—Oregonian, April 29, 2005
Portland Hill Walks: Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoodsby Laura O. Foster
Portland Hill Walks is no ordinary guidebook. No restaurant ratings, no rehashed explanations of how the city got its name. Instead, in twenty meandering, view-studded strolls from forested canyons to cityscape peaks, this lively travelogue answers questions you may never have thought to ask, such as: What street used to be a row of floating homes? What/i>
Portland Hill Walks is no ordinary guidebook. No restaurant ratings, no rehashed explanations of how the city got its name. Instead, in twenty meandering, view-studded strolls from forested canyons to cityscape peaks, this lively travelogue answers questions you may never have thought to ask, such as: What street used to be a row of floating homes? What eastside peak, with its "healthful air," was home to tuberculosis sanatoriums? What happened to the lake in Guilds Lake? What Portlander modeled swimwear in the U.S. Senate? Explore the city's streets, stairs, trails, and hidden passageways to discover the stories and spirit of a town rated among the country's most livable places.
—Oregonian, April 29, 2005
—Alice Joyce, Booklist, April 4, 2005
“Anyone who loves Portland should own this book.”
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Read an Excerpt
Plan this walk for a summer or fall Saturday when you can stroll through the outdoor Portland Farmers Market located in the South Park Blocks. This hill walk starts you out in Portland Heights, among the city's most beautiful neighborhoods of mansions and grand homes, and drops you out of the heights to stroll under a canopy of elms in the Park Blocks, a linear park flanked on its southern end by Portland State University (PSU). From there you'll follow the historic Plank Road into Goose Hollow, an old neighborhood at the base of the West Hills, and head back up the steep hillside for a tour of some of Portland Heights' most elegant streets.
Parts of this hill walk and the adjoining Portland Heights to Council Crest Loop follow the route of a "Northwest Hillside Parkway" suggested by Park Commissioner L. L. Hawkins to John Olmsted in 1903. The route started from the southern end of the Park Blocks and climbed the slopes of Portland Heights to include today's SW Hawthorne Terrace at 17th Avenue, which sits on a prominent knob, and the area now occupied by SW Prospect Drive (which is along the route of this hill walk). Of these two prominences, the Olmsted Brothers said, "From no other points will it be possible to view the city so close at hand, and at the same time so high above it." Neither high point has been reserved for parkland, but the views are indeed stupendous.
At the intersection of SW Vista Avenue and Spring Street, you're at the heart of Portland Heights, among the city's most desirable neighborhoods for its views and proximity to downtown. Early Portland money settled here and has acted as a magnet ever since. This area was known as Carter's Addition when it was first platted out in 1878 from Thomas Carter's original donation land claim. (Carter's home, built in the 1850s, was at SW 18th and Jefferson, where the First United Methodist Church now sits.) In the early years, because the roads turned to mudslides in winter, the heights were used mostly for summer homes. In 1883 lots sold for $250, but they weren't too hot an item. That changed when the cable car began operating in 1887, providing the first practicable avenue for year-round travel up to the heights. The trestle started below the bill, in Goose Hollow, and traveled a thousand feet at a steep 20 percent grade over the ravine now occupied by SW Montgomery and up 18th Street into Portland Heights. The trestle also carried a road for horse-drawn carriages. Cable Avenue in Goose Hollow sits beneath the path of the former trestle.
In 1903 a forerunner to today's Vista Bridge was built over Jefferson Street, enabling streetcars to climb into the neighborhood. Soon after, the cable trestle was torn down. Today the cable car's powerhouse at 18th and Mill (one street south of Market in Goose Hollow) is buried under the approaches to the Sunset Highway (Highway 26).
With good transportation up to the heights, lots sold fast. By 1910 they were going for $10,000, and this neighborhood, unlike many other inner city neighborhoods, has never seen a downturn since then. At the turn of the twenty-first century, even near-vertical lots previously thought to be unbuildable were selling for $850,000. While Portland Heights is home to plenty of mansions and grand homes, it also has a surprising number of early-twentieth-century apartment homes (called "flats" back then), many of which are now condominiums. You'll pass by several of these.
From Vista and Spring, walk one block east; turn left on SW 19th Avenue. The small brick home at 2428 SW 19th was built in 1911 to house the library of the Episcopal Bishop, whose home, the Bishopcroft, also built in 1911, was located at the corner of SW Elm Street and 19th (now a private residence not affiliated with the church). Turn right on Elm. Across from the Bishopcroft, behind two ginkgo trees, sits the F. L. Bowman Apartments building, at 1837 SW Elm. Built in 1913 as "streetcar apartments" and now on the National Register of Historic Places, this building houses eight condominiums. Each unit has a fireplace and servants' quarters in the basement.
Turn left on 18th. One block south of this intersection, at 18th and Spring, was the original turnaround of the cable car. The brake slipped one day at this location, however, and the car went careening down the hill; after that, the turnaround was moved to flatter ground a few blocks west, near the intersection of Spring and Vista. Walk north on 18th as it drops steeply downhill. Most homes on this section date from the early twentieth century, although some were built when the cable car began operating in 1887. The home at 2218 was built in 1889 for a cable car operator. Those at 2109 and 2023 were built in 1888 and are among the oldest homes in Portland Heights.
A block past SW Clifton Street, 18th reaches a dead end. If you could continue walking down the steep, overgrown hillside, you would end up in Goose Hollow near the MAX light rail stop at 18th and Jefferson. The City of Portland owns this property and may decide to develop a trail here. According to the city's Historic Resource Inventory, some pieces of the old cable line still exist downhill from 1900 SW 18th. I decided against bushwhacking through the blackberries to verify this.
Turn right on Clifton and then, in two blocks, left on 16th Avenue, a street that feeds into the western edges of the PSU campus. Walk one block downhill on 16th and turn right on SW Cardinell Drive, onto a ridgeline called Gander Ridge, which you'll ride all the way down the hill and out of Portland Heights.
Keep left at the intersection with SW Rivington Drive. Just west of the house at 1295, take a set of stairs downhill. These 179 concrete steps, built in 1905, drop you into the gloom of an old maple forest heavily curtained with ivy. Hold tight to the pipe handrail; the last two flights are steep and slightly canted forward. Enjoy the nice views down SW 12th Avenue. At the bottom you're back on Cardinell, a real snake of a street. Here the roar of Interstate 405 is unpleasantly loud.
Turn right at the bottom of the steps, and walk a few blocks. Just past 1245 is a wooden staircase. Fifty-six steps lead you to the end of SW 10th Avenue, at which you'll find an authentic ruin: an antique brick gate house for a city reservoir that once filled the ravine at the southwestern end of 10th. The reservoir was fed by a small stream in Portland Heights but was abandoned because the water supply was insufficient. It was part of the Portland Water Works that used West Hills water, including Balch Creek, for the city's water supply before Bull Run water came on line in 1895.
Walk one block on 10th, turn right onto Clifton, and turn left onto the very southern tip of SW Park Avenue. Behind you are lots of new homes built into the hill on stilts. Like girls in dresses high atop the bleachers, these houses have left their underpinnings exposed to the curious eyes of those below. The Olmsted Brothers had just this inelegant view in mind when, after consulting with Parks Commissioner L. L. Hawkins, they wrote:
It would be very desirable for the city to acquire a few acres of land for a little local park at the southwestern end of the Park [Blocks], which at present terminate abruptly and unsuitably against ... private property. It would always be pleasing in the vistas looking southwest ... through the Park [Blocks], to have a pleasure ground with picturesque plantations for the eye to rest upon, rather than to have some crooked arrangement of private buildings.
You'll cross Interstate 405 on a relatively pleasant overpass, where wide swaths of lawn separate you from the traffic below. This is the busiest section of the Interstate 405 belt around the city's core, with 125,000 cars per day traveling under this overpass. Finished in 1968, Interstate 405 was originally known as the Stadium Freeway (named after the former title of PGE Park). From here you have a lovely view into the South Park Blocks, lined on both sides by PSU.
PSU was founded in 1946 in North Portland as the Vanport Extension Center. In 1952 the center moved into Lincoln Hall in downtown Portland, and in 1955 became Portland State College, a four-year, degree-granting institution. It became a university in 1969.
Once over Interstate 405, the first building on the right is the Native American Student and Community Center, opened in 2003. The building was designed by Portland architect Don Stastny, who also designed the elegant Museum at Warm Springs on the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon. The building's organic shapes seem appropriate given that the idea for the project and the legwork needed to stir up university and donor support grew organically, from American Indian students and alumni of PSU. More than 150 Indian cultures are represented in Portland's urban Indian community, and until this building was constructed there was no physical center to that community.
Walk straight into the Park Blocks. The elms creating the canopy overhead were planted soon after this land became a park in 1852. They are aggressively managed to keep them from succumbing to Dutch elm disease. Sometimes, in between visits from the arborist, the trees can look a little scruffy, their long sinuous trunks sprouting numerous tiny branchiets that mar their grace just slightly, like chin hairs on a pretty woman. The street was once lined with large homes, but none remain.
At the intersection with SW College Street is the red-brick Shattuck School, a Portland public school from 1915 until the 1960s. Its playful terra-cotta accents are worth a look, especially the wise old owls on the northern and southern sides, and the pigtailed girls who gaze down with laughing eyes at each entrance. This ornamentation was likely partially responsible for the outcry over the school's exorbitant construction cost of $126,000. College Street, oddly enough, was named a century prior to the founding of PSU. There was no college on the street at that point, although there were some academies nearby, including Saint Mary's Academy, a Catholic school for girls, which still exists.
Just north of the Peter W. Stott Center, a fitness center, is the Branford Price Millar Library. Millar was the second president of PSU, serving from 1959 to 1968. You'll find restrooms and water on the first floor. The library was built in 1968 on the site of what is now the Vedanta Society. A 1980 addition, with its concave wall of windows, was designed to save and celebrate the 1890s-era copper beech in front of the building. The beech drops edible nuts in the fall, each bound up inside a four-petaled involucre that looks like a small wooden flower. American Indians ate the nuts of the American beech. To save time and energy, they would leave the nut harvest to the chipmunks and deer mice, who would stash their haul in logs or holes. Once snow was on the ground, the Indians would simply look for a pile of beechnut husks, dig down, and clean out the animal's stores.
Portland Farmers Market sets up here on Saturdays from May 1 to the weekend before Thanksgiving. Vegetables, fruits, pestos, cheeses, sausages, and baked goods, all grown or made in Oregon, will tempt you to sprint back to your car and drive over to load up on the bounty. On a cold November Saturday, I warmed my hands next to a twirling drum of roasting sweet peppers, got the backs of my legs swatted by the tails of several happy dogs, and sampled enough jams, cheeses, and coffees to fortify me for the rest of the hill walk. This market represents the best of Portland: great food in a gorgeous, seminatural setting that has been preserved for all by the foresight of early citizens.
Next to the Blackstone, a 1931 apartment house with implacable Egyptians guarding its façade, is the Simon Benson House. This house, which belonged to one of the city's most beloved philanthropists, used to sit at the southeastern corner of SW 11th Avenue and Clay Street. In the late 1990s, after years of abandonment, it was moved to its present site and restored for a new life as PSU's Alumni and Visitor Center. Benson, who lived from 1851 to 1942, is known to every Portland schoolchild for his Benson Bubblers, the bronze four-bowled water fountains scattered around the downtown area. He commissioned these fountains in 1912 with the intention of providing an alternative for citizens who, without this resource, might be tempted to venture into a tavern to quench their thirst. Benson High School, the Benson Hotel, and Multnomah Falls and Benson State Recreation Area in the Columbia River Gorge are other parts of his legacy. Benson summed up his generous philosophy when he said, "No one has the right to die and not leave something to the public and for the public good."
Across from Simon Benson's house is the Smith Memorial Student Union building, where in the basement level you'll find a food court, restrooms, and drinking fountains. The diagonal sidewalks in the Park Blocks here were laid out in 1905 to thwart baseball games by local kids.
Just after you cross the streetcar tracks you'll see Lincoln Hall on the right. Erected in 1911, this building served as the second Lincoln High School, the first having been located at SW 14th and Morrison. In 1951 Lincoln High moved to its present location on the grounds of the Kamm estate at SW Salmon and 16th. At Market Street you leave PSU and enter the city's Cultural District of museums, theaters, and performance halls. On this stretch, a few more food options can be found in the ground levels of the various condominium buildings. One notable building is Jeanne Manor at SW Clay and Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the intersection with SW Columbia, look one block east to the 1883 Stick-style carriage house of the Ladd mansion, which sat in the block now housing the Oregonian building. William Sargent Ladd was among the city's first magnates. After his death, the Ladd Estate Company sold off land that eventually became Laurelhurst, Eastmoreland, Dunthorpe, Riverview Cemetery, and, of course, Ladd's Addition. This carriage house, bigger than all but the biggest homes, has held the offices of the Junior League of Portland and workshops for the Portland Civic Theater. Today it holds office space.
Also on Columbia, at Park, is the unusual ziggurat-style Sixth Church of Christ Scientist, built during the Depression in 1931. Its architect, Glenn Stanton (of Whitehouse, Stanton, and Church), was charged with designing a church that would put as many men as possible to work for the greatest length of time. Despite the intricacy of the brickwork, it was finished in six months.
Meet the Author
As a self-professed forensic pedestrian who honed her craft in Portland, Laura O. Foster writes about Oregon’s urban centers, small towns, and natural areas. With wit and insight, she tells the stories—geologic, architectural, botanical, and arcane—of this topographically diverse and beautiful state.
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