Portland, Oregon, is a city renowned for its vibrant arts and culture scene, and at the heart of this cultural tapestry lies the iconic Keller Auditorium. With over a century of history, this grand venue has been an integral part of Portland’s artistic heritage, showcasing performances that have enthralled audiences for generations. However, the need for a major renovation has become increasingly evident in recent years. The 2020 seismic study findings, indicating the auditorium’s vulnerability to earthquakes, have prompted the city to take a two-pronged approach toward securing its future.
The Keller Auditorium, owned by the city of Portland and completed in 1917, boasts a seating capacity of nearly 3,000, making it the largest theatrical auditorium in Oregon. Its unique distinction as the sole Portland theater capable of hosting touring Broadway productions has made it a cultural cornerstone of the city. Yet, the building has faced significant challenges over the years. Most notably, it underwent a substantial reconstruction in the 1960s, and since then, there have been persistent calls for further updates, according to a report in Oregon Live.
One of the pressing issues that catalyzed this renewed interest in revitalizing the auditorium was the seismic study, which cast a shadow of doubt on its structural integrity. In response, the city has adopted a two-fold approach.
The first prong of this strategy involves the collaborative efforts of the Halprin Landscape Conservancy, the city of Portland, and Metro, aimed at renovating the Keller Auditorium. At the same time, the city sought proposals for large-scale performance venues through “Requests for Expression of Interest.” Subsequently, five proposals were shortlisted to potentially replace the Keller at alternative locations in Portland.
Recently, the team tasked with the Keller’s renovation unveiled a proposal designed by Hennebery Eddy Architects, building upon a 2017 design by STUFISH Entertainment Architects and Michael Curry Design. This proposal represents more than just structural upgrades; it envisions a complete transformation of the auditorium.
The plan entails addressing structural issues, aligning the building with contemporary building codes, and reimagining the front of the auditorium to create a more welcoming and interconnected space with the Keller Fountain. Notably, the proposal calls for expanding the building, increasing restroom facilities, pedestrianizing the area between the auditorium and the fountain, and enhancing seating and acoustics. Moreover, it incorporates sustainable elements like solar panels, making the building more energy-efficient.
According to Tim Eddy of Hennebery Eddy Architects, this renovation plan is not merely feasible; it has the potential to elevate the Keller Auditorium to the standards of a state-of-the-art 21st-century performance venue while resolving its current operational challenges.
Of course, such a transformative endeavor comes with a price tag. The estimated cost of the renovation, which would necessitate a 19-month closure of the Keller, is approximately $267.2 million. Extending the timeline would bring costs down to $236.1 million. In contrast, constructing a new venue is projected to exceed $400 million.
This decision is not without its challenges. Robyn Williams, executive director of Portland’5, emphasizes the significance of the Keller’s big-name shows, which account for half of the organization’s annual revenue. A prolonged closure, even for 19 months, could significantly impact the regional culture and economy, given the absence of suitable alternatives in the region for hosting such events.
Anne Francis, Broadway Across America’s West Coast vice president, echoes this concern, highlighting the potential repercussions on multiple Broadway seasons and the overall market’s value.
Despite these concerns, many stakeholders advocate for renovating the Keller Auditorium rather than rebuilding it from scratch. Diana Stuart, a board member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, underscores the numerous advantages of this approach. She dubs the renovation a “win, win, win” solution, emphasizing its expedited timeline, cost-efficiency, lower environmental impact, and utilization of existing transportation infrastructure. Moreover, it would preserve and enhance downtown Portland’s status as a cultural hub.
If the city opts to proceed with the renovation, construction could commence as early as 2027, marking a significant step toward preserving the legacy of the Keller Auditorium and securing its place in the city’s cultural landscape for generations to come.