From the Vaults: High Desert Museum

by Sarah Bell

When the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon’s New Home had its dedication last year, I drove to Bend for the day with my two youngest boys, who were both under 5 years old. I arrived several hours before the dedication with both boys needing to expend energy built up over the 3-hour car ride. Not having planned on it, I took them to the High Desert Museum – not because I wanted to show them a Hacker building, but because I knew it would wear them out.

I had no idea how meaningful it would be to visit one of Hacker’s first buildings within hours of seeing one of our most recent, completed 20+ years apart and within a few miles of each other. What made this even more intriguing was the High Desert Museum was designed by Thom Hacker and the new Unitarian home was designed by Corey Martin. The building’s stylistic differences are many, but it was like seeing a pair of architectural siblings – similar in their genetic material but each showing a clear personality. Experiencing the two projects on the same day (and around the time we changed our name to Hacker) was a pure illustration of the firm’s strong roots, and evolution.

The High Desert Museum’s origin story goes something like this: After winning the commission to design the Arizona Historical Museum, Thom Hacker got a call from Don Kerr (who sadly passed away last year at the age of 69 – you can read more about him here). Don was interested in talking to Thom about his vision for the High Desert Museum, and Thom immediately drove over the mountain to visit him in Bend. At the time, Bend was mostly a logging and ski town – the population 1/5 of what it is today. The 135 acres of land that the High Desert Museum was located on (at this time there was a small building on the property that had opened in 1982 as the Oregon High Desert Museum) was donated by local lumber executive Mike Hollern, who is still very active in Bend real estate. There is no question that without this land being donated to Don Kerr’s vision, it would be developed with an excess of large homes today.

Don Kerr had this vision of a place that showed visitors the natural and cultural forces that shaped Central Oregon, and Mike Hollern had the wisdom to believe in him. Thom Hacker was immediately taken by the opportunity. He visited the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside of Tucson, then and now the gold standard for desert museums in the U.S. There was a lot to be inspired by at that museum – the outdoor exhibits, the integration with the landscape, the quietness of the architecture – but the stucco buildings were fitting of the Arizona desert. Thom envisioned a design that would be completely of its place in the Oregon high desert landscape. So he and the team designed unassuming, elegant buildings that used extensive native stone and wood (some of it taken directly from the land it lies on), including slate flooring and walls built from volcanic rocks.

Aside from their simple beauty, the barn-like structures accomplished two things – they did not overpower the landscape and they were easy to add on to (Kerr was optimistic the museum would grow over time, which it certainly has).

On the inside, the palette of warm, natural materials continues. Both the interior and exterior have aged exceptionally well. This is both the result of the durability of the materials and how wonderfully the museum staff cares for the facility. The architecture has also proven to be adaptable for changing exhibits – both indoors and out.

On the day I visited last year, we spent most of our time outdoors. Longtime collaborators Walker Macy were the landscape architects, and we continue to partner with them on smaller projects at the Museum, such as a new desert otters exhibit that will open in May. There is much to love about the exterior landscape design – it has that signature Walker Macy touch of feeling untouched, even though there are paths and railings and other land interventions.

But looking past the architecture, and exhibit and landscape design – the credit for this great place goes to Don Kerr, Mike Hollern, major donors the Chiles Foundation and the Schnitzers, current Director Dana Whitelaw, and all the past directors and staff.

Don Kerr had a vision, and Mike Hollern had the land. And they were both wise and daring enough to believe in it. This doesn’t happen every day.

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TEAM: Thom Hacker, Jonah Cohen, Tyler Robinson, Tim Froelich Consulting Engineers, Carson Bekooy Gulick Kohn Consulting Engineers, Bentley Engineering Co., James E. Bussard Consulting Engineer, Hara Shick Architects, S.M. Anderson Co.

2 Comments »

  1. Corey Martin says:

    So good. These are the stories that give me goose bumps. Thanks Sarah!

  2. John Hughel says:

    Nice to see you are still using images I shot years ago for the THA (Hacker). Thanks for writing about this Sarah.

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