UO Portland uncovers the past in preparation for the future

From the outside, Highland Hall is a bit underwhelming. It is hidden from the rest of the University of Oregon Portland campus by a chain-link fence, plywood-covered windows and construction materials piled nearby. 

Recently employees with LEVER Architects got the chance to peek inside the building. The firm designed the renovations, but it’s one thing to calculate and plan for blueprints and renderings and another to experience the transformation. 

And what a transformation. 

The group walked through a door onto what had previously been a stage. A few gasps and words of wonderment were uttered. Instead of rickety theater seating, dusty curtains and a cramped sound booth, the space was wide open all the way up to the original bow-truss curved ceiling. 

Light pierced through cracks in the 1950 siding.

“That’s where knots in the original wood boards fell out. The construction workers also found carved beams above each entry door that had been covered up,” said Chuck Triplett, associate vice president for UO Portland operations. He pointed a section of the original wood gymnasium floors visible through a tear in protective construction paper.

“The renovation of Highland Hall has been surprising. It was in such bad shape when we got here. But we are slowly peeling back the layers and returning it to a modern version of its midcentury origin,” he said. By next fall, it will house the College of Design’s Portland architecture programs. 

Highland Hall, as well as the renovation of the Innovation Building and UO Portland Campus Center, is part of the university’s ongoing commitment to the Portland region and state. The UO purchased the northeast Portland campus in June 2022, as part of the transformational gift by Connie and Steve Ballmer to establish the Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health. 

The UO is investing in renovations to the campus to meet the academic and research needs of the Portland programs, as well as create space for the modern professional student. This includes addressing deferred maintenance projects, safety and accessibility, and technology.

A new section of the UO Portland website provides the opportunity to look inside the buildings as they go through renovations. Visitors can find photos from before and during renovations, renderings of what the space will become and facts about the building.  

“This is a special place in an historic northeast neighborhood,” said Jane Gordon, vice president for UO Portland. “It is beautiful, welcoming and already feels like ‘home.’  This campus will enhance the student experience, support academic and research interdisciplinary inquiry, and engage alumni and community members.”

The 19-acre campus offers student housing, green space and recreational opportunities, amenities not available at the university’s Old Town location. The Innovation Building (designed by TVA Architects) will bring together the labs and maker spaces that are foundational to many UO Portland academic programs such as sports product design and management, multimedia journalism, virtual/augmented reality, and product design. Space has been reimagined to foster creativity and collaboration. 

When the UO Portland Campus Center (designed by Opsis) opens, it will be where students go to find connection and support. From study spaces and a student lounge to resources and student life staff, it is being renovated to serve as the heart of the student experience. 

Beyond the construction fence, sections of campus have been revived and foreshadow what’s to come. The Library and Learning Center is already home to students in programs such as strategic communications, law and school psychology. The UO Portland Library opened a space for children and families, as well as added general audience book options to its collection. 

Neighbors, once worried about the fate of the property, regularly walk their dogs along the green space and stop for coffee at KISS on Campus or check in with the temporary Multnomah County Library space on the first floor. 

All UO Portland classes, students and employees are expected to be at the northeast campus for fall term.  

—Heidi Hiaasen, UO Portland Communications