From his office in the old Henry Weinhard brewery in the core of the Pearl District in downtown Portland, architect Gene Callan ’76 is involved in projects as varied as an office building at the University of Washington, a golf course clubhouse in Beijing, and the new wing of the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge.

He’s also surrounded by projects he and his firm, GBD Architects, have had a hand in for the past two decades. The Brewery Blocks project of residences, retail space, and offices like his, for example, started in 2000. The use of elements from the old brewery, as well as the Portland Armory and an old Chevrolet dealership, is a classic illustration of GBD’s design philosophy: Save what is good, renew what you can, and create something that harmonizes with the structures and spaces around it. “We embraced the bones of the old buildings,” says Callan. “We didn’t want it to look like a new mega-complex.” Though the vats and flues are gone, the old chimney, the red brick courtyard, and original elements like the balcony space in what was the large brewery room remain.

Gene Callan, Principal at GBD Architects
Portland-based architect Gene Callan ’76 designed the addition for the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale. (Brian Lee)

Callan headed to Portland right after WSU. He was lucky to land a job in the middle of a recession, finding a place in Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, an international firm. Some years later, he scaled back to a small two-person firm. The combination of those two jobs made it easy for him to move into GBD, a medium-sized firm which had just the right mix of team and autonomy to suit him.

GBD, where Callan is now a director, has been at the forefront of LEED-accredited sustainable design—as Portland was one of the nation’s first cities to try to build green buildings. “A lot of firms around the country were talking about it, but not a lot were doing it,” says Callan. But Portland businesses and the city were interested in more sustainable architecture and urban planning early on. “We all learned together what green building projects really meant.”

In the case of the Maryhill Museum, that meant creating a structure that could harmonize with both the historic neo-classical style building and the striking hillside landscape along the river. In 1914, entrepreneur Sam Hill built his mansion on the Columbia to serve as a summer residence for his family. The Beaux-Arts structure was designed by Washington, D.C., architects Hornbower & Marshall and built out of poured concrete. It was to be a landmark for a new community Hill envisioned along the Gorge.

Alas, Hill’s wife Mary couldn’t be convinced to relocate to Washington, Hill’s business ventures failed, and the house would never be occupied. The locals called it “Sam Hill’s Folly.”

One of Hill’s friends, an American dancer named Loie Fuller, encouraged him to turn the house into a museum of art. Fuller, who found her fame in Paris, helped Hill fill it with works by French masters, including her friend, sculptor Auguste Rodin. Then Queen Marie of Romania, another friend, came in 1926 to dedicate the mansion as a museum and provide art and materials from her own life for the collection. During her speech, the queen called it “a dream for today and tomorrow.”

Finally, a third benefactor, Alma de Bretteville Spreckles, continued the effort after Hill’s death, ensuring the museum opened in 1940.

For Callan, who grew up in nearby Goldendale, Maryhill was always an eccentric character in a landscape filled with barns, wood-frame houses, and acres of ranch land. “As a kid, I would go there,” he says. “It had a special attraction to me, not only for the collection and the building, but the site.” Perched above the Columbia River with views to Mount Hood and up and down the gorge, the 5,000-acre property is vast and stunning. Such was the attraction that after starting his career in Portland, Callan and his WSU classmate Peggy McKee ’76 eloped and were married on the grounds.

Decades ago, the museum’s collections had outgrown its space. For lack of display room, many treasures are locked away in storage. Callan remembers first working on plans to expand the museum more than 20 years ago. They needed more space for educational programs, better storage, added offices, and just plain updating. “We did a number of schemes,” says Callan. But time, money, and organization worked against the project. “The stars just hadn’t aligned,” he says. Finally in 2010, the museum’s advisory board, the money, and the needs reached the right point. What was a $30 million project got scaled back to a $10 million effort to add 16,000 square feet and provide the museum a modernized, energy-efficient wing named for patrons Mary and Bruce Stevenson.

Several GBD colleagues worked on the project with Callan, including Dick Kirschbaum ’75. The wing is built into the rock on the hillside beneath the museum, protected from the wind and with deep overhangs to let in the view and keep out the sun. Much of the rock removed to make room for the structure was reused on the addition and surrounding property. “We tried to use as much as we could of what Mother Nature was giving us,” says Callan.

The style of the wing could be described as contemporary and quiet. It’s meant to conceal itself in the landscape and not steal attention from the grand old original structure. “It’s a really quiet place to absorb Mother Nature,” says Callan. “And at this site she has given us a ton to look at.”

On the web

Maryhill Museum of Art