By Gary Corbin
Office space. Most of our waking hours are spent there — it’s home from 9 to 5, often even
longer. Office designs affect our mood, our relationships, our productivity. Though we laugh at
the cartoons and the sitcoms, office space matters.
If you’re thinking about restructuring your personal work space, get some ideas from two
beautiful and complete renovations done for the offices of Harry Merlo and Judge Diarmuid
If you want some interesting twists on altering your environment, take a look at the unique office
habitats on the following pages.
You just might find a way to upgrade the value, flexibility, usefulness, and look of your office
Room to Judge
Offices of Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain at Pioneer Courthouse
Unless you’re a lawyer, Pioneer Courthouse is not a place you’d want to go on official business,
if you can help it. “You’d have to be in deep trouble to get here,” says U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge
Diarmuid O’Scannlain, whose chambers occupy the east end of the historic building’s third
floor. “We’re the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
But if you did find yourself inside this Reconstruction-era building’s timber-lined halls, you’d be
forgiven for gawking.
The oldest of four courthouses hosting the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and second-oldest
courthouse west of the Mississippi, Pioneer Courthouse, built in 1875, captures the geography
and spirit of its origins with its high ceilings, terrazzo floors and inlaid marble. “It really reflects
the community, both in its beautiful preserved woodwork and the sense of local artisanship,”
What housed a regal, if dusty, post office just two years ago now impresses its visitors with
spacious stateliness. In one first-floor meeting room, crimson drapes cascade over 8-foot
windows, softening the morning light that splashes on the dark brown table surrounded by a
dozen and a half leather chairs.
A mahogany banister ascends carpeted stairs to the courtroom. The gallery’s blonde oak pews set
the observer apart from the high paneled bench where the Court’s three judges hear cases. One is
struck by the room’s dimensions — not so much its footprint as its headspace. Hand-carved
moldings interrupt Victorian columns in bas-relief some 14 feet from the floor, above which
another eight feet of space absorbs acoustical reverberations of constitutional debate. Five chandeliers, each adorned with a dozen incandescent globes, hang from the ceiling’s hand-carved
plaster, yet the room feels dimly lit.
Those waiting for their case to be heard might review their arguments in the adjacent Attorneys
Lounge by the white marble fireplace or watch the proceedings underway on a live-feed flat-
screen monitor. “Behind the scenes, the building is completely wired with high-capacity fiber-
optic cable and state-of-the-art electronic equipment,” O’Scannlain says. Expertly hidden
security cameras do not intrude on the visitor’s immersion into the 19th
The judges’ chambers are equally well-appointed. No government-standard cubicle farm here.
Walnut panels cover the original walls of Judge O’Scannlain’s office — the building had fallen
into disrepair for a time after World War II and needed periodic refurbishing — but recessed
ceiling lamps and painted-gold mouldings inlaid with modern rope lighting brighten the nearly
windowless space. Again, broad dimensions provide breathing and working room. A sofa and
chairs face yet another marble fireplace, and, leapfrogging the judge’s stacked desk, a conference
table overlooks the street.
Visiting judges have plenty of room to work, too. Court is not in session, but still, one is struck
by the number of empty offices and empty shelves. The Gilbert Room, occupying the northwest
corner of the second floor, could house a small law office and even provides an antique Royal
typewriter on a mail-sorting desk. Even the IT guy lives well, occupying first-floor space that
most CEOs would kill for.
All of this beauty came within a whisker of disappearing in the 1970s. Meier and Frank
successfully bid on the site in a government auction and slated it for demolition to build, of all
things, a parking structure. Luckily, local civic leaders stepped in and rescued the building from
the wrecking ball.
That, to be sure, would have been a criminal waste.
An Environment for a Mix of Enterprises
Merlo Corporation’s Southeast Portland headquarters
It doesn’t look like much from the outside. A cone-shaped brick building nestled into the busy,
bendy intersection of Southeast Tenth and Sandy, Merlo Corporation’s corporate headquarters
blends right into the gritty Central Eastside Industrial District’s emerging commercial face.
But to hear Merlo Corp.’s Vice President Gary Maffei describe it, this old machine parts store
was tailor-made for the new corporate downtown alternative. “I’m 10 minutes from home and
five minutes from downtown,” he explains. “I can walk to lunch, walk to Lloyd Center, and all
of our employees park free.”
Remodeled by Duncan and Demers in 2003 from a Marc Wintner design, this 1960s-era
building’s transformation from industrial shop to commercial chic begins immediately upon entering the lobby. Marble tile in a diagonal pattern sports a cush sofa for savoring the tastings
offered by Lago di Merlo Wine Distributing. Inside, a wrought-iron gate arcs over the front
entrance, opening to an expansive quarter-circle, housing sculpture, mature potted greenery and a
baby grand piano. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels curve between walls of exposed exterior brick,
laid vertically to give the illusion of higher-than-average ceilings.
Twelve Merlo employees occupy the corporate offices on the second floor, including CEO Harry
Merlo himself. Themes introduced in the wine shop continue in the comfortable work spaces:
exposed brick, glass-panel interior walls to provide a sense of space and spaciousness, generous
splashes of art and green growing things. Offices line the exterior of the building, giving each
employee natural light and a share of the gentle angles that the structure follows as it bends
around the curve of SE Sandy. If there is a rectangular space in this office, it is well-hidden.
The grandest office is, of course, Merlo’s, occupying the rounded acute corner pointing
southwesterly down Sandy. “He’s always looking out that window,” Maffei smiles. “Wouldn’t
The reception area may be the largest single space in the office, providing the visitor with as
much room to breathe and work as the Merlo employees hosting your visit. The room’s
centerpiece sits atop a blonde oak filing cabinet — a scale replica of the Amerigo Vespucci, an
Italian three-masted naval ship that first set sail in 1930. In another corner, the art provides a
sense of action: a sculpture of a young boy playing soccer. Abstract and representational art
replace the usual certificates and awards adorning most corporate brag walls. Rather than boast,
Merlo would prefer to charm you.
That’s appropriate, given the way the employees feel about the place. They describe it the way a
proud homeowner brags about their neighborhood. “We really love it here,” Maffei says
enthusiastically. “It’s safe, easy to get to, and close to everything. Other people are moving in
and you get to know your neighbors.”
Does it feel safe? “Very safe,” he nods.
The location, convenience and affordability of the area seem like a perfect fit for the eclectic mix
of Merlo’s enterprises. Wine distribution, aviation, real estate, property management (Merlo
owns ranches in eastern Oregon), and management of the philanthropic Merlo Foundation
require space, flexibility and mobility. Besides office and public space, the building warehouses
the various wines ready for distribution, delivery vans, and all of the company’s record storage.
Its location on a major city arterial gets the deliveries on the road fast, without the traffic and
congestion headaches of downtown. “We can come and go as we please,” Maffei says.
By the looks of things, they won’t be leaving any time soon.
BrainstormNW - December 2007