The Iconic Portland Building Changes Its Dark and Grim Reputation without Major Exterior Alterations

The Portland Building stands out among the buildings of downtown Portland, Ore., as a Postmodern collage of historical references and symbols. This colorful and spirited addition to the city designed by Michael Graves and built in 1982 became administrative offices for the City of Portland. Despite international recognition for its groundbreaking design, it faced problems with its structure, exterior and operational systems that repairs alone could not fix.

The Portland Building is a Postmodern collage of historical references and symbols. Designed by Michael Graves and built in 1982, the building’s long-standing issues made for an unpleasant interior environment.

By 2016, the 400,000-square-foot Portland Building had reached a point where it needed to address performance issues and adapt to better suit how the City of Portland wanted to support its employees and engage with the public. Long-standing water-intrusion issues paired with poor thermal performance and a lack of access to daylight and views had created constant maintenance dilemmas and an unpleasant interior environment. The resulting Portland Building Reconstruction Project consisted of a complete renovation/restoration of the original building, including new exterior cladding, seismic upgrade, MEP systems replacement and a new interior workplace.

The Portland Building Reconstruction Project sought to carefully balance respect for the historic design with sound technical solutions to help the building evolve and create a healthy, productive workplace for city employees and an open, welcoming space for community members.


The complete transformation of the Portland Building protects the significant design, reimagines the interior environment and addresses the building’s pervasive performance problems, thereby preserving an important public asset and architectural icon for the next 50 to 100 years. In addition to the substantial embodied carbon saved by reusing the existing building, new high-performance building systems and an improved envelope drastically reduced energy use. Commitment to WELL certification and a focus on a healthy interior environment underscores the importance of employee wellness in this LEED Platinum building.

Prior to reconstruction, the Portland Building felt disconnected from the public by opaque walls and an unwelcoming interior. The reconstruction reveals views from the front door directly through the building to the historic park, as well as a prominently placed customer-service zone that provides visitors quick and easy access to city services. Full-height glass walls at the sidewalk level provide visual connection to the surrounding cityscape and serve as a symbol of the city’s commitment to transparent government.

Although fixing leaks had been the original impetus for the reconstruction with seismic upgrading second, no holistic approach could be complete without changing the glass. The city surveyed the staff and the No. 1 complaint about the old building was the lack of natural light. Thankfully, glass technology has evolved since the early 1980s. It is no longer necessary to darken the glass like a pair of sunglasses. Today, contemporary curtainwall glass panels can reduce glare and heat penetration while still appearing clear.

During the redesign, when the City of Portland committed to eliminating vehicle parking in the basement, it opened an opportunity to restore part of Grave’s original design: a large window providing views across the lobby, out past Fourth Avenue and to the park blocks beyond.

The original Portland Building façade also included spandrel glass, where the back side of the panel is covered, so no light penetrates the interior. The final solution took the small repetitive openings and turned the spandrel glass transparent. This provided the interior design team with additional light in the space. One of the biggest challenges and opportunities for this project was to take a building that has had a long reputation of being dark and grim and turn it into a bright workplace without making major changes to the exterior of the building.


Glass became just as important on the ground floor as part of a reconfigured urban design plan and entry sequence. The original retail spaces lining the covered ground-floor loggia had seen better days. By the time construction approached, little more than one small convenience store remained. Integrating retail into the ground level as a way to draw people in is no longer a viable option in urban planning for civic buildings.

Designers used to believe that having retail at the ground level would activate a building. Instead, it closed the civic function off from its surroundings. In the new design, the team asked, “How can we get a more transparent, open base that does not feel like the city is hiding something from the public, but instead communicates an open and transparent philosophy of government?” In DLR Group’s new design, former retail spaces were replaced with transparent public space. Today light pours in from all sides, with more than double the square footage. On the right side of the lobby, visitors can quickly find customer-service counters for easy access to public service. To the left is a new event space.

PHOTOS: JAMES EWING/JSBA unless otherwise noted

About the Author

Erica Ceder, AIA, LEED AP
Erica Ceder, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal at DLR Group and specializes in the restoration and rehabilitation of historic properties. She led the project team in the renovation of the iconic Portland Building.

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