The Oregon Historical Society's artifact collection, which represents the most comprehensive archive of Oregon history around (specimens include a sagebrush sandal from 8,000 B.C. and a Lewis & Clark expedition branding iron) has gone from the comfy confines of downtown's Oregon History Center and its OHS Museum into cold storage in deepest, darkest Clackamas County.
But OHS hasn't pulled a Tonya Harding for nothing. The Society's building complex is undergoing its first major architectural makeover since OHS took possession in 1966.
And boy, does it need it.
Before: It was designed by accretion. The OHS collection lurked in an obscure corner of what is now Keller Auditorium throughout the '50s, while Thomas Vaughan, its then-director and a local bon vivant, acquired the Broadway block chunk by chunk--a former Oregonian executive parking lot, a livery stable, a "house of assignation." The 1966 building, designed by then-young architectural firm Wolff/Zimmer/ Gunsel/Frasca with consultation by none other than the legendary Pietro Belluschi himself, was a sleek, modern steel-and-concrete monument. It was 13,000 square feet of exhibit space, climate-controlled archives, and--most radical of all--generously sized windows that shed light on the Society's doings.
But OHS grew, diluting Belluschi's vision and chowdering the building's imposing simplicity. After a fire in 1974, OHS acquired the neighboring Madison Park Apartments site and then, in 1982, the roaring '20s Sovereign Hotel building (that's the one with Richard Haas' epic trompe l'oeil murals on the outside). After that came an insurance office in 1986. A major 1987 remodel that was designed to connect the buildings added new galleries, offices and a public plaza. And the result? A notoriously warrenlike structure, with offices, exhibit space and corridors sprawling across the complex's several properties, that left many Oregonians with no idea that the new and so-called improved "Oregon History Center," that faced Park Avenue was in actuality a public museum. Despite its proximity to Portland Art Museum and its location in Portland's "Cultural District," the OHS complex was singularly banklike and uninviting.
After: OHS will be fashionable enough for famous dead explorers. The current remodel is led by Thomas Hacker Architects, a firm known for its designs of public buildings throughout the state (including Bend's High Desert Museum and Portland State University's Urban Center). A team that includes Shiels Obletz Johnsen and Walsh Construction will add a sexy layer of glass to the OHS entrance and a new spaciousness and elegance to the pedestrian lobby. Also planned are a rentable event space for private functions and improved circulation of museum visitors by late summer 2003--just in time for the big tour buses.
You see, OHS is on a deadline. Two stellar exhibits--arguably the most important in OHS' 104-year history--will descend on the Society in the next couple of years. OHS' 2004 Oregon Country exhibit will be the largest museum display of Oregon history it's ever attempted, focusing on Native American culture, exploration and trade, the Oregon Trail, labor and the economy, and contemporary state issues. And in 2005 the big one hits--the National Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Exhibition--and OHS will be the only West Coast museum to host its hundreds of artifacts (borrowed from more than 40 museums and assembled for the first time since 1806). This is big stuff for an organization used to keeping a low profile (and often criticized for doing so).
At $3.75 million, the privately funded project has a lot of covered wagons riding on it. But, says OHS board vice president and building project team leader Bob Woodell, "This is a group that's working hard, and we're genuinely excited about the outcome." Judging from the unceremonious pile of rubble and plastic sheeting on Park Avenue, Oregon Historical Society is taking the long view. But then, they're used to that.
1200 SW Park Ave., 222-1741.The museum store will remain open during construction (9 am-5 pm Tuesday- Saturday). The research library will close Nov. 28 and reopen in spring 2003 (1-5 pm Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 1-8 pm Thursday).
Funland Pictures and Red Light will co-host a benefit auction of "unique items" to fund a documentary film about PDX nonprofit Fashion Incubator.