A modernist marvel in Beaverton

by Maija Anderson, Head of Historical Collections & Archives, OHSU Library

August 18, 2014

In 1959, medical faculty Edward S. West, Ph.D. and Donald E. Pickering, M.D. submitted a proposal to a new NIH program that sought to create a network of centers dedicated to primate research. NIH awarded the grant in 1960, and the center now known as the Oregon National Primate Research Center opened in 1962.
The Medical Research Foundation purchased the rural site in Washington County. The prestigious architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was selected to design the facility. Founded in 1936, the architectural firm was then world-famous for its advancement of modern architecture. It was better-known for high-end, “glass box” commercial buildings (later, the firm designed the John Hancock Building, the Sears Tower and Burj Dubai) than for academic centers. However, the firm designed the project with careful thought to both its intended use and the natural setting. A 1961 pamphlet announced it as “one of the most outstanding contributions to laboratory design in America in recent years,” and described an overall vision that adhered to modernism’s values of functionality, simplicity and technology, while respecting the surrounding landscape:

"Center campus facilities have been designed to make the best possible use – both scientifically and aesthetically – of a two hundred acre site in the suburban Tualatin Valley near Beaverton. Architecturally, the buildings are low in silhouette and are placed to accentuate the charm of the gently-rolling, wooded countryside."

The center was also designed as a self-contained venue for intellectual exchange between the many professionals who worked there. As well as the expected laboratories, data processing centers and libraries, the center also included dining facilities, printing and photography studios, meeting rooms and secretarial services.

The forward-looking design also anticipated rapid expansion. By the end of the 1960s, the 85 original employees had grown to include 45 scientists and 160 research associates and support staff. Between the 1970s-1990s, completely new facilities were added to the campus, accommodating research in vaccine and gene therapy, fertility and the basic sciences. Animal facilities were upgraded in the 1990s-2000s.

Today, the original Central Services Building looks much like the 1961 artist’s rendering above, a testament to the long-term utility of the original design. ONPRC itself strides into the future with groundbreaking research in areas such as cloning and stem cells, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, fertility and obesity.