By J. Michael Kearsey
The towering columns that face west toward the river, give a glimpse into the history of Washington High School, set on SE Stark and 14th St. The building, currently in an exciting and massive rehab, was reconstructed following a fire that destroyed the original East Side High School in 1922. It re-opened in 1926, made with brick and concrete rather than wood.
In the trophy cases on the third floor can be found honors for the 1923 City Football champs and the ‘Colonials’1944 State Championship track team, along with photos of the Rose Princesses who reigned from Washington High in 1939, 1948 and 1954. Washington merged with the all-girls Monroe High in 1978, reflecting the rush to the suburbs that hollowed out the school population of the inner East side in the 1980’s.
Washington High has a number of famous alumni including two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, Governor Victor Atiyeh, drummers Mel Brown and Dennis Elmer, Dan Reed Network bassist Melvin Brannon II, songwriter Jaime Leopold and civic leader Bill Naito.
The school eventually closed in 1981 with a student population of only 883 students who dispersed to Cleveland High. It was briefly reopened as the Children’s Service Center, and it housed a vocational program for Native American youth, but was left abandoned for many years.
As the city of Portland realized the value of the property, proposals were floated over the years to save, salvage or level the buildings and the green space around it. Portland Public Schools sold the property to the City in 2005, for $4.5 million and options were reconsidered. The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission approved landmark designation of Washington High School on January 14, 2013.
After several false starts, a vision emerged to save the property. Art DeMuro, a leader in Portland’s historic preservation movement, proposed that his company, Venerable, take on the project. In 2003-04, he rallied the community to ensure the City Council’s passage of the Historic Resources Code Amendment—a package of zoning and building code amendments to strengthen the City’s historic preservation programs and to restrict demolition of historic buildings.
Art passed away in 2012, but VP Craig Kelly and his team at Venerable persevered. With the additional investment from Pacific Realty Associates, Portland Public Schools sold Washington High School to their partnership in 2013 and the work began.
Former classrooms are being transformed into offices with a bit of nostalgia remaining. All of the lockers in the hallways will stay, assigned to tenants throughout the building (anybody remember their combination?) Many slate blackboards remain on the walls, as do, intercoms and the classic IBM clocks. The façade has been cleaned and refinished, as many of the original historic quotations and bas-relief have been saved from the wrecking ball.
Over forty offices are filling up: tech services, PR companies like digital marketing agency Copious Creative, creative agency Struck Inc, Murmur Creative, Walker Tracker and even the US Marine Corps has a spot. New Seasons Markets will house their home offices on the top floor. The track, where so many of us ran our dogs after dropping the kids off at Buckman, will remain a city park filled with Frisbee players, pooches and joggers.
Lately, the “Wa/Hi” auditorium has seen some of the most intense work as it becomes a new concert space renamed Revolution Hall. With 830 seats, a state-of -the art sound system and an already filling music calendar, the venue revs up in April with two shows by vocalist Neko Case.
The joint venture will be operated by Mississippi Studios and True West Concerts, according to Brand Ambassador, Ned Failing, who notes “This space will fill a gap for Portland with the right size and environment for many touring acts that are too big for the Aladdin and too small for the bigger spaces here.”
The ‘soft opening’ over Valentine’s Day weekend drew sold out crowds for radio talk show host Dan Savage and the Live Wire Radio hour, heard nationally on NPR.
In addition, the rooftop has been transformed to an event deck with one of the most spectacular views of the city and a 2,680 square-foot roof terrace for outdoor weddings, receptions, or corporate parties. There will be a café on the first floor named Martha’s, banquet rooms and a bar attached to the Hall named the Assembly Lounge, all named in that patriotic spirit.
Upon completion, the building will have new heating and cooling, new plumbing, new electrical service, a new freight elevator, and will be fully ADA-accessible.
There is pride in preservation seen here which could set a fine example for the re-use of architectural treasures found in our neighborhood and our city.