Downtown Development Ripples Outward

It sits as an island between 5th and 6th Streets, two one-way thoroughfares moving hurried commuters east to west through downtown. It was designed by Hardy, Hulzman & Pfeiffer, a New York City architectural firm that specialized in performance spaces. They’ve done no other work in the city since.

When it was built in the 1980s, there was hope that it would spark redevelopment, but its central downtown location didn’t attract commerce, and the adjacent conference hotel has probably not improved so much as stayed the same. Two decades later, Diamond Parking still manages too many surface parking lots too nearby.

From one direction, all drivers can see is a massive wall without adornment, a brutalist testimony of the frugal Pacific Northwest. But inside is an entirely different world. Colorful carpets, soaring elevations, and plenty of window light brighten the space and patrons when winter seems to make everything dull, short and dark. Keep going inside, and you’ll marvel at the main performance hall, with its distinctive ceiling pattern and the thoughtful acoustical touches on the walls.

Walk back outside and greet the moist air that tells you winter is on its way. It’s the sort of thing you get used to here in Anchorage, Alaska.

The Alaska Center for the Performing Arts is the kid sister of our own Hult Center, designed by the same people, built around the same time, and situated in an eerily similar spot. It’s not quite a carbon copy of the Hult Center, but as close as you’ll ever get, if you call 2300 miles away “close.”

ACPA Physical Plant Director Gene Dale gave me a tour of the complex this week. He took me to his office and pulled out the handwritten maintenance manual for “Visual Music,” an art installation designed by Eric Staller. “Thirty three hundred light bulbs,” is how Dale describes it. Light is a big deal in Alaska. Ed Carpenter, the Portland artist who designed the glass art in the Hult Center’s parking garage walkway, has several faux-stained-glass pieces inside ACPA, creating color with glass marbles. “Thousands of marbles and I’ve never had to replace one,” Dale tells me, comparing it unconsciously to Staller’s work.

Back in Eugene, the Hult Center’s original project manager looks back. “There are some things we could have done better in Eugene,” admits Gerald McDonnell. “We could have encouraged more retail. And the parking garage has never quite worked.” Former Eugene Planning and Development Director Paul Farmer has always insisted that parking should be nearby an attraction, but not adjacent, allowing arts patrons to become accidental shoppers or diners during their trek from and to their cars. In this case, history has proved him out.

Anchorage chose a half-block park instead of a parking lot, which became a “second front door” for the center. They flood the promenade into an ice skating rink each winter. Parking did get built nearby the ACPA, but it took a while.

McDonnell’s firm asked him to move to Alaska after the Hult Center opened to reprise his role for their complex, but he refused. During the four years he oversaw construction in Eugene, he and his wife Margot had two children and decided to make Eugene home. Gerald now has his own architectural firm downtown and Margot is the principal of Riverbend Elementary School in Springfield.

The McDonnells put down roots. Their boys went to French immersion schools. Gerald became the first president of Eugene Ballet Company’s board of directors. Toni Primble and the Eugene Ballet Company staged their first Hult Center show during the center’s gala opening week in 1982.

“That was a huge leap,” EBC Managing Director Riley Grannan recalls. As a former dancer himself, he knows about leaps. “The scale of the Hult Center brought organizational necessities. Budgets, boards, development. We had to learn, but McDonnell and Benson Snyder both came from big cities, so we learned from them.”

The Hult Center forced on us a new level of sophistication. If the building’s presence didn’t spawn other buildings, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t produced growth, rippling outward through our community and beyond.

Eugene Ballet Company now tours all over the Pacific Northwest, including finally in Alaska. Primble and her dancers are opening “The Nutcracker Ballet” at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on November 27th. It’ll feel like a belated homecoming.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here at www.dksez.com. He’s no Kevin Cape, but he gets around.