Will PNCA’s Landmark New HQ Spark a Renaissance in Old Town?

We take a look at the transformation of Portland's first post office into the growing art school's beating heart.

By Randy Gragg February 3, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

Tom Manley, the president of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, distinguishes between two educational models: programs and platforms. “Programs,” he says, cupping his hands like a bowl, “are like a pediatrics department at a hospital, geared to deal with one set of protocols really well. 

“Platforms,” he continues, fingers stretching outward, “are like emergency rooms: you don’t know what’s coming in the door, and you have to be ready to improvise anything.” Manley has reshaped PNCA—and the college’s new digs in NW Broadway’s historic 511 Building—into a platform, he argues, for “an open-ended future.” PNCA will christen its headquarters with a late-winter party; classes begin February 2. 

The building heralds a new phase for the city’s most prominent art college—and, potentially, a new creative center of gravity for Portland’s west side. The 511 will house specialized facilities you’d expect at an art school: printmaking, photography, painting, etc. But the former US Post Office, remodeled by noted local architecture firm Allied Works, will also feature flexible “lab” spaces, where students can invent projects tackling everything from new communications technologies to rising global temperatures to just earning a living. Above all, Manley hopes the college’s new HQ will leverage the resource he believes most distinguishes fast-growing PNCA from rivals like the Rhode Island School of Design or LA’s Art Center College of Design: Portland itself, via a web of urban and cultural connections anchored by the 511.

The Building

Completed in 1919 for “34 cents per cubic square foot”—6 cents less than a common office building of the time—the 511 Building is an unusual mix of pomp (bronze door surrounds, cast-plaster ornamental ceilings), industrial plainness, and near ecclesiastical natural light. The combination worked well for PNCA and its similarly modest $32 million remodel budget. 

Best known for turning a paint warehouse into Wieden & Kennedy’s breathtaking headquarters and a dreary New York office tower into the dynamic Museum of Arts & Design, Allied Works “edited” the 511 Building, according to firm founder Brad Cloepfil. The firm stripped away a clumsy ’60s remodel, “weaving in” a new mezzanine suspended on a harp-like array of ¾-inch industrial steel cables. That element surrounds an atrium and a multiuse exhibition space. “We contrasted the new as more raw artist space,” Cloepfil says. “The contrast allows it to be owned by creative makers: a new life and architecture layered into the old.”

The second-floor New Commons promises the most excitement: bathed in northern light from five 78-foot-long industrial skylights, it’s a simple, square room in which anything can happen. “Allied’s approach to design,” says Manley, “is less about making your eyes pop than about creating culture.” Meanwhile, labs and an “innovation studio” will foster projects like a recent wearable technology collaboration and educational models aimed at reducing tuition costs. “A life of creative practice doesn’t stop with classes,” Manley says.

The School

PNCA began as a sketch club in 1891 and evolved, by 1909, into the Portland Art Museum School, the first such art education center on the West Coast. In 1994 the college split from the museum, and four years later it moved to a Pearl District warehouse. During his 12 years at the helm, Manley launched the school’s first grad programs and landed the largest contribution to an arts organization in Oregon history: $15 million from the late patron Hallie Ford. PNCA now boasts more than 100 full- and part-time faculty, nearly 500 undergrad and graduate students, and more than 1,500 continuing-education students. Manley wants 1,000 full-time students by 2018. 

The Neighborhood: Portland’s New Creative Heartland?

Portland design impresario John Jay long promoted a “Creative Corridor” stretching from Wieden & Kennedy to the University of Oregon’s White Stag building. The 511 boldly anchors that vision. Now: will the city and property owners strengthen or dilute the energy?

  • PNCA has the beginnings of an urban campus in its Museum of Contemporary Craft (1) and its first dormitory, the ArtHouse (2).
  • Will the city-owned parking lot (3) to the 511’s west become the next park block, an experimental art park—or just remain a revenue-spinning parking lot?
  • The Portland Development Commission owns several properties nearby, including the vacant block across Broadway (4). Will the agency help spur creative momentum? 
  • Local art collector, civic-do-gooder, and mega-landowner Jordan Schnitzer owns a three-quarter block to the southeast (5)—perfect for his world-renowned collection of prints?
  • The blue-collar-themed boutique Hand-Eye Supply recently opened directly across NW Glisan Street from the 511 (6).
  • Three new hotels are in the works: the Harlow (7), the Society (8), and the Globe (9).
  • The neighborhood’s first new construction in some time will soon begin, housing the University of Oregon’s business school (10).
  • Meanwhile, long-dormant Old Town is exploding with creative and tech companies, including Airbnb, Squarespace, ThinkShout, OpenSesame, Lytics, Athletepath, Netop, Acquia, and others.
Filed under
Show Comments