Keller Hall in Portland was considered for renovation after an earthquake report deemed it unsafe
Portland’s Keller Hall has hosted some of the city’s most popular shows from “The Lion King” to “Swan Lake.”
Since 1917, artists from all over the world have come here to perform to often packed houses.
But after decades of stunning displays — from classic to contemporary — a seismic report from the city of Portland indicates that a strong earthquake could seriously damage or even destroy the building.
Now the city is thinking about how to save the building.
Make buildings earthquake resistant
“In 2017 or so, the city was in the process of implementing regulations requiring mandatory retrofits on known unreinforced masonry buildings and Keller Hall as an unreinforced masonry reconstruction,” said Carl Lisle, director of public projects for the City of Portland.
According to Amit Kumar, supervising engineer at the city’s Development Services Office, buildings that meet this definition are “primarily made of masonry, which resembles clay brick, hollow concrete or masonry.”
“If you take a piece of chalk and break it, it will break. It’s not that strong because mortar deteriorates over time,” he said.
The city estimates there are more than 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings in Portland alone, ranging from small, one-story public bathhouses to large apartment buildings and venues like Keeler’s.
In the 1960s, the city renovated Keller to meet the safety standards of the time.
But these standards have evolved and now include the necessary precautions to confront earthquakes.
Ashley Strij is an associate professor of geology at Portland State University and specializes in earthquake geology.
“Here along the edge of the Pacific Northwest, we have the Juan de Fuca Plate subducting to the west in the Pacific Ocean. And this is subducting beneath the North American Plate that we all live on,” she said.
“There is frictional contact between these two plates. Every few hundred years this friction is overcome. This results in the release of the accumulated stress and an earthquake in the subduction zone.
One way to understand the problem is to imagine the edges of two dinner plates stacked on top of each other. They are both held together by friction.
If the plates are pushed together slowly, the friction between them also increases.
When enough time passes, this friction will eventually release, and one plate will slide under the other.
In the geological world, an example of dinner plates would actually be tectonic plates that have been pushed together by years and years of gravitational force, and explosive release can cause a powerful earthquake.
“They happen about every 250 to 500 years. These are really big events of magnitude 8.0 to 9.0 and are the largest currently estimated,” Strij said.
The last major earthquake of this size struck the Pacific Northwest in 1700, 323 years ago, Strij said. This means that the region is currently in the middle of the time when another major earthquake is likely to strike.
If an unreinforced building like Keller Hall was struck, Strij said the results could be catastrophic.
“If this earthquake were to occur tomorrow before these seismic retrofits at Keller Hall were completed, we can expect that Keller Hall would fail in this event,” she said.
What to do next
The city originally planned to release the seismic study report in 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the results were delayed.
Three years later, the report reveals that Keller Hall is still in dire need of many changes.
“We need to address a lot of other issues like ADA accessibility and deficiencies in all kinds of other things. There is no kitchen in the building. The loading dock is woefully inadequate,” Lisle said.
So what does all this mean for Keller’s future?
That’s what the city of Portland aimed to find out last year. City leaders reached out to local contractors to determine the best plans to save the building. Eight proposals were submitted.
Last month, the Halperin Landscape Conservancy presented one proposal to the City Council.
This proposal is to completely renovate the Keller Hotel from top to bottom.
The report estimated that the project would last about 28 months at a cost of about $236 million. There is also an accelerated plan that will cost $267 million in 19 months.
“We spent 55 years renovating in the late 1960s. We’ll need at least 50 more,” Lisle said. “If we were to put a hundred or a hundred million dollars into this building, we would want something that would serve us really well.”
But one of the biggest concerns many people have is where the shows will be held during construction.
Currently, there are no other venues suitable for companies like Portland Opera to host major performances on this grand scale.
If and when Keller is created, that means there won’t be any scheduled shows, or revenue, for at least two years.
Anne Francis, vice president of the West Coast region for Broadway Across America, which is responsible for bringing touring Broadway shows to Portland, spoke at the September meeting.
“Keller’s closure will last 19 to 28 months and, as the report notes, will impact two or three seasons on Broadway, not just one,” she said. “We strongly encourage the recommended economic analysis to be conducted to determine the true impact on surrounding areas that this could have,” she said. “Happens during lockdown.”
The city is also reviewing another option: building a brand-new Keller Hall on a different site.
“You can design everything to be state-of-the-art, long-lasting and efficient,” Lisle said.
Lisle adds that the cost of building the new hall will be about $300 million, but he also said that the new building will provide a unique feature for the Portland theater.
“You will be able to use the existing facility while you build a new one,” he said.
Strij said while she appreciates Portland’s arts scene and the revenue it brings to the city, the risks for Keller’s safety are too high.
“I’m not willing to walk into Keller Hall with my child and watch the show because I understand what would happen to that structure, but that’s an individual assessment,” she said.
It is important to note that no decision has been made currently. City officials are considering two more proposals at the end of October, and until then, they will have to spend time evaluating their options.
“We’ll go through it together and see what happens and hopefully we can come to a good resolution that serves the city and the region,” Lisle said.
So, at least for now, the show will continue at the Keller Hotel.
(Tags for translation)Culture | portland | earthquake | safety