Explore Portland’s Hidden Downtown
Take this fascinating 3-mile, not-hilly walk I led in summer 2017 for the City of Portland’s Ten Toe Express walk series.
Portland Heritage trees, public art/stories, hidden plazas and paths, our only cable railway, and little-visited nooks at Portland State University
Start: Begin at SW 18th and Salmon, southeast corner. Across 18th is Zion Lutheran Church, the 1951 work of Pietro Belluschi (1899–1994), Portland’s most famous architect. It replaced a church built in 1889, about the time when Tanner Creek was consigned to a sewer. The creek flowed out of the the West Hills and into a deep gulch at what is now Providence Park. More later on that.
Walk south on 18th.
To the left is Lincoln High’s track and field. The school, east of the track, was built in the early 1950s. In May 2017 voters approved bonds to replace it. Plans are to build the new school on the track/field, tear down the old school building, then rebuild the track where the current school is. Lincoln’s at almost twice its capacity, with the cafeteria and underground, windowless storage cells converted to classrooms. Its downtown setting means more partnerships with PSU, OHSU, and local businesses will be in its future. It’s often rated among the nation’s best public high schools .
Look down as you walk for sidewalk squares etched with the “Trail of Impressions,”
15 slowly-eroding etchings done in 1995 when the MAX line was extended to Beaverton. One etching is Bart Simpson, who waves up at you. Bart’s creator, Matt Groening, lived in Portland Heights and graduated from Lincoln in 1972. The Lincoln High Fence also dates from 1995.
About Tanner Creek, which flowed out of the West Hills (Tualatin Mountains): Since the late 1880s, it’s been consigned to the underworld, flowing in a man-height culvert. A year-round tributary of the Willamette, it starts at Sylvan. Before it was culverted, it carved through the Missoula flood deposits in this neighborhood, creating the eponymous hollow in Goose Hollow, then flowed northeast through what is now the Pearl District, before ending in Couch Lake, a shallow lake connected at high water to the Willamette River. Couch Lake was filled in the late 1800s; it’s now the site of Union Station. (Tanner Springs Park, in the Pearl District, memorializes this creek, but its “spring” is mechanical.)
It was called Tanner Creek because its water was used, with hemlock bark, to tan animal hides in immense wooden vats that reportedly remain intact and entombed beneath Providence Park’s soccer pitch. The creek emerges at Outfall 11, a pipe about .25 mile downstream of the Broadway Bridge near the derelict Centennial Mills property.
Also on this historically dense street: Portland Cable Railway ran along 18th up to Portland Heights, from 1890 to 1904, ending when a streetcar began running on Vista Avenue.
As you walk, notice the topography, as the land drops into the lowest part of the hollow at 17th and Jefferson. Other creeks dropped off the hills here, joining Tanner Creek in the hollow. In this 1907 drawing advertising Portland Heights, a waterfall appears to cascade out of the West Hills on the 18th Avenue alignment (then called Chapman).
From 18th, turn right (west) onto Jefferson and stop immediately; you’ll be crossing Jefferson at the stoplight.
Jefferson was once famously planked with wooden slabs, in the pre-asphalt era. Farmers farming the super-rich soils of the Tualatin Valley west of the Tualatin Mountains were frustrated because they could not get products to Portland docks. California in the 1840s and 1850s offered high prices for agricultural products, but produce often rotted for lack of good transportation from field across the mountains and on to Portland’s wharves. The solution: plank the narrow, single track into a roadbed. Primitive, but an improvement that proved a vital component in making Portland a significant port city. That plank road is now buried below fill that supports the eight lanes of the Sunset Highway east of Sylvan Hill. Besides Jefferson Street here, other extant parts of the old market road to the Tualatin Valley are the Jefferson Street on-ramp to U.S. 26, and Beaverton’s Canyon Road.
Look right to the 1926 Vista Bridge; it replaced the wooden Ford Street Bridge built in 1903. Because of its not infrequent use for suicide, its views and sitting benches are now fenced off.
Also a few blocks to the right (but not on the route) is the Goose Hollow Tavern at Jefferson and 19th. Since 1967 it’s been owned by our city’s beloved Bud Clark, mayor from 1985 to 1992. His first tavern, Spatenhaus, was destroyed during Portland’s initial urban renewal foray in the 1960s. You’ll see the site (now part of Keller Fountain Park) later in the walk. Too early for a beer? Next door to the Goose is coffee and good food at Fehrenbacher Hof, owned by Bud’s daughter Rachel Clark. It’s far enough off tourists’ radar to remain a true gem.
The large stone traffic circle at 18th and Jefferson has a name, Collins Circle. It too dates from the MAX construction era. The Cultural Landscape Foundation says about it:
“..designed in 1997 by landscape architect Robert Murase…inspired by the sacred symbol for infinity used in Japanese brush painting.
Evoking Oregon’s volcanic geology, the landscape is comprised of a 160-foot diameter circle of basalt stones surrounded by oaks. The circular form is interrupted on one side with a straight cut. Fractured and roughly-hewn boulders, now speckled with lichen, are interlocked to form a gradually elevated ground plane.
Punctuated with upright, basalt slabs, and native sumacs and ferns, the installation tilts upward from the roadway to eventually reach a height of four feet. As a sculpture, the installation is intended for passive observation rather than active engagement.”
Murase, who died in 2005, is honored in Wilsonville with his more interactive Murase Plaza Park. He also designed Portland’s Japanese American Historical Plaza, to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII. He himself was interred as a young boy, at a Utah camp.
Also here, in the mid 1800s, long before the Bull Run watershed in the Cascade foothills supplied Portland with its water, Thomas Carter’s farm tapped into local creeks. His farmhouse and barn were at the southwest corner of this intersection, on land now occupied by First United Methodist Church. He pastured cattle uphill, in today’s posh Portland Heights. Tiny, still semi-bucolic Carter Lane in the heights is named for him. As late as the 1940s the area around the intersection was still agricultural, as seen below.
From 18th and Jefferson, walk around Collins Circle, keeping south on 18th.
On the right is First United Methodist Church, a gorgeous mid-century modern sanctuary built in 1957. Architects Don Stewart and Ken Richardson designed it; they had worked for Pietro Belluschi for years, and the similarities between this and the church seen earlier make them beautiful bookends for this stretch of 18th Avenue. More of their work later on the walk.
Pass old homes from the 1890s, then, still on 18th, pass under the freeway approaches to the Vista Ridge Tunnels of the Sunset Highway. The underpass, protected from rain, is usually occupied. The Vista Ridge Tunnels are the busiest in Oregon, with 143,000 vehicles per day in 2015. They were dug in 1969 and 1970. Fill from them went to fill in wetlands at what is now Willamette Park in Portland.
Just past the underpass, turn left immediately
onto an asphalt bike/pedestrian path along the freeway. It’s the Ho Chi Minh trail, so named by Vietnam-era students, who created this then-bootleg shortcut to PSU from the cheap housing in Goose Hollow, along the new freeway alignment.
Exit the trail
at the first street, 16th, which deposits you into gorgeous residential architecture, the sort of housing obliterated when I-405 carved its swath around downtown. The yellow house at 1718 SW 16th dates from 1886.
From 16th, turn left on Montgomery.
The first four homes on the left were built in 1896, apparently by the same builder, who employed some economies of scale here. The Firehouse Theatre was a fire station from 1906, now owned by Portland Parks & Recreation. Keep east on Montgomery, crossing over I-405, called the Stadium Freeway when it opened to cars in 1969. The name came from nearby Providence Park (then called Multnomah Stadium).
Once its ruckus is behind you, you’re in the hinterlands of Portland State University, Oregon’s largest school, with 28,000 students. The university began in 1945 as the Vanport Extension Center by Stephen Epler, to serve men returning from WWII. It moved to this south end of downtown in 1952, gobbling up real estate in this once-residential patch of the city ever since.
So it’s fitting that the first PSU building seen on this route is Stephen Epler Hall — the dorm on the right, built in 2003.
From Montgomery, turn right
to walk along Epler Hall’s east side, through a hidden, lovely courtyard with photogenic rainwater harvesting features. To the left is the picturesque red brick backside of the King Albert apartments. When built in 1931, it was upscale apartments; today it’s one of PSU’s many student housing structures that had earlier lives.
From the courtyard, follow the sidewalk as it curves east
to a fountain in front of Hoffmann Hall, a neo-classical temple of knowledge designed in the mid 1990s by Portland’s Soderstrom Architects. Hoffmann, one of the school’s first faculty members, is credited with the 1951 renaming of the Vanport Extension Center to the Portland State Extension Center. (Vanport, a temporary wartime city for shipyard workers, completely washed away in the great Columbia River flood of 1948). The extension center became a college in 1955 and a university in 1969.
From Hoffmann, walk east through another hidden plaza,
the Walk of the Heroines, a lovely block-long parkway that’s well off the grid of automobile-accessible places. Built in 2010 and designed by Portland’s Mayer/Reed landscape architects, it’s worth a slow meander, reading inscriptions and enjoying the fountains.
On the left is a tiny but important building, the Center for Lakes and Reservoirs. The Oregon legislature established it to address invasive aquatic species issues; it develops management plans and conducts research to keep Oregon waterways hospitable to native species.
Leave the Walk of the Heroines and continue east. The horribly ugly Brutalist building on the right is the campus’s first library, built in 1967 at the height of that style’s popularity, with its emphasis on severely unadorned (and affordable) concrete. Form followed function here, but in the opposite direction of beauty. The architect was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the largest architectural firms in the world. SOM did better Modernist work in that era, namely, its iconic Hancock and Sears towers in Chicago.
Keep walking toward the trees of the South Park Blocks. When you get there, look left to the pharaohs atop the Blackstone apartments, another 1930s building-turned-student-housing. Another reason to love the designer Elmer Feig, whose Portland apartments always offer visual joy.
The South Park Blocks are one of Portland’s icons of far-sighted urban planning, set aside as parkland in 1869 and planted with elms and other trees in the 1870s. Mansions lined the blocks, joined by apartment buildings around 1900. In 1973, the streets adjoining the blocks were closed to automobile traffic. The tree mix is about 60 percent elm, 14 percent northern red oak, 10 percent maple, with some beech, linden and other trees.
On the Park Blocks, turn right and stop in front of the first building,
PSU’s Branford Price Millar Library — the front, newer half of the Brutalist structure. On this lot stood the home of Joseph Franklin “Frank” and Mary Watson, of Smith and Watson Ironworks (which produced cast iron storefronts and fire hydrants in Portland). They built the home, seen below, in 1890, a few years after their baby daughter died. I wonder if the European copper beech out front was planted as a memorial to her. It dates from the house’s construction.
The home was razed in the early 1960s and the area around the tree became a lawn until 1989, when the glass-fronted library addition was designed, also by SOM, to embrace the beech. It’s a Portland Heritage Tree.
Walk across the Park Blocks to Neuberger Hall (built in 1961 and 1969).
The wonderful sculpture, “Oregon Country” hangs on its west façade, depicting Oregon’s landscapes, from west to east. The sculptor is Tom Hardy (1931–2016). It was his largest piece. The west half of the building was designed by Stewart and Richardson, architects of First United Methodist, seen earlier.
Meander south (right) through the Park Blocks
to the red brick Shattuck Hall, a Portland Public School built in 1915 now housing PSU’s architecture department. I like the pigtailed girls in terra cotta above the doors.
Leave the Park Blocks by turning left (east) at Shattuck Hall, walking along College Street.
Cross Broadway, 6th and 5th avenues, then look right, at the house at 420 SW College Street. This is where Sarah Neusihin made her famous “Mrs. Neusihin’s” dill pickles from 1936 until her death in 1970. During the Depression she took her home-canned pickles to a nearby grocer —when this then-residential neighborhood was the epicenter of Portland’s Jewish community. Her husband was a second-hand furniture peddler and she decided to try to sell pickles to supplement his income. Sarah didn’t use vinegar, just salt water, spices and garlic. Her pickles later went national. The company was sold a few times, and the line discontinued in the early 2010s.
Cross 4th Avenue. Ahead is PSU’s Northwest Center for Engineering, Science and Technology, a building made possible by a very generous PSU alum, Fariborz Maseeh. After coming to the U.S. from Tehran as an 18-year-old in the late 1970s, he got a B.S. and M.S. from PSU. In 1991, he started a micro-electro mechanical company, Intellisense. It sold in 2000.
Now he runs the Massiah Foundation, which recently gave PSU $5 million to renovate Neuberger Hall. Fariborz has helped the university in many other ways, with fellowships, scholarships and prizes. He says, “My choice is to help where I was helped,” he says. “You look for good managers, good operations, and high future potential. PSU has all three.”
After crossing 4th, keep east along the ramp running along the Maseeh building to a tree-lined pedestrian walkway, the former 3rd Avenue.
This is part of a 54-block area of South Portland, as it was then called, where homes, places of worship and businesses were demolished in the early 1960s in Portland’s first urban renewal project, the South Auditorium District.
From the walkway, cross diagonally into Lovejoy Fountain Park,
walking through the fountain itself and ending on the pedestrian walkway on the east side of the fountain, which used to be 2nd Avenue.
The Federal Housing Act of 1949 granted cities funds for “slum renewal,” meaning the demolition of older neighborhoods densely occupied by immigrants, lower income people, or African Americans. A new tool, tax increment financing, was part of the financial mechanism behind the removal and renovations, whereby new buildings were financed by future (and hopefully, higher) tax flows generated by them.
Urban renewal, some argue persuasively, was also an institutional form of racism.
Portland’s first such project was here, an area of South Portland that had once been the city’s first “suburb,” served by the city’s first streetcar starting in the 1870s, before it became an immigrant enclave. Beginning in the 1890s, as newer neighborhoods opened up, especially on the east side, this part of town with its aging housing became home to immigrants: Jews from Eastern Europe and Italians.
In 1962 the Portland Development Commission condemned most of the neighborhood. SOM won the bid to redevelop the site as a “city within a city” of towers and plazas called Portland Center. Famous landscape architect Lawrence Halprin designed the plazas. He combined a fondness for concrete with nature’s architecture, accented with theatrical components: fountains evoking mountain or desert cataracts with stagelike platforms for people to interact with the water, with each other, and even with an audience.
Finished in 1966, Lovejoy Fountain, with its tiers simulating an eroded desert landscape, is now little used, tucked into an area bypassed by later generations of recreation-seeking Portlanders.
Despite its intriguing pools and cascades, the area lacks vitality, and connection with the larger city. The wooden canopy to the west is meant to evoke the rise of the West Hills, which were visible from here when the park was built.
Halpern called the park, and the others he designed here the Portland Open Space Sequence.
After walking through Lovejoy Fountain, go left on the 2nd Avenue walkway,
through a lovely allee of trees. Then turn left into another Halpern design, Pettygrove Park, also finished in 1966. No water , just a serene series of grass mounds that are also almost always unpopulated. Asphalt flows around them like water, evoking the abstract shapes of a Japanese garden. Unlike Lovejoy Fountain, spaces are meant not for activity but for contemplation.
A gorgeous Manuel Izquierdo (1925–2009) bronze sculpture, “The Dreamer,” sits in the southeast corner. He was a war refugee from Madrid when he came to Portland in 1942. Already a sculptor, his work as a riveter in Portland’s Kaiser shipyards in WWII introduced him to working with metal. In this 1979 piece, the seams are welded inside the piece, giving it a lushly touchable curvaceousness. One day, while I was photographing it, a local tour guide told me Izquierdo filled the sculpture with styrofoam. If you’re here on a rainy day, listen to the raindrops on “The Dreamer,” to hear the aural effect Izquierdo was aiming for.
Wind diagonally through Pettygrove Park back to the 3rd Avenue walkway, then turn right on it to walk to Market Street.
In the opposite (northwest) corner of Market and 3rd is where Bud Clark’s Spatenhaus tavern, used to be. The site is now part of Keller Fountain Park. Originally called Forecourt Fountain because of its placement in front of Civic Auditorium (now the Keller Auditorium), the park was designed by Halpern in 1970. It was celebrated at its opening by no less than the New Yorker’s architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, who called it “one of the most important civic spaces since the Renaissance.” The fountain’s cliffs and pools evoke a mountain stream. Its sheer drops and relatively deep pools would not pass muster today with the risk management crowd, but it is splendid, and on hot summer days filled with people hanging out and enjoying the city, just as Halprin intended.
Walk diagonally through the Keller Fountain,
stepping across its performance platforms and up stairs to Clay and 4th Avenue. Cross 4th and walk north on its west side (avoiding the parking garage mouth on its east side).
From 4th, turn left on Jefferson Street,
walking the wider sidewalk alongside City Hall. Notice the still-clear sidewalk vault lights, restored when the 1895 building was renovated in 1998. Old lights turn purple over time. If you have time, and it’s a weekday, go into City Hall (enter on 4th) for a self-guided tour of the interior.
Keep west on Jefferson,
passing the modern and shiny (PacWest, a round-cornered, stainless steel and glass tower) and the old and established (the brick University Club). On the left side of Jefferson, between 6th and Broadway, is the former Oregonian building, where stories were written and papers printed. It was designed by Pietro Belluschi in 1948. After a huge renovation that returned the interior spaces to a Modernist grandeur long hidden above acoustic ceiling tiles, it’s now called 1320 Broadway. Here’s a detailed write up about the renovation by Portland architecture journalist Brian Libby.
Still on Jefferson, cross the South Park Blocks and turn right into them,
crossing over to the front of the Portland Art Museum, a lovely classically inspired modernist building from 1932, also designed by a young Pietro Belluschi (1899–1994), the year before he became a partner in the firm of A.E. Doyle. It’s trimmed with that marvelous material, travertine, a type of limestone deposited by mineral springs. A favorite of the Romans (the Colosseum is built of it), travertine’s name shares roots with the Tiber River in Rome and Tivoli, site of an ancient travertine quarry.
Walk toward, then through, the pedestrian walkway along the north side of the museum’s main building.
The walkway, strewn with sculptures, is actually Madison Street. It was set aside for museum use in 1968, with the caveat from the city that it be kept open to pedestrians. The museum also owns the building north of the walkway, the former Masonic Temple, now called the Mark Building. In it are modern and contemporary artworks and a splendid ballroom and library from its days as a playground for the Masons, who loved all things Arab and medieval.
The open sculpture garden is now a subject of controversy; in an expansion, the museum planned to enclose it in a three-story glass connector, allowing pedestrians to pass through at the street level, but only during museum hours. The new Rothko Pavilion, as the connector is to be called, honors one of Portland’s most famous artists, Mark Rothko, who lived in South Portland, and went to Lincoln High. But after raising millions of dollars toward construction, the museum was confronted with the fact that it did not have the right to enclose the space. Perhaps a new design that keeps the street level open will be the solution.
Don’t miss another Manuel Izquierdo sculpture here from 1981, “Eye of Orion.”
After walking through the sculpture garden, cross 10th Avenue at the marked crosswalk, midblock, and stop at the huge Burrell elm.
It was planted in 1870 in the yard of Martin and Rosetta Burrell, when this area was residential. It’s Portland’s first Heritage Tree, named in 1975. Keep west through a beautiful pedestrian passage that ends at 11th Avenue.
From the passage, turn right on 11th and left (west) on Salmon Street.
At 12th, on the left is First Unitarian Church, with Heritage Lavalle hawthorns planted in 1966. Springtime blooms are spectacular. They were chosen by Barbara Fealy, a congregant and landscape architect for Salishan Lodge, Sokol Blosser Winery and Catlin Gabel school. They’re also Portland Heritage Trees.
Keep west on Salmon, crossing to its north side on the I-405 overpass. Another Heritage Tree is at 14th and Salmon, a huge black walnut in the lawn of Lincoln High. It was planted in 1871 when all of Lincoln’s grounds plus more were part of the 14-acre Jacob Kamm estate. He was a partner in the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, and grew rich in the company’s virtual monopoly of river transport in the era before good roads made overland transport economically viable.
In 1950 the Kamm mansion still stood when Portland Public Schools bought the land for the new Lincoln High School. The Kamm house was moved to SW 20th, just south of Jefferson, and still stands.
Before I-405 turned 14th Avenue into a street to avoid, this was the front of Lincoln High. If you want to walk up the lawn to the now forlorn courtyard on the east side, you’ll find another Tom Hardy sculpture, “Shore Birds,” once set in a fountain. Hopefully it will have a place of honor in the renovated Lincoln High.
Keep west on Salmon to close this walking loop, at 18th and Salmon.