Like other buildings of its age of over 100 years old, changes have been made to modernize it, but it hasn’t had a substantial renovation in decades.
“It was remodeled in the ‘60s, which is really when the birth of the more traditional performing arts centers were coming into being,” Robyn Williams, the executive director of Portland’5 Center for the Arts, said.
The ‘60s remodel had the same look as other historic, formal venues such as the Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center. Even though this prior remodeling can still be seen at today’s Keller Auditorium, there have been cosmetic changes including new carpeting, light fixtures and updated concession areas.
A modern-day renovation of the auditorium would happen only after lots of budgeting and planning. Even then, updating an old building often comes with obstacles.
“It needs a pretty hefty capital investment in it,” Williams said. She can’t guarantee how much a project of this size would cost, but it’s estimated that it could be upwards of $150 million to remodel and another $100 million to build a new venue.
“If we’re going to spend that much money, then maybe we should go bolder with the remodel of the color and give it more of the amenities for a contemporary audience for the types of shows that we host and make it a more user-friendly, more welcoming venue,” Williams said.
There is no simple solution, so Keller Auditorium is taking its time to learn what’s in the best interest of the venue, the public and the artists who use the space.
“We’re just now starting to put together the team that’s going to look at that and get a project manager on board, so that we can really make sure that we have a very inclusive process [and] we can talk to a lot of stakeholders,” Williams said.
According to some architects who have looked at the building, the Keller Auditorium could be closed for about two years in order to do a full renovation. This raises issues for nearby businesses that benefit from the activity around the auditorium and a few other groups.
“Keller funds a lot of what P5 does,” Williams said. “Because of Broadway and the commercial shows that we do in there, it’s our most profitable building. That’s money that we use to help subsidize nonprofit users of our theaters. It’s money that we use to help take care of the other buildings, and the groups that would get displaced may have a hard time finding places to perform.”
The building also raises seismic concerns. Similar to other old buildings downtown, the Keller Auditorium wouldn’t be the safest location for a catastrophic event like an earthquake.
When it comes to this issue, Williams thinks of the structural engineer who looked at the historic building’s seismic problem and said, “Does the Keller have a real problem seismically? Yes, it does. Does that mean I won’t take my daughter to the Nutcracker? Of course, I will totally take my daughter to The Nutcracker.”
In the midst of the Keller Auditorium enduring growing pains and contemplating a renovation, it is still one of Portland’s most beloved buildings.
“What I hear about the Keller are just the memories that people have,” Williams said. “‘Oh, my graduation was held at the Keller. Oh, I remember seeing my first Broadway show at the Keller.’ I think that I think it’s the memories of different things that they experienced there that are what people talk about.”