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Adaptive Reuse Applied in Renovation of Portland’s White Stag Block
by Kelly Lux   

Built at the turn of the century and rehabilitated in 2008, the high ceilings, cast-iron columns, exposed brick walls and paint-stripped wood columns and beams of the White Stag Block are reflections of a bygone era. The White Stag Block, located in one of only two historic districts in the heart of Portland’s original downtown, was adapted from industrial buildings to house satellite programs for the University of Oregon Portland.

“The University of Oregon is sustainably obsessed,” said Hal Ayotte, a principal of Fletcher Farr Ayotte, the lead company for the design team for the White Stag Block rehabilitation project. “They were very, very conscientious of moving into the big city and wanted to fit in. This presented a great opportunity for them to save almost an entire block.”

adaptivereuseAdaptive reuse, a process that adapts buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features, was applied in the $37 million rehabilitation of the three-building White Stag Block. The industrial buildings, which are owned and managed by Venerable Properties, were combined internally to create one interior structure, totaling 143,000 square feet, while the original exterior historic character of the buildings was retained, giving the illusion of three separate buildings, originally the Bickel Block, the Skidmore Block and the White Stag/Hirsch-Weiss Building, said Ayotte.

“Adaptive reuse is our niche in Portland, as our name implies,” said Bob Spencer, maintenance supervisor and building engineer for Venerable Properties. “We cater toward the historic properties. We like working with this old architecture. We find it very gratifying to bring old buildings up to standard and reoccupy them.”

When workers uncovered the original cast-iron facade of the 1883 Bickel Block, Venerable decided to spend the $100,000 to restore the facade, bringing back the original architectural details. In addition, the storefront of the White Stag Building was replaced with wood systems, reflecting the original design.

The interior of the buildings, vacated years ago as empty warehouses, left the design team with a blank canvas. Venerable and the University of Oregon, which occupies 100,000 square feet of the complex, wanted to retain the historical flavor of the buildings while simultaneously allowing more natural light. Fletcher Farr Ayotte, who Venerable contracted with for space planning on the project, was able to turn a light well at the block’s center into a usable light court with a glass cover. Additionally, the saw tooth light monitors in the White Stag building were restored to provide abundant natural light.

Staying with the industrial theme of the buildings proved to be a challenge for the design team. Everything in the buildings, including the red brick walls, the wood columns and all of the systems, remained exposed. Extracted timber — “Clear, beautiful stuff that you can’t even buy nowadays,” Ayotte said — was sanded down and used as finishing materials in other parts of the building. Wavy glass that was found in the old offices of the warehouse building was re-purposed for the stair railings. The University of Oregon donated maple flooring from the Gerlinger hall gymnasium on their Eugene campus to be re-used in the White Stag Building.

“Anything we took out of the building, we reused,” Ayotte said. “We did a lot of adaptive reuse and sustainable design.”

Fletcher Farr Ayotte was also commissioned to design the 1,300 square feet of the White Stag Block occupied by Everpower Renewables.The materials selected in the design of the space included recycled windshields for interior windows, FSC wood products, low-emitting materials and existing furniture.

Operating and managing the nowrestored, century-old buildings is no more challenging than operating a newly constructed property, Spencer said. The buildings were completely retro-fitted with modern technology, making the operations the same as those in a new structure. And although there were some challenges in the fit and finish of the building, Spencer said the structures have settled, eliminating that obstacle often occurring in new construction.

“There are pros and cons to having a 100-year-old building,” Spencer said. “But this structure has proven itself.”

The adaptable reuse of the White Stag Block has encouraged the process among other building owners in the area, bringing new activity to Portland’s oldest area and showing the region’s commitment to preserving its heritage, Ayotte said.

“We take great pride in keeping the heritage of what we are all about here,” Ayotte said. “We look at something and ask if it can be used for something else and saved. Then, our children’s children get to appreciate the architectural
heritage of this city.”

The White Stag Block was one of 23 projects honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Art DeMuro, president of Venerable Group, was presented with the Preservation Honor Award in Austin,Texas, on Oct. 29. Corecipients of the award include Wendy Larson of the University of Oregon, Hal Ayotte of Fletcher Farr Ayotte Architects, Omid Nabipoor of Interface Engineer, Brent Parry of Bremik Construction, Blake Patsy of KPFF Consulting Engineers and Ralph DiNola of Green Building.


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