A bridge too far: Connecting Portland’s performance halls

“While you’re catching up on weekend papers,” our blogging compatriot Mighty Toy Cannon of Culture Shock writes, “I’d be interested in your comments on the Oregonian editorial regarding the renovation of the Schnitz and the possible enclosure of the Main Street Plaza (Saturday, August 30).”

As Mighty Toy points out, the editorial got lost not only by running on a Saturday but also because it was buried beneath the flurry of news about vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (pre-grandma version) — and wasn’t that an artfully worded baby announcement, by the way.

The editorial’s gist is this: Even though most Portlanders could care less about the symphony and opera and ballet, these things are important to our economy and our sense of civic pride. The city’s most prominent performance space, downtown’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is in need of big fixes — at least $10 million, maybe a lot more — partly because its acoustics are subpar, and it’s used 60 percent of the time by the Oregon Symphony, a group for which acoustics are exceedingly important.

So far so good. But then the editorial gets down to what really seems to excite its author: the possibility of reviving the idea of some sort of bridge between the Schnitz and the theater building that houses the Newmark and Dolores Winningstad theaters right across Main Street. It’s an idea that was part of the original 1982 blueprints for the Portland Center for the Performing Arts but was scrapped for financial reasons. And it would include permanently blocking off Main between Broadway and Park Avenue to create a plaza that would connect the two buildings.

“In the offing now,” the editorialist writes, “is an opportunity to finally connect the two buildings, to animate their too-often-dormant lobbies, to cleverly create downtown’s long-sought ‘gateway’ to its cultural district.”

OK, first a little history. When the performing arts center was being planned in the early 1980s, it was all to be built on land donated by Evans Products adjacent to Keller Auditorium, which was then known as Civic Auditorium. That plan would have created a Portland version of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — an arts cluster near downtown but not quite at its center. And except for the old Civic, all the halls would be built new, so the acoustics and seating would be up-to-date and you wouldn’t run into any of the surprises and compromises that go along with historical renovation. (The Schnitz at the time was known as the Paramount, and was a shabby onetime vaudeville and movie house that was being used for rock ‘n’ roll concerts.)

But downtown business and political interests pushed through a swap so the new center would be housed instead along a stretch of Broadway that had become run-down, creating an economic spur to help the center of the city out of its recession doldrums. The Paramount, with all of its problems, became the key player in the switch, and the city took over the block across from Main to build its two smaller theater spaces. Economically, the plan worked like a dream (for the business district, at least: the arts center itself, and the companies that used it, still suffer because the center’s financial structure covered only the costs of construction, with no regard for maintenance or operation).

Flash forward to 2008 and the latest push to create a “gateway” to the cultural district, which also includes the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum along the South Park Blocks. And forget for the moment the nasty realities about actually funding any sort of project, because that’s a subject far too complex for this post. As the Oregonian editorial stresses, it would require plenty of individual, corporate and foundation support in addition to tax money.

Yes, the interior of the Schnitz needs some sprucing-up, and if that concentrates on some cost-effective improvements to the acoustics, I’m all for it: Especially under the baton of music director Carlos Kalmar, clarity of technique has become a calling-card for the Oregon Symphony, and that goal of acute sonic precision begs for the best acoustics possible.

But what is possible in the Schnitz? How good can the old girl be made to sound? Before the city starts throwing money willynilly at the thing, it needs to have a pretty sound sense that the acoustic improvements will actually work — not an easy task in an old, retrofitted building. When Seattle redid its opera house a few seasons back, it basically tore the thing down to its shell and started from scratch. Is Portland willing to spend that kind of money? Even in the unlikely circumstance that it is, is the Schnitz shell capable of that sort of radical redesign? The Keller would seem a more viable candidate for extreme surgery.

Speaking of the Keller, it’s also important, while thinking about short-term improvements, to keep in sight the city’s long-term artistic needs. The Schnitz isn’t the only problematic performance space under the arts center’s control. The 3,000-seat barn that is Keller Auditorium is also inadequate to the long-term needs of its two prime local tenants, Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre. (It’s OK for the road-show musicals that would love to use it more frequently: It may be a disaster artistically, but it pencils out great financially for the touring shows.)

So, looking ahead to, say, the year 2018, the city needs an opera and ballet house of between 1,800 and 2,400 seats, designed to have excellent acoustics and sightlines — and that means a hall built fresh, not another retrofit. Such a shared space would also make it possible for the opera and ballet companies to share an orchestra (already, a lot of musicians play for both groups), a marketing strategy, and possibly even administrative and management functions.

What, then, of the symphony orchestra, which ideally would also have its own new performance space? (Again, the example of Seattle and its symphony’s Benaroya Hall suggests the possibilities.) As The Oregonian’s editorialist points out, the symphony is carrying a $6 million deficit, and paying $400,000 a year to service it, and that means it’s given up the dream of a new space and is willing to make a go of it in the Schnitz.

Well, OK, that sounds prudent. But is it? Or is spending $10 million or $20 million or $30 million to try to make the Schnitz work a little better simply gobbling up what ought to be the down payment on a new $150 million or $200 million home that would allow the orchestra to grow artistically? How long should the city defer that dream before deciding it’s a pipe dream? Some very tough financial figuring is going to have to be done here, along with a hard-headed analysis of what’s possible in the Schnitz. If the long-term goal of a new symphony hall seems realizable, money spent in the meantime to spruce up the Schnitz should be kept to a minimum. If analysis shows that a new home isn’t in the cards, then any re-do of the Schnitz should be considered organically, as a major attempt to make it work, not as piecemeal fixes.

One radical thought: Once the ballet and opera have a new home, completely redo the Keller for the symphony, and spend a modest amount reconfiguring the Schnitz for Broadway tours (problematic because of bad wing space, but conceivable), White Bird’s dance series and other uses.

So, at last, to the idea of a bridge and plaza between the Schnitz and the new-theater building.

I have to ask, why? I can’t imagine a literal bridge that would work aesthetically to tie these two dissimilar buildings together (although a brilliant architect might persuade me otherwise). More important, why do the buildings need to be tied together? As public spaces, each works admirably on its own. The lobbies of both are popular milling-around spaces, and if you’re attending, say, an Oregon Children’s Theatre show at the Newmark you don’t also have to be wandering over to the lobby space for the symphony performance. The spaces don’t need each other, at least not beyond the proximity they already share. And to truly create a fusion of the two buildings, even if it were possible, would be very expensive — and not cost-effective, considering that what needs fixing is in the performance hall itself, not in the lobby. Remember this: It’s not a real-estate deal. Real estate helps it happen, but real estate isn’t the goal. If it weren’t for the real-estate deal of 1982, we wouldn’t be talking about the fixes of 2008.

As for the plaza, I’m more amenable, but only if it can be done well for a modest amount of money. Again, what’s more important — a gathering spot, or the veracity of the performance space? Already the city routinely shuts down Main Street between Broadway and Park whenever the arts center has something going on there, creating a workable temporary plaza. What’s wrong with that arrangement, which costs basically nothing? Yes, a permanent plaza would allow for all sorts of free, open-air events, perhaps even turning the site into a more arts-oriented version of the popular Pioneer Courthouse Square. But, let’s face it: It rains in Portland. The outdoor celebration season is short. And in the context of these formal performance spaces, whatever goes on in the plaza is the side show, not the circus.

Let me suggest, though, that the Cultural District does sorely need a bridge — not between its two performance halls but between the grossly separated buildings of the Portland Art Museum, on the other side of Park Avenue. Separated by a lonely and inadequate plaza with a small, ingrown sculpture garden that practically shrinks from the street, this is a space that cries for a bold statement — not simply for the sake of making a bold statement, but because this architecturally bifurcated museum desperately needs to be reintegrated.

Visitors often simply don’t know where to enter — they often go to the big door in the North Wing, which used to be the main entrance to the old Masonic Temple that the museum annexed. The North Wing galleries are connected to the original building (and its more integrated add-on) only by a confusing underground walkway, and a lot of visitors never make the connection: They miss the North Wing galleries entirely, in the process missing some of the museum’s most provocative work. Taken as a whole — and it’s important to do that — these spaces just don’t work. Yes, please, a bridge — a bold, practical, uniting, aesthetically thrilling bridge. Bring it on.

Of course, the museum also owns the parking-lot block immediately north of the North Wing. But we’ll wait a few years to talk about that.