’s distinctive geometric ceiling. “It’s handmade plaster, and it’s essentially one very heavy piece,” Lisle explained. “It’s suspended from the old 1917 roof by wires. From a structural perspective, that’s bad. In a seismic event, the ceiling will start to swing back and forth, break apart and fall onto the floor.”
The 2016 Ideas Competition
KELLER AUDITORIUM’S RENOVATION NEEDS were already apparent in 2016, when John Russell of Russell Development Company, who owns the dark-glass-ensconced 200 Market office building across the street, brought together a group of nearby property owners seeking ways to enliven the neighborhood. They agreed with the City of Portland to create a local improvement district that helped raise $2.15 million of a $4 million Open Space Sequence refurbishment, including Keller Fountain.
The group next sponsored a Keller Auditorium design-ideas competition, meant to encourage action and raise awareness. Known as “Marking Keller,” the competition was won by London’s StuFish Entertainment Architects in partnership with Portland production designer Michael Curry; renderings showed the auditorium with a newly enlarged lobby stretching across a closed-to-traffic Third Avenue toward the fountain.
Now that the City of Portland has kicked off a conversation about Keller Auditorium’s future, the competition’s sponsors want to turn renderings into reality. “Our goal is to build a 22nd century entertainment facility here,” said Scott Andrews, president of commercial real estate broker Melvin Mark, which is headquartered a few blocks from the Keller. “We believe you can do it quicker and a lot less expensive in that existing building than you can by building a new one.”
The Keller renovation idea also brings with it a potential for public-private partnership. That’s important given that city budgets are strapped. “We’ve been told many times in the past that there’s no money [for a Keller renovation],” said former Halprin Landscape Conservancy and Pioneer Courthouse Square executive director Karen Whitman, a member of the Russell-assembled group seeking a Keller renovation. “We have approached this whole thing as a public-private partnership, saying specifically, ‘We’re here, we’ll split it with you.’”
In return, they want to turn the StuFish/Curry idea and its renderings into a full-fledged design that’s an official option alongside a basic seismic stabilization, a bigger renovation, full replacement on the same site, and replacement on a different site.
“Our plea to [City of Portland chief administrative officer] Michael Jordan is that we develop a schematic design so that these decisions [about the Keller] can be made with full knowledge,” John Russell says. “The city and Metro would never do a brand new building without a schematic plan that they agreed on, because the schematic tells you what you’re going to get. But nobody’s done that with the Keller. So everybody is dealing with ignorance.”
The StuFish design proposal has even received $200,000 from Metro to explore further. “They believe in it,” Russell says. “But an equal contribution from the private sector ought to give the politicians cover: that they’re investing alongside people. Put their money where their mouth is.”
What may be more likely than making the StuFish/Curry design an official fourth option is to give the design (in a more advanced form) candidacy alongside other entrants if a decision to renovate the Keller is made. What could an acclaimed architect like Portland’s Brad Cloepfil do with Keller, or a world-renowned architect known for great concert halls like Italy’s Renzo Piano, Norway’s Snøhetta (a firm that has already worked in Portland), or Switzerland’s Herzog & De Meuron? Perhaps Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who designed the Portland Japanese Garden’s new campus in 2017, would seize the opportunity, especially after having designed the Tokyo Olympics stadium. If the Times’s Huxtable was right about Civic being bland, in the right architectural hands, the auditorium’s middling modernism could give way to something more inspired. And because of the Keller Fountain’s presence, the chance to redesign Keller Auditorium could attract major talents.
Marking Keller was managed by Portland architect Donald Stastny, who has managed design competitions for high-profile projects like the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the Oklahoma City National Memorial. But it was an earlier, local project—Pioneer Courthouse Square—that taught Stastny a lesson about borders.
“We realized that the square wasn’t defined by the property. It really included the right of way around it and it went from building face to building face,” Stastny recalled. “It has a sense of place within the city as opposed to an artifact within the city. And I think that’s the same type of thing that needs to happen here: the placemaking part of it, which has to do it with the surrounding buildings and uses as opposed to just keeping it focused on the auditorium itself.”
Seismic and “Nearly Everything”
ALTHOUGH THE FOCUS of StuFish and Michael Curry’s 2016 concept design was an enlarged lobby, it also included seismic bracing added to the exterior. This turned out to be prophetic given that seismic issues are now providing the impetus for a renovation/replacement conversation. “They didn’t know any details about the seismic report, because it hadn’t been written yet,” Russell said of the designers. “But they were smart enough to realize if there’s a seismic problem, that’s how to solve it.” Marking Keller’s backers commissioned an accompanying structural engineering study by Portland’s Grummel Engineering, whose founder, Robert Grummel, has helped seismically stabilize several downtown unreinforced-masonry buildings. Grummel found that Keller could be seismically reinforced without closing down the auditorium by creating an exterior exoskeleton.
That’s why Russell, Andrews and their aligned renovation-supporting property owners were shocked by the City of Portland-commissioned engineering report, which concluded a full shut-down would be necessary during any potential renovations. It wasn’t that a different diagnosis was being made by the two engineer-consultants (although the Russell group questions Miller’s use of static modeling rather than the dynamic modeling to reach its conclusions). It’s that engineers were operating under different directives.
The exoskeleton idea wasn’t considered as a potential solution by the City of Portland when commissioning the Miller Consulting Engineers study, because the exoskeleton solution would have pushed a few feet beyond the property line, necessitating widened sidewalks and the loss of either curbside parking spots or an automobile lane (of which Market has four at this location). But Lisle believes the exoskeleton-and-property-line disagreement has been blown out of proportion, because this isn’t just about seismic need.
“I don’t really think there’s a disconnect. I think that what you’re seeing is they are very concerned about losing the Keller from their neighborhood, so they’re trying to advance the renovation scheme, maybe enhanced by a different engineering approach. And that’s totally legitimate,” Lisle said in a follow-up interview after the tour.
While he acknowledges the city directed Miller to work within the site, Lisle is skeptical of the exoskeleton approach as a magic bullet negating the need for extended closure during construction. “The folks who have this exoskeleton idea are saying that would be less intrusive than removing the existing structural walls and replacing them. That’s probably true,” Lisle said. “Looking at the theatre as a whole and its functionality, though, it became really clear that it isn’t just the structural system. It’s nearly everything in that building needing to be replaced and redone and changed dramatically.”
Building A Better Keller
IN ADDITION TO THE ENGINEERING STUDY, the City of Portland also commissioned Seattle’s LMN Architects (in tandem with theater consultants The Shalleck Collaborative) to explore how to make the Keller as close to a state-of-the-art theater as possible.
“They were proposing really major changes,” Lisle recalled. “The stage was going to be raised, the orchestra level was going to be tied into the first balcony, and there was going to be a whole new floor built in the middle of the theater. All the seats would be replaced and all everything in the interior would be replaced. There was also a whole new dressing-room tower and loading dock, and tons of new stuff all around. There’s no way you can use the theater if you’re completely replacing everything inside it. It doesn’t make a bit of sense. The structural piece of it was maybe 25 percent. We’re going to be making sure that if there is an investment being made in that building, that it really is improving the whole building. It’s going to serve us for 40 or 50 more years.”
Indeed, if Keller Auditorium is to be renovated, it would be a huge missed opportunity not to address its less-than stellar acoustics and spatial qualities. With 3,000 seats, any sort of intimacy is difficult, but Keller’s relatively long throw to the back of the house, and the ample distance between stage and seats, don’t help. There are ways to create greater intimacy without losing seating capacity, such as with more seats to the sides, wrapping the stage. And while new digital sound systems can do wonders to enliven the sound of a wide-open barn like the Keller, as was the case Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with upgraded sound, a renovation could also employ many subtle physical design techniques to create a fuller sound and allow the actors and performers onstage to be heard more easily.
LET’S SAY THE CITY OF PORTLAND did decide to renovate Keller Auditorium extensively, necessitating a prolonged closure even with an exoskeleton-based seismic stabilization. Where could a large enough temporary stage be built, so that essential Keller revenue stream isn’t lost?
One option might be Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which isn’t meant for Broadway but has over its 60-year history hosted countless big concerts, including a 1972 performance by Led Zeppelin, the same band that played Civic four years earlier. (Which is to say nothing of a venue history that also includes The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac and, more recently, Jay-Z.) The Coliseum’s two stages aren’t Keller-sized, but arena stages are by their nature temporary, and building a larger temporary stage would seem very doable, if necessarily claiming a few rows of seats on either side.
For goodness sake: in 1974, Evel Knievel set a world record at the Coliseum by jumping over 17 Ford vans in front of 8,000 spectators. Could RuPaul’s Drag Race and The Nutcracker (to name two 2022 Keller bookings) not squeeze into the same space?
Near the Coliseum stands another temporary option: the Oregon Convention Center. Maybe you’re used to attending trade shows here or getting a Covid vaccine, but the OCC also hosts seated events attracting thousands of ticket-buyers. Remember the 2016 World Indoor Championships held there? There was room for a 200-meter track and 8,000 spectators. Keller’s stage would take up far less than that track, and its 3,000-seat capacity could be met and doubled.
Another option would be to follow the Cirque du Soleil model, as seen many a past year on the vacant Zidell Yards property: a huge tent. After all, a stage is just a series of fiberglass or wood panels laid out in a flat surface. A theater is just a stage with rows of seating.
Contemplating a New Auditorium Elsewhere
EVEN SO, LET’S ALSO CONSIDER the possibility of an entirely new auditorium on a different site. Where might that be? When I posed that question to Lisle and Williams, neither was willing to name specific locations. But the Lloyd District is one obvious possibility, perhaps on the site of the mall itself. Less than a mile to the south, the Central Eastside is another option, perhaps near or part of the ambitious mixed-use development planned for OMSI’s surrounding property beside Tilikum Crossing and its MAX stop. Back on the downtown side of the bridge, there’s also the former Zidell Marine Company barge-building facility right in the South Waterfront district. Or perhaps the auditorium could go farther away from the central city. After all, the highly popular Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, in Beaverton, has demonstrated a growing public interest in suburban arts facilities. Why not go halfway, at some other transit-connected location like, say, Gateway in outer Northeast?
Starting from scratch is the most expensive option, so there would have to be a plan for more than just a new auditorium itself. That means perhaps selling the air rights above the facility, be it a hotel, condos, apartments, or offices. Yet the farther one gets from the central city, the less that kind of density makes financial sense. “You can get into all sorts of different public-private partnerships if you’re starting from scratch on a larger site,” Lisle said. “And I think there would be interest in that.”
Naming rights would be another ingredient in a new auditorium elsewhere, which is something that Keller Auditorium probably can’t take advantage of; or rather, the city already has. While it’s true that Ira Keller, for whom the building is named, played a crucial role in its development as well as the fountain and the broader South Auditorium urban renewal district, the City of Portland didn’t simply decide to honor Keller on its own. In 2000, Ira Keller’s son, Richard B. Keller, paid $1.5 million in a naming-rights sponsorship. That means that a renovated Keller Auditorium would not be renamed as, say, Precision Castparts Opera House or Mattress World Music Hall. But at a successor site it could. And if a Keller renovation might be considered attractive to world-class architects, a blank slate at the right site might be even more tantalizing.
Either Way, Go Big
LET’S FACE IT: Keller Auditorium has never been great. Its acoustics have received more negativity than praise. Viewing the front of the building, it’s handsome yet short of beautiful. On the sides, it’s windowless and, as I learned at the beginning of the tour, its quartz-and-concrete panels could use some work. But with this setting, it absolutely could be great. There are ways to account for the lost bookings during renovations, and changes to seating and acoustics could substantially improve the theatergoing experience.
Just as importantly given the City of Portland’s carbon reduction goals, renovating the existing Keller is the more sustainable choice, for even the greenest new building isn’t as green as the building you renovate. And renovating Keller is doubling down on downtown in a time when downtown’s need is its greatest in a generation.
Yet if we chose a still-central location for a new venue, and found a respectable use for the existing Keller’s block that didn’t undermine the fountain’s integrity and contributed positively to the neighborhood, this could be the biggest opportunity for a world-class public building since Memorial Coliseum was completed in 1960.
More than making the right choice about renovation versus replacement, or choosing the right designer, though, getting this right means allocating sufficient funds and daring to be bold.
“When it comes to theater, going cheap doesn’t cut it,” said Robyn Williams of Portland’5, who came to Portland from Houston 21 years ago. “When I first got here, I was seeing really forward-thinking ideas come to fruition, like the Eastbank Esplanade. In more recent years, I’m not seeing any of the big ideas that contribute to our city being special. And I think now as we come out of Covid and the economic issues that the city faces and the damage to our reputation, we need to start thinking about big ideas. We need to start thinking about investments that bring tourism and support the arts and all the things that make a city a really great, livable city.”