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.




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.


  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.

RSS feed for comments on this post. / TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply


Farewell, Balfour-Guthrie Building

by Jonah Cohen

After 16 years, Hacker has vacated the Balfour-Guthrie Building and moved to its next iteration, which in many ways is a perfect symbol for our successful leadership transition that has taken place over the last five years. This is an emotional milestone for a few of us, especially me.

Read more


Cultivating a New Generation of Leaders

by Stefee Knudsen

How do we cultivate our future leaders? It’s a core question for educators and one that ultimately influences the design of schools. Two projects in Portland, the Oregon Episcopal School’s Lower School and the French American International School’s new Gilkey International Middle School, illustrate how new environments can help to advance institutional missions.

Read more


Hackers = Makers

by Scott Barton-Smith

If you’ve been to Hacker’s office in the past year and a half, you probably noticed art on the walls of our building’s vestibule and reception area. This rotating Makers exhibit showcases the off-hours work of our multi-talented team. By day we are architects, interior designers, and talented support personnel; by night we are artists. What began as a desire to exhibit some of our creative endeavors outside of work has turned into an amazing get-to-know-you. Every couple of months, a new batch of artistic expression graces our walls and gives us insight into our colleagues’ broad talents, inspiration, and personalities. Twelve Hackers have already displayed their art since October 2015 and there is no sign of it stopping! Scroll through for a sampling…

Read more


Hacker Builds!

by Garrett Martin

Our website typically shows you beautiful photos of our completed projects, or equally beautiful renderings of our projects “on the boards.” Have you ever wondered what happens in-between, or when those renderings will finally take actual form? Despite how it may appear sometimes, it all doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye or under cover of darkness.

Read more


What Pro Bono Work Has Taught Us

by Audrey Alverson

Pro bono architecture: Why do we do it?

Hacker has long been a signatory of the 1+ Program, which challenges designers to dedicate 1% or more of their time to pro bono service – but through trial and error over the years, we often found it challenging to bring this work to fruition. After a few fits and starts, and some mostly small-scale projects and studies, last year we decided to put some teeth to our commitment to pro bono service. Through this process, we’ve learned that the problem was never a lack of desire or good intentions, but more so a lack of planning.

Read more


Nurturing Growth in Lents Town Center

by Garrett Martin

On Sunday October 23rd of last year, we joined Bremik Construction and the Portland Development Commission to strike golden shovels into the ground and begin construction on the 9101 SE Foster project, a mixed-use multi-family building in the heart of Lents Town Center.

Read more


Why Hacker Started Paying for Parental Leave

by Sarah Bell

This year, Hacker implemented a new paid parental leave policy, covering six weeks at full salary for birth mothers and about four and ½ weeks full salary for a spouse of the parent who gives birth (adoptive parents get the same). This is in addition to the flexible paid time off granted to every Hacker employee.

Read more


A Saturday with Lou

by Scott Barton-Smith

Nearly half of the Hacker team caravanned north to attend the final day of the Bellevue Arts Museum’s retrospective Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture on April 30th. Although the exhibit includes video interviews of notable architects enthusing Kahn’s work, we had a more interactive guide. Our firm founder Thom Hacker gave us a personalized tour of the exhibit, which includes several projects on which Thom collaborated with his mentor “Lou.” The exhibit features many models and drawings prepared by Kahn’s office spanning projects from the Esherick House to more well know works like The Salk Institute, The Kimbell Art Museum, and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka. The exhibit even includes a full scale reproduction of the famous window seat designed for the Fisher house. Much of this material has not seen the light of day since Kahn’s death and it is remarkable that the large yet delicate cardboard, clay, and wood models survived.

Read more


University of Wyoming Visual Arts Facility Wins COTE Award

by Nic Smith

Hacker is a proud recipient of a 2016 AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects award for University of Wyoming’s Visual Arts Facility (VAF), a pioneering LEED Platinum facility that has shaped a new approach to health, safety, and sustainability in arts education. The 80,000-SF building consolidates the University’s fine arts program from its scattered locations, establishing a central component of the campus’s new arts district. It also marks a turning point in the campus’s thinking about environmental responsibility. Read more


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.

Read more