Portland Oregon history.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Great Light Way

The 1890s were the decade of Third Street. Long the outskirts of downtown, it was now the center. Large commercial buildings in the prevailing brick and sandstone Romanesque Revival style rose up and down the thoroughfare, a linear echo of the new, post fire, Seattle. The horse-car lines of the Transcontinental Street Railway were electrified and merged into the new City and Suburban Railway Company, with Third Street as the main north / south trunk line. Retail, restaurants, finance and entertainment met and mixed in the city's new metropolitan heart.

Washington at Third, the Dekum Building is to the left. (click on pictures to expand).

Towards the river, the old downtown was devolving into the wholesale district. To the west, large scale development was rapidly occurring, but it was less concentrated. Third Street; substantial and energetic, held the essence of Portland, described by the Reverend H.K. Hines as "so new and yet so old...

"As one steps ashore and rises into the streets, and looks up and down and out, between long rows of stores and hotels, rising for six or ten stories of massive form and splendid architecture, and sees the ceaseless stream of comers and goers, the flashing of hundreds of electric cars, and listens to the ceaseless roar of business, the illusion of the first impression vanishes and he awakens to find himself in the heart of a great commercial emporium." -from An Illustrated History of the State of Oregon by H.K. Hines (1893) as quoted in The Shaping of a City by E. Kimbark MacColl.

Third from Alder. To the left, the Dekum Building and two blocks beyond, the massive Chamber of Commerce Building. The Sherlock and Ainsworth Buildings can be seen in the distance furthest left.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, things had changed. Downtown had drifted west. The merchants on Third Street felt passed by and in danger of becoming part of the run-down workaday wholesale district to the immediate east.

The Broadway Bridge (1913) was the final straw. A new stream of streetcar, pedestrian and ever increasing auto traffic from the east side, where the majority of Portlanders now lived, flowed directly into what was becoming the new city center.

The corner of NW Broadway and Davis. Unlike most downtown streets, Broadway arrived from the east, with the west side's Seventh Street appended to it after the opening of the Broadway Bridge in 1913. The City Council then wanted to change the name of eastern portion to "East Broadway" a wildly unpopular idea with the east siders. Organized as the North East Side Improvement Association, they successfully fought to keep the name.

The corner of Broadway and Davis was in the commercial strip of the first African American neighborhood in Portland. The Golden West Hotel, one block away on Broadway and Everett accommodated African American workers from nearby Union Station when many, if not most, Portland Hotels would not. It is an existing reminder of that neighborhood.

The N in the mosaic indicates north of Burnside (pre-1933 re-numbering which created the NW, SW, NE, SE and N designations). South of Burnside, Broadway would develop into Portland's cinema and theater entertainment district.

To arrest their perceived decline, merchants on Third Street came up with an audacious plan: bathe Third Street in light by building a line of illuminated arches stretching from Yamhill to Burnside (later extended on both ends to Madison and Glisan) to be known as "The Great Light Way." To supporters, organized at the "Third Streeters," the arches would cap a protracted campaign establish the thoroughfare as the center of Portland night-life and attract more business to the area, especially, it was hoped, large movie theaters.

The double-arched fixtures rested on four concrete encased Doric columns to straddle each intersection. Both linked arches had ninety-six 40 watt "lamps" with more clustered at the column's capitals. The arches were topped by a 750 watt nitrogen bulb. Power was provided by the Northwestern Electric Company for $6,700 a year.

As the arches went up, anticipation grew for the gala to accompany the lighting ceremony, which was scheduled for June 6 1914. Large banners were hung, thousands of promotional buttons manufactured and advertisements placed in the newspapers. A clown, mounted on horseback, rode up and down the street for days heralding the approaching celebration.

A Third Streeters Great Light Way button.

Oregonian Advertisement, June 6 1914.

"The band will play rag-time music and latch strings are to be open for a "big tall time" of it." -The Oregonian, June 4 1914.

"As the clock in the Journal Tower begins to strike 8, Third Street will officially begin a new life. It will have its renaissance, its rejuvenation, its refloresence and its rejuvenscence." -A quote from the Oregon Daily Journal from June 5 1914 strikes into new linguistic territory.

At eight in the evening, June 6 1915 a switch was flicked in the Northwestern Electric central powerhouse. Suddenly Third Street was ablaze in light, much to the joy of the assembled thousands celebrating up and down its length. Music, provided by Brown's Band and the Campbell's American Band, played until 10:30 but the party continued late into the night, to the dismay of police who would try to disperse it.

It was a public relations coup. Optimism abounded with Third Streets prospects. It was the place where "anyone can obtain everything needed for human necessity, comfort or happiness" (the Portland Telegram). There was talk of a group of San Francisco capitalists that were considering building a large motion picture theater with a capacity of two thousand seats on Third Street, a very welcome development.

The arches and the accompanying event were deemed such a success that the question was asked:

"Is Third Street to have all the glory?" -The Portland Telegram.

"One is moved to ask, why should this moment of rejuvenation stop with Third Street? If we can be brilliant in one spot, why not many?" -The Portland Telegram editorial page.

The merchants on Fourth Street hoped they had the answer. A new system of lights, bracketed on to buildings from Yamhill to Burnside was proposed to, and then approved by the City Council.

"The lights are to be different than any in this city. The business men plan to outdo Third Street." -The Portland Telegram, October 1 1914.

It is not likely that the bracket lights on Fourth Street were ever installed. Perhaps the idea lost momentum in the ramp up to World War I. Whatever the case, Third Street was not outdone by them.

It would be up to Third Street's old nemesis, Broadway, to light the next salvo...

"Shine up your shoes, send your Sunday suit to the cleaners, go pick out a new tie and make a date with your best girl. Go have your hair marcelled, your fingernails manicured, get a new lip stick and a box of rouge and put that lonesome note in your voice when your steady calls you on the telephone. Tuesday night the new Broadway lights will be turned on for the first time and carnival will reign." -The Sunday Morning Oregonian, November 22 1925.

Pantages Theatre, on Broadway and Alder, circa 1918. Not the old-style globe streetlights.

By the mid 1920s Broadway had established itself as Portland's theater and entertainment hub. As such, it was deemed perfect for the next of what was then being referred to as ornamental lighting districts. The Broadway Association approved the placement of new lighting from Hoyt south to Jefferson at the cost of $120,000.

The new lights featured a twenty foot pole that supported two 15,000 lumen incandescent lamps in urn shaped alabaster globes, topped glass canopies that diffused light upwards to illuminate surrounding buildings.

"From the standpoint of illumination per square foot, the Broadway association announces, Broadway will be the best lighted street in the world. Main Street in Salt Lake is the second, the "Path of Gold" in San Fransisco third, and Broadway in Los Angeles fourth." The Sunday Oregonian, November 22 1925.

"Gay with iridescent brilliance of the Milky Way, the main boulevard of the City of Roses will burst Tuesday evening into a dazzling orgy of electric rays that will rival the most famous glittering thoroughfares in the world." -The Portland News, November 24 1925.

The lights of Broadway.

On the evening of November 24 1925, thousands gathered on Broadway in anticipation of the lighting ceremony. Businesses hand been encouraged to keep every light on and red flares lit the center of the street. At 7:30 from a platform built in front of the United States National Bank, Mayor George Baker, in his favorite roll as civic ringmaster, gave the introductory speech. Then, at 7:40, the President of the Broadway Association pressed a button and lit the street. A roar went up from the crowd. Atop the Liberty Theater a siren wailed -the signal to all the ships and boats on the Willamette to blow their whistles and horns simultaneously in eight long blasts; one for each letter of the word Broadway.

Then a parade began, lead by Santa Clause with a pre-Rudolph retinue of six reindeer. It was followed by a night of dancing, with radio music blaring from each intersection and the Elks Band playing until one in the morning.

"Indeed, many visitors from New York have declared Portland's Broadway to be better lit than New York's." -Forbes Magazine, September 21 1926.

The Scott Hotel and the Broadway Cafeteria on the south east corner of Broadway and Burnside, with the new Broadway lighting and an early traffic signal. The block today, across from Mary's Club, is vacant. -Portland City Archives.

Over the next few years more ornamental lighting districts followed: Grand, Washington, and Jersey Street in St. Johns, each with celebrations of decreasing intensity.

"In January 1927 Fifth and Sixth Streets and the U.S. Grant Park systems went into effect by automatic control without speeches, bands or dancing. Ornamental lighting had become routine. " -from A History of Street Lighting in Portland, Oregon by Catherine Sohm.

View from under the arches: The Boston Packing Company at the north-west corner of Third and Ash. The building was replaced by a service station in the 1930s that still exists as an office for J.T. Atwood. The Zellerbach Paper Company building in the distance is at the site of the present day US Bank Tower, aka Big Pink. The arches at Third and Ash are visible, one block to the north. -Portland City Archives.

On Third Street the arches stayed lit. They had not stopped the westward advance of downtown, but were regarded by the Third Street merchants as having allowed them to hold their own. The hoped for two-thousand seat movie theater never arrived, but the building of the Portland Municipal Auditorium (today, much remodeled, the Keller Auditorium) on Third between Market and Clay was attributed to the efforts of the Third Streeters.

"Considered merely as an advertisement, such projects are worth all their cost and upkeep." -Third Street merchant Ira F. Powers in Forbes Magazine's September 1 1926 article: The Street that Held its Own by Better Lighting.

Under the arches: The Union Cafe on the north east corner of Third and Ankeny. Today the building houses Berbati's Pan and Voodoo Donuts. -Portland City Archives.

The arches north of Burnside were removed during a 1920s street widening projects. The rest remained lit until 1937, when, due to the Depression and electric company franchise changes, the power was cut and the arches removed. Three survived until August 1940, when they were ordered down by the City Council.

Nearly a year later, on June 8 1941, a new organization, the Third Avenue Better Business Association, announced that it sought a revival of Third (by then) Avenue. Modernization of office buildings, new store fronts, better street lighting and eight new surface lots with free parking were offered to the public as enticements to bring business back.

In 1958, the City Council abolished all ornamental lighting districts, folding them into the existent city lighting program.

"You will find the crowds not on the dingy, dark ill-lighted streets, but rather on those thoroughfares that shine out with a blaze of color and brilliance." -Third Street merchant Ira F. Powers in Forbes Magazine, September 1 1926.

The fixtures on Broadway remain hidden in plain sight, the light-posts adopted as "standards" and used, with slight variations, all over downtown. The lighting system, and its luminescence, however are very different to that of the 1920s.

"Portland is know from coast to coast as one of the best lighted cities in the country." -Forbes Magazine, September 1 1926.

Broadway in the 1960s.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Ainsworth Age

For fifty-nine years, the northwest corner of Third and Oak has been the site of a parking lot. For the seventy-four years prior to that, it was occupied by something more; a center of finance and trade, then, art and music. The Ainsworth Building.

The Ainsworth Building in 1955. (click on images to expand) -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon collection.

In 1955, architect and historian Marion Dean Ross photographed the Ainsworth Building before and during its demolition. The images, preserved in the University of Oregon's Visual Resources Collection, Architecture and Allied Arts Library, provide a rare look at one of Portland's architectural gems that vanished in the parking lot boom of the 1950s -in color.

The pictures are featured later in this piece. They provide an opportunity to appreciate something otherwise lost. When placed in historic context, the story Ainsworth Building and its surrounding area emerges.

John C. Ainsworth was a former Mississippi riverboat man (and once worked with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain). He arrived in the Northwest in 1850 at the age of twenty-eight to introduce steam powered transportation to the region. A decade later, his Oregon Steam Navigation Company's monopoly on Columbia River commerce was bringing immense fortunes to him and his Front Street partners and establishing Portland as the regions commercial capital. He retired in 1880 for health reasons to Oakland California where he died thirteen years later.

When John C. Ainsworth began construction of his self-named bank in 1880, the area around Third and Oak streets was in the residential outskirts of Portland's riverfront downtown. It was a neighborhood of elm-lined streets, modest white-washed wood houses with neatly fenced yards, interspersed with the early villas of those local plutocrats who had not yet migrated to more exclusive enclaves. The close proximity to the growing commercial district on First and Second portended other uses, a fact not lost on Ainsworth in his Italianate villa on Third, between Pine and Ash (today the location of the Embassy Suites in the former Multnomah Hotel).

Ainsworth's villa, circa 1876.

Ainsworth's new bank on the on the corner of Third and Oak was a continuation of the financial ventures he had began in the Idaho Territory, that had been opened up for commercial development by his Oregon Steam Navigation Company. It was to be a final grand gesture in the city where he had made his fortune.

To design the bank, he hired San Francisco architect Clinton Day. To build it, he chose Portland's Willamette Iron Works to provide the cast-iron columns, arches, keystones, cornice pieces and pediments. During construction, a temporary bank was opened across the street a half block to the west in the old Colonel Babbit house at Oak and Fourth. By the time the bank was completed in 1881, it had cost $100,000, making it the most expensive building in Portland to date.

The Ainsworth Bank shortly after completion. Note the reversed curved windows on the second floor above the corner entrance, concaved inward to create a balcony, and the Ainsworth monogram atop the pediment. One of the banks partners can be seen on the roof.

"The building Day designed was one of the best ever to be constructed in Portland. Its facade showed a remarkable unity of design, with square iron columns defining the structural bays on all three floors. On the main floor at the street and corner entries, the paired iron columns formed monumental portals, among the grandest entrances to be found in the city." -from The Grand Era of Cast-Iron Architecture in Portland by William John Hawkins III.

Ainsworth and Company, Bankers. By the time the bank opened, John C. Ainsworth lived in Oakland. Local management was in the hands of Colonel L.L. Hawkins and his brother William John Hawkins (the grandfather of Portland Architect and Historian William John Hawkins III.)
-From the collection of William John Hawkins III.

The officers of the Ainsworth Bank, taken in the lobby: R.W. Schmeer, C.H. Chambreau, William John Hawkins, L.B. Hawkins, J.P. Marshall, W.S. Charleston, Colonel L.L. Hawkins and George T. Ainsworth, son of the founder. -From the collection of William John Hawkins III.

The Ainsworth Bank faced east towards Portland's advancing downtown. It towered over its smaller residential neighbors. For much of its first decade it was without commercial companions.

In 1885 it was re-organized with additional capital, scope and prestige as the Ainsworth National Bank.

The Ainsworth National Bank, shown with the Ladd and Tilton Bank on First and Stark, (see Lost and Found
). Both would follow the same arch from palatial to pavement.

Portland''s downtown caught up with Third Street in the eighteen-nineties. Large scale commercial development rose up an down the new city center. Across the street on Third rose the Worcester Block, a massive pile of brick and sandstone, in the up and coming Romanesque revival style popularized by Henry Hobson Richardson. To clear room for more development, the old Ainsworth villa was moved from Third and Pine to a lot diagonally behind the bank facing Forth Street. There, for years to come, it was home to the Arlington Club.

The Worcester Block, built by former U.S. Senator Henry W. Corbett, faced the Ainsworth National Bank on Third Street from 1890 to 1941. A city directory from 1932 shows that on its sixth floor, the Anti-Prohibition League and the Anti-Saloon League of Oregon faced off in rooms across the same hallway (!)

The flood of 1894 showed the high ground on Third Street was not as high as hoped. Note the sign directing Ainsworth Bank patrons upstairs.

In 1895, the Columbia Building was completed on the street corner diagonal to the bank. Today it is the home the Portland Outdoor Store. The following year it was joined by the late Richardsonian Romanesque styled Sherlock Building (existent). The form of the intersection of Third and Oak: Ainsworth, Worcester, Columbia and Sherlock Buildings, was set for the next forty-six years.

The Colonel Babbit house on the corner of Fourth and Oak and the back of the Sherlock Building. Near the end the house was home to the Oak Cafe. In 1880 it had housed the temporary location of the Ainsworth Bank during construction and upstairs the residences of the Hawkins family, where Margaret Hawkins was born.

In 1902 the Ainsworth National Bank merged with the United States National Bank, located in the Concord Building on Second and Stark. The Ainsworth Building was selected to be the headquarters of the new, larger United States National Bank (and thus a precursor to today's "Big Pink" building). John C. Ainsworth, son of the old banks founder, was elected president of the surviving entity. In 1907 the buildings prestige rose once more with the addition of the British Consulate.

Flag of the British Consular.

The United States National Bank in the Ainsworth Building, taken after 1909 when the Lewis Building was built (today the building houses the 333 Oak Apartments). The Worcester Building is to the right in the immediate foreground.

View across Third Street from the Worcester Block after 1909. The Ainsworth Building is to the far right. The Sherlock Building is to the left, and behind it, the Board of Trade Building, built on the site of the old Colonel Babbit house.

By 1913 the center of downtown had shifted west of Third Street. To compete with Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and especially the upstart Broadway, the merchants of Third Street created the "Great Light Way," lit arches that stretched along Third from Madison to Glisan. Spectacular as it was, it could not stop the city centers westward drift.

In 1917 the United States National Bank followed the shifting business district, moving to a new building designed by A.E. Doyle at Sixth and Stark. The British Consulate moved out nine years later.

Throughout the 1920s a wide variety of enterprises occupied the portions of the Ainsworth Building, including the offices of a Episcopal Church of Oregon deacon, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, the Cinderella Coat Company, Hexol Sales (wholesale germacides), Suzanne Maryland, a dressmaker, Mineral Concentrates Inc. (medicine manufacturers) and the Pewter Plate Restaurant in rooms #304-308.

Rentals declined in the Thirties. In an early example of Portland's love / hate relationship with its history, an article in the Oregon Journal from 1933 called the building a landmark, while noting it was being considered for demolition.
Instead, its spacious rooms, tall ceilings and the discovery of great acoustics were deemed perfect for use as music studios.

The Ainsworth Building was granted a second incarnation as a music and art center.

The second and third floors were converted into studios while the street level space was retained for more workaday uses. A stage with footlights for dramatic presentations was installed in suites #205-205 and a stage for music recitals in #301-303. The Pewter Plate Restaurant remained in its third floor location.

For its final decades, the Ainsworth Building was home to a broad spectrum of art and music endeavors. Teachers: piano, choral, drama, broadcast and sculpture came and went, sometimes living in the spacious studios as well, sleeping on couches and cooking on hot plates. Commercial artists rented work space. Tracy R. Grove, a violin make lived and worked on the third floor for eight years.

The building was also an early home to the Arts and Crafts Society of Portland's school, founded by Julia Hoffman on the aesthetic and societal principals espoused by William Morris. Today the school is the Oregon College of Art and Craft on SW Barnes Road.

In an article in the Oregonian from 1942 announcing a change of ownership, the building was once again described as a Portland landmark. Thirteen years later, it was deemed that a parking lot would be a more profitable use for the land beneath the Ainsworth Building.

"The building at SW Third and Oak Street is a slightly stuffy but rather proud example of Victorian Architecture. It will be replaced by that symbol of modern living from which the architect has been completely eliminated -the parking lot."
-The Oregon Journal, August 24 1955.

On Sunday, August 28 1955, a final open house with refreshments and concerts was given for the public, moving from studio to studio with vocal an instrumental music.

"It has been a wonderful experience to live here, a great privilege... It's not easy to say why, exactly. There's a spaciousness here and a dignity." -Alicia McElroy, music teacher and Ainsworth resident in the Oregon Journal, August 25 1955.

Architect and historian Marion Dean Ross photographed the Ainsworth Building for the first time in 1955 when it was fully intact and still occupied. Later visits occurred during the demolition process.

The Ainsworth Building in 1955. The Ensign Tavern and the Niner Diner occupy space remodeled to remove the grand corner and side entrances facing the intersection. Also missing is the Ainsworth monogram atop the pediment.
-Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

The upper floors of the Ainsworth Building, taken from the Sherlock Building. Note the sign on the Multnomah Hotel, where once stood the Ainsworth Villa. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Hallway in the Ainsworth Building. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Inside one of the studios. Fireplaces in the Ainsworth Building were made of cast-iron, finished to look like marble. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

One of the music studios, perhaps that of piano teacher Lillian Pettybone, who lived and worked in the Ainsworth Building for eighteen years. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Taken from the second floor room behind the corner balcony. Note the Porltand Outdoor Store through the window. Directly up against it can be seen a portion of the first Sherlock Building (1873) and beyond it, the Cooks Block (1884, demolished 1965). -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Fifty-four years later from a similar angle at the site of the Ainsworth Building, the same red sign of the Portland Outdoor Store can still be seen.

The grand entry way further down Oak that survived the first floor remodeling.-Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Willamette Iron Works, Portland Oregon builders plate. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

The Ainsworth Building, 1955 . -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

The balcony at the start of demolition. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

The building was taken down one floor at a time.-Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Mid point in demolition with the Sherlock Building in the background. -Marion Dean Ross, University of Oregon Collection.

Parking lot and the Sherlock Building, Third and Oak, 2009.

The final known remnant of the Ainsworth Building is on display in the lobby of the Haseltine Building on Second and Pine. Oddly painted black, it was part of a group of fixtures that punctuated the space between the first and second floor (a good example can be seen in the 1894 flood picture above).

Thanks to William J. Hawkins III, for his generous help, and for writing one of my favorite books, and, to the late Marion Dean Ross for being on the scene with a camera.

The complete Marion Dean Ross Ainsworth pictures from the University of Oregon Libraries digital collection can be viewed here.

The Society of Architectural Historians, Marion Dean Ross / Pacific Northwest Chapters website is here.

Site News!

I changed the official website address to www.cafeunknown.com to rectify a typo that has haunted me since I set up this site. In the old blogspot address (which still works too) I accidentally reversed the o and the w to create the confusing cafeunkown address. I chose the .com suffix over .net .edu or .org because it seemed to be the the easiest to remember - but there is nothing .commercial about this site.

Its for the love of the game only.

The next (and smaller) post is a couple weeks away. It will be followed by something more theatric in nature.

and... I am looking to borrow a picture of the Lowengart Mansion that was torn down in the mid-1930s on the corner of 17th and Davis. All I have ever seen is a drawing in the book Nineteenth Street. If anyone can help, my email address is my first initial, followed by my last name at comcast.net. It would help get a literary themed post stalled for lack of images moving again.

Skidmore Old Town News:

The City Council meeting to decide the status of building height zoning changes in the Skidmore Old Town National Historic District has been postponed for the third time, with no announced date rescheduled. News on the issue will appear here when it happens.

In other Skidmore news, the addition of restrooms to Ankeny Square will remove the wall in front of the fire station that currently displays cast-iron fixtures (again, oddly painted black) from demolished buildings in the area. A interpretive center which appears on the site map hopefully will restore them to the area. It remains to be seen. After all, Portland has have a love / hate relationship with its history.


The exhibit, Cast-iron Portland opens at the Architectural Heritage Center at #701 SE Grand, Friday Evening, April 3rd 2009. All are welcome.

I am really looking forward to it.

Willamette Iron Works builders plate on the Fechheimer and White Building at #233 Front Avenue, similar to the one that once graced the Ainsworth Building.

and finally...

The Oregon Historical Society is facing a extreme shortfall due to loss of state funding. A significant portion of the leg-work for these posts has taken place in the Society's library for which I am grateful.

Now more than ever OHS needs our fiscal, moral and political support.