Monday, July 20, 2020

Benson Polytechnic School

Planning is in the final stages for renovation of Benson Polytechnic High School.  The expansive project presents the difficult chore of preserving cherished elements of the muddled campus while preparing it for a new century of technical and career education.

 Architects have been working for four years to reach a consensus that appears to satisfy both parts of that challenging equation.  Meanwhile, the estimated price tag has climbed from $202 million to $295 million. 

 The good news on the preservation side is that is that the historic facades facing N.E. 12th Avenue and along Irving Street on the north and adjacent to Buckman Field on south side will be carefully restored to reflect original authenticity.  The historic entrance to the front of the 1917 building will continue as the school’s main entrance, and the old gymnasium, added in 1925 and the auditorium, added in 1929, also will remain and be repaired.  Likewise, the two-story foundry building at the northeast corner of the campus will be saved.

Preservation of the historic elements will include repairing or replacing bricks as needed, restoring windows and cleaning and repairing terra cotta ornamentation. 

 The Portland Historic Landmarks Commission has no jurisdiction over internal changes but reviews and approves restoration of the historic exterior components.  However, it appears that the architectural team will respect the interesting internal designs of the main lobby, the auditorium  the old gymnasium with its running track on a mezzanine. 

 Responses from community meetings in the past showed a strong desire for the project to “respect the past but to embrace the future,” said Lorne McConachie, a principal with Bassetti Architects in Portland. 

 The “future” will be plainly visible from the north and south sides of the campus.  The one-story historic facades will be backed on both sides by new two-story structures that will be set back about 19 feet from the historic walls.  The design of the new elements will be sleek and modern, to maintain a clear distinction between what is historic and what is not. 

 Overall, the plan includes 165,000 square feet of new construction, bringing the total campus to 379,000 square feet.   About 71,000 feet will be new space devoted to technical education. In all, the square footage amounts to more than nine downtown square  blocks. 

 The historic Benson facades will perpetuate a few names in the school’s history.  Foremost is the logging baron Simon Benson, who gave $100,000 in 1915 to pay for half of the $200,000 original cost.  That led to a change from the first proposed name, The Boys’ School of Trades.  Benson also is remembered for sponsoring the “Benson Bubblers,” Portland’s historic drinking fountains that Benson presumably hoped would discourage the city’s heavy alcoholic consumption in the era before Prohibition.

A construction bid for the first design of Benson by the school district’s architect, Floyd Naramore, was rejected because it exceeded the budget.  The school district then added Folger Johnson as a “consulting” architect for design revisions.  Both men were skilled architects.

 Naramore was the district’s architect from 1912 to 1917.  During trhat short span he worked on 16 schools – many of which still exist – including Benson and Franklin High Schools.  Naramore laid out the 7.33 acre Benson campus in the configuration of a capital H.  The overall H scheme is retained in the renovation plans.

 After 1917, Naramore  moved to Seattle where he was a school architect until 1932.  Thereafter he helped create a large Seattle firm that survives to the present.

 Johnson had come to Portland in 1911 after architectural training in New York and Paris, and a year working for a New York firm.  His surviving work in Portland includes four Carnegie-funded libraries in Multnomah County, the Albertina Kerr Nursery and the private Town Club.  Benson Polytechnic would have been his only affiliation with Naramore.  Regrettably, Johnson's career was obliterated at its peak by the Great Depression, which essentially ended new construction .  Both architects died in 1970.

 The balancing act required by the new generation of planners and architects earned outright praise from the city staff that has followed the planning.  “Great care has been taken in this proposal for the modernization of Benson Polytechnic High School,” a staff report to the Landmarks Commission stated.  “Based on thorough assessment of the existing historic fabric, the proposal has been carefully designed to protect, retain and repair important historic fabric… The new construction has been sensitively designed to maintain the historic character of the resource.”

 Matthew Roman, an architectural designer and member of the Landmarks Commission, said it a bit more simply.  “I still get a sense of the old buildings all the way around.  I really appreciate the effort to do that.”


 When the work is done, one of the most noticeable changes to passers-by on busy N.E. 12th Avenue will be a large X of gently-ramped walkways to accommodate people with disabilities who would have difficulty negotiating the change in elevation from the front sidewalk to the front doors.  The drawing below shows these new routes.

                                (Bassetti Architects/Architectural Resource Group)


  1. I spent the fall term in 1964 as a student teacher at Benson. I was paired with an English teacher named Gene Barrett. The layout is vast, but I did not need to visit the trades areas. The school was all boys at the time and, with the times, years ago enrolled girls as well. Two cousins attended Benson and flourished. The standards when I was there were pretty strict -- I remember seeing a vice principal tell a student to not wear his sweatshirt inside out. The practice seemed harmless to me, but the student quickly reversed his shirt. It is good to see that Benson will retain its classic look. As has Grant High School. I met one of the contractors whose company is handling these restorations and remodels. He was proud of what they were doing at Grant and had done at Franklin, and knew all of the details of the work being done.

  2. Good, comprehensive overview of the architectural lineage of this landmark building. Thanks for giving Folger Johnson his due!

  3. I am a 1977 grad of Benson Polytechnic high school. My freshman class was the first class to allow girls. I think we had something like 1900 boys and six girls. Later in life I became an architectural illustrator working in both Portland and Seattle and I am familiar with the Bassetti. I met Fred in the mid-1980s when I was working up there. I’m sure they will do a great job on the old girl with updates for the 21st century and may be beyond. I’m hoping for a human future!

  4. Thanks for reading. I appreciate your comment. I was leery of the "gut and stuff" approach at first, but all the changes appear well-reasoned. I hope the completion is successful.