Portland Postcards!

In the course of researching AN ARCHITECTURAL GUIDEBOOK TO PORTLAND, my interest in Portland's venerable buildings often led me to old postcards. Gibbs Smith Publisher will release my book of historic Portland postcards at some point in the relatively near future.

As a preview for the book, the following postcards display some Portland buildings that mostly date from the first half of the 20th century. I wasn't around then, and you probably weren't either, but journey back through the decades with these images from a happier time. Enjoy yesteryear's Portland through yesteryear's eyes in the stunning linen postcards of a bygone era!

Or just look at the cards.

And don’t forget about the book.

(By the way, “the book” needs a good, snappy title. I’m open to suggestions; OLD PORTLAND IN HISTORIC POSTCARDS doesn’t seem very flashy. LIFE AND DEATH BY THE RIVER is catchier, but not a very accurate summation of the book’s contents. Send me your title ideas; the winner gets a free copy of the yet-to-be-titled tome!)

Related Links:

Webfooters Postcard Club web-site


Contact Bart King at: kingbart@comcast.net

“Hello There” from Portland

This postcard shows the “ultra-modern” freeway system that once existed on the west bank of the Willamette River. Why, we had 12 (count ‘em!) lanes of high-speed asphalt separating the core of the city from the river’s edge. Of course, city planners eventually wised up and changed all that. Nowadays, you’d have to go to, say, Cincinnati, to see civic planning this willfully oppressive.

   The Equitable Building (aka The Commonwealth Building) 1948
421 SW Sixth Avenue, between Washington and Stark Street
Architect: Pietro Belluschi

This smooth masterpiece wrapped in aluminum and green glazed glass was way ahead of its time. Its modest height and the building's slender width give it a perfect compositional balance. In fact, it may be Portland's most architecturally significant building.

Pietro Belluschi was prepared to use aluminum in the structure of the building itself until the idea was rejected by local fire marshals because of that metal's low melting temperature. Good thing they did.


  Portland Hilton 1963
921 SW Sixth Avenue
Architect: Skidmore, Owings, Merrill (SOM)

Boy! Look at the cheerful pedestrians thronging the bottom of this charming and lively hotel!

Of course, in real life, the "corporate chic" epitomized by the 21-story Hilton Hotel is utterly charmless. Not only is the building aesthetically sterile, but its podium-based garage isolates the building from its surroundings. At best, this building can be termed "International"; at worst, it is simply out of context with the surrounding area, a blight of Brobdingnagian proportions.

Admittedly, attempts have been made to ameliorate the hotel's exterior with plants and an Art Deco makeover. Hoo-ha.


Portland Central Bus Depot view circa 1937-1950

A beautiful looking design on a downtown building that is now gone. Readers Alan Locklear and Chuck Fulton point out that Portland Central Bus Depot was between SW 5th and 6th Avenues on Taylor, on the backside of the Pacific Building. Mr. Locklear writes that the depot “spent its last years as a grimy sore on the Transit Mall while a succession of developers tried to put together projects for its site.” Eventually, a new Hilton went up on this location. Again, I say: Hoo-ha.

The Public Service Building 1928
920 SW Sixth Avenue, between Salmon and Taylor Streets
Architects: Doyle, Patterson and Beach; Charles K. Greene, designer

A building that literally trumpets "POWER"! The Pacific Light and Power Company was in this building, which explains the huge sign over the front. The neon sign was a flashing red-and-green, and also had the words HEAT, LIGHT, and GAS aimed in different cardinal directions. (The signs were taken down in 1973, when the original red-tile roof was replaced by a metal one.) But the Public Service Building can still boast of the considerable clout of having its own Niketown.

Charles K. Greene began the initial designs on this building, but left town before construction was complete. As an openly gay man, he was eventually exiled from the community by the Portland School Board! Despite his reports back to Stumptown that he was doing well in Los Angeles, he reportedly died alone of starvation several years later.

Local architect supreme A.E. Doyle died three weeks after the grand opening of the Public Service Building, in January of 1928. He wrote a friend from his deathbed: " . . . sooner or later, we all put concrete foundations under our air castles."


The Pagoda 1940
East end of Broadway in NE Portland, not far from the Hollywood Theater . . .

I wish I knew how old this postcard is; the restaurant is still there, but the windows are gone, and the whole building is now hermetically sealed in red and orange tile. Neon has been added to the pagoda roof edges, giving it a great night outline. I live close by the Pagoda; you'll easily spot my house, as it too is outlined in neon.


The Oregonian Building 1891
Architect: Reid and Reid

This 1907 painted postcard only hints at the massive strength that old photos lend the old Oregonian building. The tower was destroyed in the 1940s, and I'm not quite clear on its former whereabouts. I can tell you that the architects of this tower also designed Portland's Jackson Tower (its postcard is also in here) and the Yeon Building, as well as San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel and San Diego's Hotel Del Coronado.

The card's back message cryptically reads: "Dear Amelia: Did you get home from the Masquerade Ball?"


The Memorial Coliseum 1960
It's big and at the east end of the Broadway Bridge.
Architect: SOM

I'll admit that I initially disliked this International-style building, but as time has gone on, it has won me over. It has a cube-like purity, and once you're inside the perfectly square shape, the views of the city and the Willamette are unparalleled. Entering the arena (an oval inside a square), you quickly realize that it is a superior venue than the nearby Rose Garden. It is relatively intimate, and a great place for a concert or a Winterhawks game. Four massive pillars supporting two colossal trusses hold up the whole kit-and-kaboodle. The Coliseum's outer wall of mullions and glass is a "curtain" wall; it supports no weight.

The Memorial's excellent views may be lost in the near future as city consultants envision new ways to breathe life into the Rose Quarter by gazing longingly at the four city blocks the Coliseum covers. For the moment, just enjoy the sublime counterpoint that the delicately curved rain-cover over the main entrance provides to the Coliseum's straight lines. Good stuff.


Portland Armory Building (a.k.a. the First Regiment Armory Building) 1891
West side of NW Tenth Avenue between Couch and Davis Street
Architect: McCaw, Martin and White
Remodel: GBD Architects

The Armory is a glib facsimile of a fort, and this somewhat ugly card shows what it used to look like before its current whitewash. This building has seen a lot of changes in the Pearl; note the dirt street in front of it.

The card was mailed in 1908 to "Miss Carrie Birstmeyer, Winlock, Wash." No zip code or address needed. Sigh.

  Broadway Night Scene
Intersection of Broadway and Main Street

A truly great postcard; you can see the Paramount and Broadway theaters, and the lit-up Oregon Journal Tower. The painter of this scene was tragically run down by the approaching streetcar


U.S. Custom House 1901
220 NW Eighth Avenue
Architect: James Knox Taylor/Supervisor: Edgar M. Lazarus

The best thing about this card is the size of the trees shown in front of the Custom House. Swing by sometime and note their growth since this picture was taken. While there, if you look at the terra cotta lintel stones over the window arches of this unusually shaped building, you'll find interesting governmental symbols like the staff of Aesculapius, and the dreaded glove on a stick.

It is easy to forget in modern times that the revenue of customs duties was once hugely important to the Portland city coffers. This helps to explain the presence of the ironwork on the windows of the first floor; it was designed to protect the goods in the building that were going through customs.

  First Congregational Church 1889-1895
1126 SW Park Avenue
Architect: Henry J. Hefty (Switzerland)

This card is notable for showing the three original towers of this Italian Gothic church; only the one on the right remains, and the Portland Performing Arts Center fills the space behind it now.


Governor Hotel (originally The Seward Hotel) 1909
611 SW Tenth, southwest corner of Tenth and Alder Street
Architect: William C. Knighton

The anthropomorphic features of this hotel are partially visible on this card. As the card states, this was once known as the "House of Cheer"; the back advertises that "All Oregon Electric Trains stop at the Hotel Seward." It's interesting to note that after a long hiatus, electric streetcars have finally returned along this route.


The Heathman Hotel (orig. the New Heathman Hotel) 1927
712 SW Salmon Street, southwest corner of Salmon and Broadway
Architect: DeYoung and Roald/Renovation: Carter Case

One can see a glimpse of the Schnitz to the left of the "new" Heathman Hotel. That is apparently lightning ripping through the night sky, perhaps designed to frighten the viewer into appreciating the ad copy on the back: "Rates start at $5.00 with bath."

  Jackson Tower (Oregon Journal Building) 1912
Architects: Merrit Reid and James William Reid (San Francisco)

This picture is apparently taken from a perspective hovering above the present-day Nordstrom's fortress. The old tower does not look as imposing as it once did thanks to the Fox Tower, but it is a handsome building. They put out a newspaper here, damnit, and it wasn't easy. They wrote their stories by the light of caged fireflies, and if you lost your story, it wasn't backed up on some sissy computer. Heck, they drafted this building's plans by hand! In the snow! Uphill both ways!


Multnomah Hotel (Embassy Suites Downtown) 1912
319 SW Pine Street, north side, between Third and Fourth Avenue Architects: Gibson and Cahill/Restoration: SERA Architects

At one time the largest building in Portland, this is a gorgeous night-time shot of the Multnomah Hotel. This postcard was mailed the year after the building was finished, right when it was going bankrupt for the first of many times. This "latest perspective" is superior to any that can be had now, as a parking garage blocks this view of the hotel front. Great lobby inside.

The day time shot gives the building more of a vertical presence; it also shows that in 1957, everyone drove an identical 12-cylinder luxury car.


Portland Hotel 1889
Current site of Pioneer Courthouse Square
Architect: McKim, Mead and White

Bavaria-native Henry Hilgard (1835-1900; name later changed to Villard) hired the prestigious New York firm of McKim, Mead and White to design the Portland Hotel on this site. Construction began in 1882, but ended the next year when Villard's fortunes crumbled. The site was then abandoned for five years with only the foundation completed. The site was nicknamed "Villard's Ruins" at the time; two victims of violent murder were found on the site before work on the hotel was continued and completed. (Material from the hotel's foundation is beneath the fountain on the west side of the square.)

Financiers completed the Portland Hotel, and it resided here from 1889 to 1951. The construction of this magnificent hotel effectively moved downtown's social center westward, leaving Old Town and the Yamhill District to molder for a number of decades before their contemporary resurgence. The Portland Hotel was ultimately demolished and this block subsequently was a parking lot for thirty years.