Gresham High School: Honoring the past, building for the future

Gresham High School is a beloved landmark. The stately building has served students and families in the community for more than one hundred years. When people think of Gresham, one of the sites that come to mind is GHS.

The passage of a robust bond package in November 2016 meant it was time for the community to envision a new Gresham High School.

“It was really important to the district to make sure that everyone had an opportunity to weigh in on the design,” GHS Principal Michael Schaefer said. “Public schools serve as community centers and this project is a significant community investment that will serve generations to come.”

The visioning process to redesign a building that sits in a highly prominent spot, at the entrance to downtown Gresham, involved community members, architects, teachers, parents  and local business owners.  Their goal was to design an instructional center that would pay tribute to the past while providing students with an up-to-date learning environment.

A unique history

The most recognizable portion of the existing building was built as part of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in the late thirties. The WPA was a federal program that employed millions of people to carry out public works projects during the Great Depression.  Running from the Gymnasium to the Theater with a main entrance in between, the design is based on the Art-Deco style, a style that became prominent at the turn of the century, with a number of features frequently seen in that era of architecture.  

In addition to the brick work typical of that period, there were the Art-Deco-inspired wrought-iron doors, created by the same blacksmith who made the gates at Timberline Lodge and the University of Oregon.

And like many architectural projects from WPA during that time period, the facade of GHS has several “bas-relief” sculptures. They incorporated figures of the muses of tragedy and comedy and of several athletes playing baseball, basketball and football. These sculptures have become a cherished feature of downtown Gresham for many members of the community.

Designing the new Gresham High

The basis of the new design is the four key elements of the 2016 bond package: safety and security updates, the creation of modern learning environments, equal access to technology and relieving crowded spaces.

The new design features internally locking classroom doors, up to date cameras and emergency communication systems, brand new classrooms/labs for science, technology and hands on learning, upgraded internet and technology and  significant expansions of classrooms and communal spaces to accommodate students.

Honoring the past

Through community input the design team learned the building’s facade was a point of pride and should be incorporated into the new design.

“The community let us know that retaining the facade in the new design was an important feature of the new building—but not at the expense of building a great educational facility,” said project architect Richard Higgins. “Our challenge in the design process was to find a way to keep the look of the facade, to incorporate architecturally-significant elements from the original building, while staying on budget.”

The design team got to work and created a building that includes design features you currently see along Main street.  They also found many ways to save and re-use the cherished WPA era elements:

  • The bricks used for the building will be the color of the masonry used when the building originally went up.
  • The athletic relief statues will stand guard in front of the gym, while the muses will take a prominent place in the school.
  • The original art deco wrought-iron doors will be restored and placed in the new building.

“In the end, I’m happy that we were able to incorporate elements of the original facade,” Principal Schaefer said. “I’m glad we were able to retain the character of the building for those who’ve grown up in this community.”

Una versión de esta historia en español está disponible AQUÍ