Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portland's 'living room'

Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The more congested and stressful city life becomes, the more we long for that “village square” that was so central to our city’s beginnings — the great open, common space where neighbors shared the latest news, children and dogs played, merchants traded, politicians spoke, demonstrations and festivals took place, concerts were enjoyed, and citizens stopped for a breather from the day’s tensions — before urban growth and rising land values often obliterated this oasis.

Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Luckily, Portland, Oregon, has revived it as Pioneer Courthouse Square, a 1.56-acre brick pedestrian respite from city clamor with something for everyone: trees, flowers, public art, chessboards, café, food and flower vendors, amphitheatre seating, and a waterfall cascading down a dual sculpture of domino-like granite blocks into a moat. 

Photo courtesy of
This frames the “drawbridge” entry into the Portland Oregon Visitor Association’s Visitor's Information Center, where tourists receive endless info about the city, state and square, and where Portland’s public transit agency Tri-Met offers route schedules and trip assistance for the city’s buses and Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail trolley system. Planned in conjunction with the development of MAX, the square also contains Portland’s main bus/rail hub.

Occupy Portland with the Pink Martini Orchestra, October 26, 2011.
Photo by Ray Terrill, courtesy of
Attracting some 26,000 Oregonians daily, Pioneer Courthouse Square hosts events as diverse as its design elements: spring’s Festival of Flowers, summer’s Sand in the City sandcastle contest, a winter holiday tree- lighting and band concert, and year-round health fairs, movie nights, performances, rallies, speeches and vigils, for which the two amphitheatres are made to order. 

Photo by Noliver, courtesy of Wikimedia
Photo by Cacophony, courtesy of Wikimedia
Monumental columns simulate classical temple ruins in tribute to the amphitheatres’ Greek origins. Artworks along the column row celebrate the city’s history and rainy climate, including scenes of Portland past and present and J. Seward Johnson’s bronze statue of a man offering his umbrella (left). The Weather Machine, a 33-foot ball-topped metal column (right), announces tomorrow’s weather daily at noon with trumpets, flashing lights, a mist spray, and the emergence of a gold-leaf sun, silver great blue heron or copper dragon from the ball to proclaim fair weather, cloudy or drizzly conditions, or rainstorms, respectively. Like a mercury thermometer, a stack of lightbulbs on one side of the machine lights progressively upward as the temperature rises. 

Image courtesy of Portland Public Schools.
As befits any common space, public input shaped Pioneer Courthouse Square from the start. It was the site of Portland’s first public school, Central School, from 1856 until railroad tycoon Henry Villard purchased the land in 1883 to build his 17-story Portland Hotel, capitalizing on the Northern Pacific Railway’s arrival here

Dedicated in 1890 with majestic chateau roofs and turrets, the hotel was Portland’s social center, a fashionable place to wine, dine and recline, until the Great Depression hastened its demise and it was razed in 1951 for a parking facility (below). (A cast-iron gate from the hotel stands on the square’s eastern side as a memorial.)

Photo courtesy of
A plan to clear the site for public use was proposed in the early 1970s, and in 1975 Mayor Neil Goldschmidt negotiated with the Meier & Frank department store to sell the lot to the city for that purpose. In 1980, the city held a design competition for a new public square.

Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of
Portland architect Willard Martin’s design team was chosen from 162 candidates. The project, however, sparked opposition from Mayor Frank Ivancie and local business owners and nabobs, on the grounds that a new public square would attract vagrants.
Photo by Bruce Forster, courtesy of

But this resistance was overcome when city commissioners Charles Jordan and Mike Lindberg led the “Friends of Pioneer Square” citizens’ coalition in raising $750,000 from the sale of 50,000 donor-inscribed bricks to save the $7.3 million project from back-burner oblivion.

The 2011 Christmas tree at Pioneer Courthouse Square. In the background is the historic
Meier & Frank Building
(1909-1932, Doyle & Patterson et al.), which now houses Macy's
department store and "The Nines" hotel. A MAX light rail train passes by on SW 6th Avenue.
Photo by Steve Morgan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Pioneer Courthouse Square was dedicated on April 6, 1984, before a crowd of 10,000 welcoming Portland's new "living room" with great aplomb. Since then, Pioneer Courthouse Square Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, has managed the park in public-private partnership with the city, through which local business owners sponsor public events in the square year-round.

Among the best attended events were then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s 1994 appearance, which attracted a record 55,000 people. On June 27, 2006, about 8,500 fans cheered the Oregon State Beavers as the 2006 NCAA College World Series Baseball Champions. On July 14, 2009, comic Dave Chappelle performed before a joyous throng of 8,000 to 12,000.

Photo by M.O. Stevens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
And yes, the square’s namesake still stands beside it. Built between 1869 and 1903 from an Italianate design by Alfred B. Mullett, the cupola-crowned Pioneer Courthouse is the Pacific Northwest’s oldest extant federal building and the second oldest federal structure west of the Mississippi River. It houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury, Post Office Square, Boston, completed c.1885, razed 1929.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Incidentally, Mullett also designed Boston's original French Second Empire U.S. Post Office and Subtreasury (c.1885), where the U.S. District and Circuit courts for the District of Massachusetts met until the building was razed in 1929 for the present-day Art Deco John W. McCormick Post Office and Court House. Mullett's edifice also gave rise to Post Office Square, making it a model for Portland to follow 100 years later.

City Hall Plaza, Boston, in 1973. Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.
Conversely, Pioneer Courthouse Square has become a model for Boston in the sculpturally creative use of brick and granite to set up a public arena for diverse activities, resting places, conversation pieces and landscape textures. Which explains why so many more crowds are drawn to it than to City Hall Plaza. 

So what about Boston's 'living room'?
Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

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