On a cold and clear November morning, more than 100 people gathered in the unfinished lobby of Multnomah County’s future Central Courthouse in downtown Portland to celebrate the placement of the last piece of structural steel in the 17-story building. The traditional “topping out” ceremony marked another major milestone in the long-awaited project to replace the county’s century-old downtown courthouse.
The event was capped by the raising of a long, steel beam covered by hundreds of signatures from construction workers, elected leaders, judges, architects, and others members of the project team. Following an ancient tradition started by European builders, a small tree was attached to the beam, to honor the natural resources that contributed to this human-built structure. A United States flag and a banner for the local ironworkers union also caught a ride on the beam as a crane lifted it from a sidewalk on SW First Ave. up to the southwest corner of the 17th floor where it will remain a part of the building.
In remarks to the audience before the beam was lifted, several speakers said a theme of the day was that this public building is being built by a team that more closely reflects the diversity of our community.
“We are very fortunate to have a talented hometown team in charge of this project, Hoffman Construction,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “Hoffman has worked hard to ensure a safe, welcoming, and diverse construction site. We appreciate their leadership. The construction industry has not always been welcoming to women and minorities.”
Journey carpenter Heather Mayther is an example of the diverse team. “I came here in mid-summer 2017,” Mayther told the crowd. “I was a fifth-term apprentice and I journeyed out on this project. There was still dirt here when I started building forms for rat slabs and footings below the basement.
“I’m so proud to be a part of a publicly-funded project where 25 percent of the apprentices are female,” Mayther continued. “I have three young daughters, who are 7-year-old triplets. When I brought them here to see these beautiful concrete columns in the lobby that I helped to build, I watched their little faces light up with awe. That was a proud moment for me.”
The soaring 50-foot tall concrete lobby columns will be a signature feature of the courthouse. “Talk about your stomach being in knots,” Mayther recalled. “Every time we stripped the forms from one of these columns, we said to ourselves, ‘Please be perfect.’ And they are.”
Heather is an employee of Hoffman Structures, Inc. Hoffman’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wayne Drinkward thanked Mayther for “stepping forward to help us actively model change in this industry.”
Drinkward said that after 50 years in construction, people always tell him, “‘You must be really proud of the buildings.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but that’s not why we build.’ The way we build matters. The experiences we have when we build matter. That’s what I remember the most.
When Mayther walks in here with her daughters someday, she’s not going to say ‘Look at this great building,’” Drinkward continued. “She’s going to say ‘Those are my columns.’ That’s the special gift this industry gives back to us.
“We have a long ways to go in terms of diversity and inclusion, and making everybody in the community a part of this industry,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage for people to step forward and work with us. Heather is a great model of that.”
Increasing opportunity in major construction projects like the courthouse has a major economic impact on the community, Drinkward said.
“On any given day there’s about 400 people here working onsite. Those are all family wage jobs with full benefits. That goes on for two and a half years. Offsite there are another 600 jobs. You’re talking about 1,000 jobs for two and a half years. That is consistent with the county’s values and what they are trying to do here.”
Chair Kafoury noted the project is also giving a boost to many small firms owned by women and minorities. “The county set aspirational goals to help minority, women, disabled veterans and emerging small businesses have opportunities to work on this project. Hoffman is doing a great job helping us create equity and opportunity on this project.”
This project is funded by a partnership between Multnomah County and the State of Oregon. “We wouldn’t be here today without the support of the Oregon Legislature, including Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek, House Majority Leader Representative Jennifer Williamson and the members of Multnomah County’s legislative delegation,” Kafoury said.
The new courthouse that looks out over the Willamette River at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge will also be a lasting symbol of our community’s belief in the rule of law, said Multnomah County Circuit Judge Nan Waller, an early champion of the project.
“We commit to upholding the rule of law every day, and to providing access to justice,” said Waller. “We commit every day to having people understand that justice is the way we want to resolve disputes in our community.”
Waller thanked the many construction workers and project leaders who toil at all hours to complete the project on schedule -- Many of which signed the final beam before it was hoisted to the top of the historic structure. As part of the ceremony, the project team honored Hoffman Construction Manager Justin Paterson’s late wife Amy Moore Paterson.
“I’ve been amazed when I drive by the building -- long past the time when most people have gone home,” she said. “The building is lit up at night by workers, standing as a literal beacon. I was driving home late at night recently and there it was, shining bright, a testament to our community’s commitment to justice.”
Drinkward also sees the project as a symbol. “When we finish this, you will see a building,” he said, just before the last beam was lifted. “But everyone who worked on it will see something that helped move us forward as a community. Something that helped bring people together and helped change our industry. Thank you all for being a part of it.”