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.