Contributed by Val C. Ballestrem, Education Manager, Architectural Heritage Center
When Portland was incorporated in 1851, permanent structures in the new city were built completely of wood. The first brick commercial building wasn’t constructed until 1853 and it was rather simple in design. Little remains from that period, with the exception of the 1857 Hallock & McMillen Building at SE Naito Parkway and Oak Street and the adjacent Delschneider Building (1859).
By the 1860s, buildings throughout the city were emblazoned with European inspired architectural ornament. Everything from cast iron pilasters with Corinthian capitals, to hand-carved wooden heads could be found adorning commercial buildings in the heart of downtown as well as the homes of wealthy Portlanders that were beginning to rise as the City expanded in all directions. Wood ornament remained especially popular on houses, but after fire decimated a large swath of downtown in 1873, the use of brick and iron on commercial structures increased.
The increased use of cast-iron ornament gave downtown Portland a series of rhythmic, unified streetscapes with the iron archways creating the effect of blocks-long colonnades between Front and Second Streets. Over time however, the Machine Age led to the mass production of architectural ornament and less emphasis on hand made decoration. Houses and commercial buildings from the 1870s -1880s were often dripping with ornament that could be ordered straight out of a catalog. This began to change by the end of the 1880s as new architects in town brought with them new ideas for design – designs that often included far less ornament, but equally beautiful architecture.
Around 1889, a series of new buildings began to rise in Portland displaying the influence of famed Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson. These buildings were noted for their use of rustic brick and (sometimes carved) stone, rather than cast iron or wood. Arches over doorways and windows were round, similar to the arches found in ancient Rome and creating what became known as the Romanesque Revival (or Richardsonian Romanesque) style of architecture. Several buildings in this style are still standing downtown including the Dekum (SW 3rd and Washington St.), Auditorium (920 SW 3rd Ave.), and Haseltine (SW 2nd and Pine St.) buildings. Houses in Portland from this period, like the Mackenzie House in Northwest Portland (now known as William Temple House at 615 SW 20th Ave.) also reflected the Romanesque Revival style. The economic Panic of 1893 put a halt to the Romanesque age in Portland as many construction projects were stopped. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th Century that a new building boom came to the city.
As Portland entered the new century, so too did it enter a new age of architectural design. There was a near simultaneous return to an interest in the classical motifs of Greece and Rome and the development of the American version of the Arts & Crafts movement. Portland area houses from this period reflect this varied interest, with elements from otherwise different architectural styles often blended together. The architecture firm of Whidden and Lewis and their protégé Albert E. Doyle set the stage for this new generation of Portland architecture, with commercial buildings that by 1910 were adorned with glazed white terra cotta, a material easily applied to the new steel-framed structures. Examples of this popular building style can be seen on nearly all sides of the Pioneer Courthouse Square, including Doyle’s Northwestern Bank Building (1914) and the iconic Jackson Tower (1912), designed by California architects Reid & Reid.
With the onset of the First World War, building in Portland slowed dramatically. It wasn’t until the mid-1920s that a series of new commercial buildings arose in downtown, with designs of particular note by Doyle, such as his Bank of California Building (SW 6th and Stark), from 1924-25 and the Public Services Building (920 SW 6th), completed in 1927. At the same time, there was widespread (and speculative) residential development throughout the city, with perhaps thousands of single family houses constructed during this time. Neighborhoods like Eastmoreland and Laurelhurst flourished, their streets dotted with bungalows and English style cottages. As with most cities in the US, the onset of the Great Depression had a tremendous impact on new construction. House construction dwindled, as Portland’s population during this time also stagnated. From the early 1930s until after the end of World War II, there were no new large buildings constructed downtown.
In 1948, Portland was put on the Modernism map as local architect Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building (421 SW 6th) was completed. The Equitable, now known as the Commonwealth Building, represented a sea change in high rise commercial architecture, especially in an otherwise architecturally conservative city like Portland. The sleek steel frame was sheathed in aluminum and glass. The building was also an engineering marvel with an early form of air conditioning that was the first of its kind in the world. By the end of 1951, Belluschi had left Portland, turning his firm over to the internationally renowned Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. SOM would transform Portland over the next four decades, designing such noted buildings as Veterans Memorial Coliseum (1960) in North Portland, the Standard Plaza at 1100 SW 6th Ave. with its unique lighted rooftop weather beacon (1963), and Portland’s second tallest building, the US Bancorp Tower at 111 SW 5th Avenue, sometimes called “Big Pink” (1983). Also completed during this period was Portland’s tallest building, the First National Bank Tower at 1300 SW 5th Avenue (1972). Now known as the Wells Fargo Center, it was designed by Los Angeles based architectural firm Charles Luckman and Associates.
Portland has long been known for its quirkiness and perhaps no other building is representative of this than the Michael Graves’ designed Portland Building at 1120 SW 5th Avenue (1982). Known for the iconic Portlandia statue, its whimsical color, the Portland Building is another of Portland’s architectural “firsts”. It was the first high-rise office building in the world designed in the Post-Modern style. It’s safe to say that the style never really caught on otherwise in Portland, so it is truly a one of a kind building.
Since the 1990s, downtown Portland has seen a variety of large downtown area buildings constructed, including the Hatfield Courthouse at 1000 SW 3rd (1997), designed in collaboration by Kohn Pederson Fox of New York and Portland’s own BORA Architects. But perhaps more of note has been the development of an entire new neighborhood – the Pearl District. Carved out of a former warehouse and industrial area, The Pearl contains an interesting blend of old buildings converted to new uses, such as Powell’s Books and Whole Foods which are both located in former car dealership buildings. There are former warehouses turned into mix-use condominiums, an 1890s armory annex has been transformed into a beautiful theater, and even an old brewery has been integrated with new development.
Portland contains at least a little of every popular architectural style from the past 150 years. If you wander around downtown you can see buildings from just about every decade since the 1850s. If you venture out into some of the residential neighborhoods you there is a similar variety. Buildings are physical reminders of how the city has developed over time. When exploring the city you may find the last vestiges of residential areas adjacent to downtown, along with neighborhoods that have withstood the test of time, and still other areas that have been completely transformed. Architecturally speaking, Portland offers a little something for everyone.