The Value of Old Buildings

The Value of Old Buildings
By Steve Albert

I spend a lot of time thinking about old buildings. First and foremost, this is because the MJCC is an old building that requires lots of TLC. Built in 1971, the building has undergone several renovations, most significantly in 2006. Over the last decade, beginning with the Roots and Rafters campaign, we have spent millions on the facility, replacing everything from furniture, carpeting, and lighting fixtures to roofs, HVAC equipment, and major appliances. Nearly every significant facility issue that arises at the J (e.g. cold showers, dark hallways, hot rooms, etc.) stems from the fact that our building is 52 years old, and the underlying plumbing, electrical, and control systems are showing their age and systematically being replaced.

Portland has had a JCC since 1914, and it has been housed in the current building for nearly half of its history. Many in our community remember the opening of the “new” JCC after having grown up in the original building. The J was originally housed in the B’nai B’rith Building, an attractive, two-story brick building with an ornamental entrance designed by Jacob Dautoff. It stood on SW 13 th Ave. between Market and Mill streets for 57 years, before being demolished as a part of a major downtown urban renewal project that included the construction of I-405. There is a large PSU parking lot at the location today.

While the construction of new buildings offers the opportunity to provide state-of-the-art facilities and to offer services where they are most in demand, old buildings help to preserve community history and stories. Many years ago, when I worked as a teacher at a school in New England, our Director of Admission celebrated the fact that, following the completion of a renovation that was in progress, none of the original teaching spaces at the 100 year-old school would remain. That struck me as an unfortunate failure to recognize the contributions of physical space to our connection with our community’s history.

Believe it or not, the MJCC’s current building has been around long enough to be “historical.” In fact, in order to secure approval for many recent security upgrades (installation of additional security cameras, new bulletproof windows and doors, etc.), we have been required to complete a “historic preservation screening” and to make a commitment that we won’t change the appearance of the building. Like many buildings constructed during the 1970’s, the design of the MJCC reflects the focus on functional, minimalistic design, with a stripped-down aesthetic, that was popular during that era. And regardless of whether that style appeals to you or not, the J is most definitely a building of its time and a classic example of 1970’s architecture.

The preservation of historic buildings doesn’t preclude updates and modernization. We are roughly halfway through the development of our new campus facilities plan, and our design team is beginning to refine the plans to renovate, repurpose, and expand our campus. These efforts are informed by many contemporary design principles such as biophilic design, and the “living building challenge.” Our goal is to ensure that we have facilities that support the latest fitness and wellness programs; state-of-the-art spaces for a wide range of cultural and educational programs; high quality indoor and outdoor activity spaces for camps, youth programs, and afterschool classes; facilities for popular recreational activities such as pickleball, and much, much more. As we envision and plan for an exciting future, we remain committed to our campus and aware of the fact that our building has a rich history and is powerfully connected to the members of our community.