That was opening day of the $600,000 Portland Public Auditorium, located on a block that had previously been used as a public park, an outdoor market, box and mattress factories, and even as a streetcar barn. After 1917, however, 222 SW Clay St. would forever be home to one of Portland’s most beloved performance spaces.
The auditorium saw time as a campaign stop, a meeting center, a movie house, a boxing venue. It was a hospital and morgue during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. It was a temporary home for veterans returning after World War II.
But, by 1963, it had another title: A headline in a March issue of the Oregonian called it the “City’s Big Problem” because neither city officials nor Portland voters wanted to spend more money on renovating the decrepit building.
The following year, a ballot measure was introduced as a “citizens crusade to rebuild the auditorium.” A pamphlet supporting the measure outlined a litany of issues with the building, including overcrowding, an inability to hear or see the stage from some seats, poor ventilation in summer, poor insulation in winter, not enough bathrooms or refreshment stands and high maintenance costs. There were more than 20 specific issues identified in the pamphlet.
Rather than try to renovate the old building, however, the measure proposed demolition and reconstruction.
The public, being dissatisfied with the state of the auditorium, voted in favor of the measure and the project began in July 1966. “The Old Gray Lady” – as the old auditorium building was irreverently nicknamed – was almost entirely demolished; a 1968 Oregonian article claimed that only 17 per cent of the original structure was retained, comprising mainly of the north and south walls.
When the new auditorium opened its doors for the first time on May 3, 1968, the building received near-universal praise from Portland residents. With about 1,000 fewer seats, the theater – renamed the Civic Auditorium – was far less crowded. Both the décor and technological equipment were updated to meet modern standards. The acoustics were greatly improved. More restrooms and foyer space were added. A 1,000-space parking lot was added adjacent to the building.
The reconstruction went on without a hitch, and Portland residents seemed overwhelmingly happy with their new performance space.
The Keller is still owned by the City of Portland, but it is managed by Metro, along with the other venues in Portland'5 Centers for the Arts: the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the Brunish Theatre, Newmark Theater and Dolores Winningstad Theatre at Antoinette Hatfield Hall.
The auditorium building as it stands today looks much as it did after the 1968 renovation, with the notable exception of a $1.5 million upgrade, funded by the Keller family, in 2000. The donation helped fund new audiovisual equipment and more bathrooms.
Since the renovation, the auditorium has frequently been used by several staples of the Portland arts and entertainment community, including the Oregon Ballet Theater and Broadway in Portland. The auditorium has been a stalwart of Portland performing arts.
The pipe organ
The old auditorium building was home to “the second largest pipe organ west of the Rocky Mountains, the first being at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City,” and the eighth largest in the world, according to a 1925 issue of the Portland Daily Journal
Built in 1916 by the acclaimed Ernest M. Skinner Co. of Boston, the pipe organ boasted more than 5,000 pipes. It was acquired by the Public Auditorium in 1920, and in subsequent years was a shining point of pride for artists and musicians in the city. Some of the greatest organists in the world had traveled to Portland to play the instrument.
But when time for the building renovation came in 1965, there was no proposed place for the historic organ. Issues of size and cost prevented developers and architects from making earnest attempts to reinstate it – there was just no space for the hulking instrument in the new building. Even if there was, rebuilding and reinstalling the pipe organ would have cost almost $50,000 more – $350,000 in 2017 – than putting in a more compact electronic organ.
This was a highly controversial issue for a time. Heated city council meetings and impassioned letters to the editor implored the preservation of the organ. Critics called the decision “sacrilegious,” as the hollow sound of the new digital organ paled in comparison to the rich tones of the Skinner organ. They claimed that no reputable concert organists would want to come play a cheap electronic instrument, as they had come to play the old organ.
Proponents argued that the loss of the massive organ was outweighed by all of the new and improved features of the auditorium, and that it was not worth the cost to reinstall the aging instrument. They also said that the difference in sound quality was negligible, and that the large majority of the theater-going public would not notice.
Ultimately, the organ was left out of the new Civic Auditorium. Its disassembled parts were kept in storage for a number of years, until the city auctioned it off in 1972. It was bought by Alpenrose Dairy for $2,800. Refurbished and reconstructed over a three-and-a-half-year period, it is currently housed in the Alpenrose Opera House in southwest Portland.