The Wreck of "The Marquam Grand"
The Marquam: Portland’s first sky scraper:
It was the city’s first modern office building and an extravagant, luxurious theater.
It towered above Morrison Street, between 6th and 7th (renamed Broadway in 1913), in the new center of the city, across from the regal Hotel Portland.
It was opulent, exclusive, electric-powered and fully fire-proof.
It was also collapsible.
The Marquam was built in 1891 by Phillip A. Marquam, retired judge and real estate investor (Marquam Hill etc...) on land (Block #178) that he acquired from William W. Chapman in 1852 in lieu of payment for a five hundred dollar legal bill.
“When he had shown me around the town he said he would take me out a ways and show me a block he had taken on payment of a legal bill amounting to $500.00. We walked through a cow pasture, climbed over a rail fence and clambered over fallen logs and through the heavy brush to his block of land. It had a heavy stand of trees on it –some four or five feet thick.
He told me he was going to have the wood cut and sold for cordwood, though he doubted there was enough wood on it equal to the amount of the bill he had taken it for.
He said that while it was pretty far out, in time the land would be some value as a building site.”
-Dr J. A. Cardwell to Fred Lockley in the Oregon Sunday Journal, February 22 1914.
By 1889, Portland’s downtown had shifted inland in the years of growth that followed the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883. Phillip Marquam’s block, once on the outskirts of town, was prime urban real-estate.
Marquam began work on the building that would bear his name, a combination high-rise office structure and a first-class theater: The Marquam Grand Opera House.
The complex was essentially a T in shape, with a ten story office building which faced Morrison, and a five story high theater that reached back to Alder Street. The entrance to the theater was on Morrison, with side entrances on 6th and 7th.
The building was heated with steam and powered by electricity. It was considered fire-proof, constructed with eight solid walls running north to south that divided the building into nine separate compartments, which were linked by hallways on the lower eight floors.
It was expensive to build.
The vast amount of bricks required for the building enticed local brick yards to form a combine to raise their prices. Marquam was forced to form his own brick yard, and eventually, to import bricks from San Francisco. Years later, the quality of those bricks would be an issue of debate.
The theater that got all the attention...
Seating 1,600, built for the “carriage trade,” the Marquam Grand was an “outpost of sophistication in the far west.”
After the opening performance, of “Faust,” its star, the diva Emma Juch, pronounced it: “The equal of any theatres visited in this country and in Europe”.
The Marquam Grand Opera House
The Handsomest Most Complete and Only Absolutely Fire-proof Theatre in the Pacific Northwest
Playing High Class Attractions Only
-Advertisement in the 1893 Portland City Directory.
Maurice Barrymore circa 1891.
Maurice Barrymore, father of John, Ethel and Lionel, great grandfather of Drew, starred at the Marquam Grand in productions such as “Aristocracy,” “Shenandoah” and "Alabama".
When Sandra Bernhardt performed there in 1891, tickets to the show had to be auctioned off due to their high demand.
George Baker, later the beloved, (but sometimes not so loveable) Mayor of Portland (from 1917 to 1933) started his theatric carrier there as an electrician. Eventually he would manage the theater.
Mark Twain entertained a standing room only audience at the Marquam Grand on August 9th 1895.
World Famous Lecturer Mark Twain:
Author of Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Sketches, Tom Sawer, Pudden’head Wilson.
Prices for seats:
Lower floor: $1.00
Dress Circle .50 and .75
-Advertisement for the Marquam Grand, Friday August 9th 1895.
“That the people of this city fully appreciate that this will be their last opportunity for hearing the most famous of all humorists, “Mark Twain,” is evidenced by the unusually large advance sale of seats for this evening at the Marquam Grand….”
-The Portland Dailey Telegram, Friday August 9th 1895.
Seventy-six years before Powell’s Books, Portland could sell-out an author event.
By 1904 it was advertised as the Marquam Grand Theatre, or simply, the Marquam Grand.
Due to the costs of financing his endeavor, Phillip A. Marquam lost his ownership in the building through foreclosure, although the Marquam Trust Company (Marquam’s real estate interests) continued to occupy part of the building. In 1908 the theater was re-opened as the Orpheum.
All was quiet in the city’s center in the pre-dawn hours of November 21st 1912.
Most of the guests at the Hotel Portland were asleep. Save for the occasional streetcar in all night (!)“Owl” service on Morrison, the streets were largely empty.
On the fourth floor of the Marquam Building, Eva Aldrich, a telephone operator for the Equitable Hospital Association, was working a graveyard shift. She was the only person in the north east portion of the building, which had been largely vacated due to a renovation project to replace the solid stone walls on the first floor with steel beams.
Suddenly, at around 4:00am, there was a quaking rumble and crash, as the outer wall of the building on the east side gave way and a segment of the three floors below where Aldrich worked collapsed on to 6th street.
With considerable aplomb, Eva Aldrich phoned the officers of the Equitable Hospital Association and informed them of what happened. Then she left the building.
Outside, she joined a growing crowd transfixed by the gouge in the side of the building. One did not have to be an engineer to guess what was likely to happen next.
By nine in the morning the crowd had grown into the thousands. From the grounds of the Pioneer Post Office, (the once and future Pioneer Courthouse) they stared up at the Marquam’s stricken unsupported upper floors. Movie crews and news photographers set up while the police worked to keep back the crowd.
Then, at 11:00 am, with a spectacular cascade of brick, the upper floors collapsed, as the cameras rolled. When the dust cleared it was apparent that an entire segment of the building had been turned to rubble, spilling across 6th against the Stearns Building on the north east corner of 6th and Morrison (today the location of the Meier and Frank building).
In the days that followed, it was announced that the Marquam would be rebuilt.
Further inspection by the city however, indicated that the west tower of the building was also in danger of collapse.
Mayor Rushlight ordered Morrison closed, which forced the detour of numerous streetcar lines, as well as 6th street between Morrison and Alder.
Sound Construction and Engineering Company, which had been working on the Marquam’s renovation, blamed the collapse on shoddy construction and materials, a charge angrily denied by the Marquam family (Phillip A. Marquam had died earlier in the year).
Later in the week the decision was made to demolish the office building portion of the Marquam complex.
The Orpheum Theater, although structural separate from damaged part of the building, was ordered to remain closed indefinitely. The Orpheum re-opened at a temporary location in the nearby Bungalow Theater. It was the first in a series of moves for the Orpheum, which lead to its location of many years at the present site of Nordstrom’s
The view north, 6th Street from Morrison circa 1910-1912. The Stearns building, which was damaged by the Marquam’s debris, is to the far right. Note the advertisement for the Orpheum Theater, a block away, above 6th and Alder.
It took just sixty days to fully demolish the Marquam Building.
Sound Construction and Engineering proudly noted that there were no accidents or deaths during the demolition.
“Great care was taken to make all scaffolds and supports solid before employees were allowed to go on them…”
-The Portland Evening Telegram, January 4th 1913.
In 1914 the Northwest Bank Building (now known as the American Bank Building) was completed on the site of the Marquam.
The former opera house was re-opened as the Baker Theater. It was ran by the George Baker, (later Mayor of Portland). Access was from Broadway and 6th by alleys that ran behind the Northwest Bank Building. It was torn down in 1922.
The Selling Building was built two years before the collapse in 1910, in the pocket created by the Marquam and its theater (the Orepheum, which can be seen at the far right). The Selling still exists today (#610 Alder Street).
Today the American Bank Building, bordering on Pioneer Courthouse Square, sits on the site of the Marquam.
The new downtown of Portland of the 1890s was a tough room to play in. Of the three monumental edifices shown: the Hotel Portland, the Marquam and the Oregonian Building, none survive. The neighboring Pioneer Courthouse (and post office) built in 1875 in what was then edge of town, witnessed the rise and fall of all three buildings.
In the post "Hung Over on Burnside" about the “arcaded” buildings of Portland, I had hoped to include a picture of one of them prior to being “arcaded.” None were available. Recently I discovered one in an old photo book called “Portland” published by G.K. Gill around 1910.
Below is a picture of the Burkhard Building, before Burnside was widened. It can also be seen in the post, years later, with the sidewalk running through the front of its first floor.