Saturday, February 7, 2009

Mini Architecture Tour of Portland

Not-so-secret spots for architecture walk

Old and new

Within a few short blocks, see Portland evolve from 1895 to the present

Thursday, December 14, 2008

Step through the Art Deco doors of the, Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse at 620 S.W. Main St. and into a silent world of gleaming bronze and marble.

Pause in the lobby to admire the friezes and the display of old bottles and a baby doll head, then go into the main area. It's no longer a day-to-day courthouse but it’s still a post office.

Long wooden benches, all empty, line walls filled with geometric bronze suns and eagles, and rows and rows of golden mailboxes. Expectation and secrecy hang in the air. An old sign reads "letter drop," but dead-letter drop seems more appropriate. It's the perfect place for an assignation. Bart King, author of "An Architectural Guidebook to Portland," has suggested we meet here. "None of these places are secret," he says, "but it’s surprising how many people never use them." (All of these places are open to the public, but not on weekends.)

Here, then, is King's quick tour:

Go back to Main Street with its traffic roar. Hunch against the pewter sky, the rain, the beady-eyed seagull gazing down from its perch, and head east. Cross Sixth Avenue, turn right and follow the bridge into the Standard Plaza building.

"Probably Portland's best example of the International style," says King.

Greet the guard, go through a second set of doors and stop.

There, right there, looms Portlandia, neatly framed by the western face of the Portland building down which a window cleaner rappels, yellow bucket swinging. Stand and watch the Standard's escalators gliding behind you.

Take the escalator down to Fifth Avenue and head south. Note the silver and black sheen of the PacWest Center.

"The gleaming tower of tomorrow," King calls it. Look into Steamers Asian Street Bistro as you pass four white men in black suits, lined up at the counter, dip their heads in unison to steaming bowls.

Head east down Madison Street toward City Hall (1895, Renaissance Revival style). Inside are the mayor's offices and council chambers and also a delicate staircase and an ethereal mobile that hangs down three floors from the faraway roof. Beneath it is a plush red cushion. An invitation to lie back and gaze upward.

From City Hall, cross diagonally into the damp green of Chapman Square. Here, pioneering post-modern structures, the Justice Center and the Portland Building, face off across the square. King notes that the Justice Center to the east lets in lots of light for a structure that contains a jail. The prisoners behind its slit windows may have better illumination than the workers in the dark confines of the Portland Building.

Now cross Third and walk into the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, Portland's most expensive building. Show your ID to the guards, and go to the ninth floor to check out the terrace garden. Be sure to continue up to the 16th floor, for a view that makes the whole Clay worthwhile.

Head back up to Sixth and go all the way north to Stark Street. See buildings reflected in the glass of other buildings, observe their lines and curves. Note the contrast between the sleek Commonwealth Building'(1948) and the ornate U.S. National Bank Building (1925) on either side of Stark. Go into the bank. If you're lucky, Harry Martin, the genial guard, will take you under his wing and show you around.

About the author

Bart King, who is not an architect, wrote his witty and unpatronizing "An Architectural Guidebook to Portland" after visiting Powell's in search of just such a guide and realizing there wasn't one.

He taught middle school for 15 years before becoming a full-time writer -- his “The pocket Guide to Games” and “The Pocket Guide to Mischief” came out this year. Early 2009 will see the release of “The Pocket Guide to Brilliance;” a primer on civics and U.S. history. (

King lives in Northeast Portland with his wife, Lynn, in a house whose official architectural designation is "other."

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