Spa,” “art,” and “ovarian cancer” are rarely found in the same sentence—much less under the same roof—but that was before Portland, Oregon’s Joanna Cain, MD, the Julie Neupert Stott Director of the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Center for Women’s Health, issued a mandate four years ago. Dr. Cain, a college art minor, had a strong vision for the new space housing the Center.

“It’s like the commercial on television where a couple tells an architect to ‘design a home around’ a water faucet,” says Portland interior designer Georgia Erdenberger, principal of Czopek & Erdenberger. “When OHSU awarded us the interior space assignment, Dr. Cain was very clear about her requirements and vision: She wanted a healing environment designed with the feel of a day spa filled with artwork. From the very beginning, we knew that we were creating something extraordinary.”

The Center embodies the goal of a group of Portland women (who, in 1994, organized themselves into The Campaign for Women’s Health) to establish a foundation for healthcare specifically focused on women’s needs. “People are just now coming to the realization that there is a sharp difference between men’s and women’s health,” says Dr. Cain, “and in addition to treatment protocols, women respond to an entirely different set of visual and emotional stimuli.”

The Campaign set about raising the needed $12 million for construction and $6 million for endowment. Chief among this team was Arlene Schnitzer, who has a long history of community philanthropy in the art world. On learning about the women’s healthcare model, she readily volunteered to help. Her commitment was further cemented through conversations with Dr. Cain, who blended a dedication to patients with a belief that art inspires hope and comforts people. Both women believed there were potential donors throughout Oregon who would see the value in marrying cutting-edge technology with art.

Schnitzer’s commitment was key. Not only did she provide a $3 million lead gift for the building campaign, she donated more than 200 pieces of art through her foundation. “Arlene Schnitzer has one of the keenest eyes for important art in the country,” says Erdenberger. “As a native Oregonian, she has a passion for Northwest artists, and her personal collection could stand in any museum in the world.”

Fundraising for the Campaign took a variety of forms. A Council for Women’s Health Art Committee put out the call for donations of art and monetary gifts to purchase art. Another committee of women designed a unique fundraiser, “Babes and Baubles,” to capture the idea of fundraising with a purpose while having fun. This prototype was the first of a series of “women-centric” philanthropic events that have since become synonymous with the Center.

Individuals and foundations were personally approached for major gift support. In all, more than 1,500 donors made the Center a reality. Fountains, art, inscribed tiles, examination and treatment rooms (figure 1), medical suites, reception areas, and equipment ranging from a bone density measuring device to microscopes all were funded by donations. Gifts in support of the Center’s programs and services ranged from $25 to a $2.5 million, the latter a gift to endow the Julie Neupert Stott Directorship held by Dr. Cain.

A treatment room at Oregon Health & Science University Center for Women’s Health in Portland, Oregon, with custom exterior glass design.

Until its mid-2006 relocation to a 30,000-square-foot space at the newly built Peter O. Kohler Pavilion (named after the recently-retired President of OHSU) and all its philanthropic donations, the Center had been housed in an aging building called the Physicians Pavilion. “The Center came into being before we had the right space for it,” explains Dr. Cain. “The Kohler building was on the drawing board, and we knew we would relocate eventually, but we had to get our medical services up and going before that space could be realized.” However, OHSU had already received designation as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health, and the medical and philanthropic communities were eager to frame this landmark concept in an innovative space.

International architects Perkins+Will designed the Kohler building shell. Portland’s Peterson Kolberg & Associates, PC, in concert with Czopek & Erdenberger, designed the building interiors. “The design for the building provided us with both a backdrop and an inspiration for Dr. Cain’s ideas,” says Erdenberger. “You step off the elevator and come around the corner into a lobby that is fronted by 16-foot windows that look out onto a garden terrace with native plants and sculpture, and beyond to one of the most breathtaking views in the Northwest.” Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens, as well as the Willamette River, are all visible and, more importantly, when the viewer turns back into the room, there is no jarring juxtaposition of outside and inside; they flow together (figure 2 and 3).

A secondary waiting area with views of the garden and a display niche for rotating art exhibits.

The corridor at the garden window wall features seating alcoves with artwork and views to the outdoors.

Erdenberger’s color palette highlights sand, caramel, earth tones, browns, taupes, small bits of orange and red, sea green and mottled green. Warm cherry woods; textural fabrics; golden, cream, brown, and green slate; and gently curving surfaces characterize the design and quietly showcase the art. The designers felt it was important not to simply hang paintings on the walls, but to use various art forms as part of the patient experience. The first thing a visitor sees when she gets off the elevator is a 5′ × 8′ tapestry, the only commissioned piece at the Center. Entitled “The Tree of Life,” it was created by Portland’s Pam Gibson (figure 4). A close look reveals talismans woven into the design—the lace of a christening gown, a “good luck” Scrabble piece, a dog tag from a dog who had become a widow’s constant companion. These pieces were given by staff, patients, and donors, and each carries a particular story with it.

The elevator lobby features “The Tree of Life” by Pam Gibson, a commissioned tapestry made with donated personal items from staff and patients.

In just a few short steps, one enters the lobby, which in spite of its spaciousness and extraordinary views, emanates a feeling of warmth and welcome. To the right is a gift shop with a tea bar, stocked with items produced by Northwest artists. To the left, behind a panel of contemporary glass-art tiles donated by Lalique International and local Zell Brothers Jewelers, is a computer-equipped patient resource center.

Further into the lobby are chairs in conversational groupings, the reception area and, of course, the art. This space narrows into a wide corridor that curves around the eastern side of the building. There are small nooks on either end of the lobby for children, which include video screens, child-size artist-designed furniture, educational toys and art that will appeal particularly to tiny tastes. (A favorite of the writer’s were three small “aquariums” built into the wall, each containing a combination of wooden and colored Lalique glass fish and turtles.) All of the items named in this paragraph were donated.

Erdenberger notes that the project was not without its challenges: “We had 30,000 square feet in which to work—however, we had to include a lot of program in that space, including the lobby, a conference room, the resource center, and the tea bar, and that was just in the entry area.”

The new space was three times the size of the Center’s previous site, so the design team focused on smoothly breaking it up so it would not appear monolithic. Throughout the public and medical areas, all color palettes, types of art displays, and even tile in the exam rooms were carefully planned. Benches were placed in long corridors, both as accommodations and to break the sight line. Large paintings were positioned as focal points at the ends of corridors—which turned out to have a practical application, as the staff uses them as wayfinding aids.

Because the large area, high ceilings, and extensive use of stone can test the acoustical problem-solving abilities of the most seasoned interior designer, the tiered, curved ceiling consists of acoustical panels. Slatted-wood acoustical ceilings also were used in the long corridor adjacent to the garden space.

Because that high, curving space design filled with art can be filled with sunshine one day and Oregonian rainy-day gloom the next, the approach to lighting was critical. “We had to light both the space and the art,” Erdenberger explains, “while working with and around an extraordinary amount of natural light.” To address this, the design team employed recessed lighting and cove lighting to highlight the curvy forms and to draw attention to the many art pieces. They also placed sconces on the walls throughout, which added additional warmth.

Discussing the Center for this article, Erdenberger reflects on the project: “Dr. Cain’s vision was right on the mark, and very much ahead of its time. No hard edges, no bright lights, no lines of chairs, no institutional atmosphere…just a soothing feeling of calm to help take the patient through the next stage, or stages, of her visit. This was truly a labor of love for my staff and for me.” HD

Susie Kasper is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.