Part 2 of this blog series follows the transformation of Downtown Portland from the 1940s to “now.” To discover the history of Downtown from its beginnings to the 1930s, read Downtown Portland: Then and Now (Part 1).
The Impact of Automobiles
The popularity of cars grew significantly in the century’s first few decades. In fact, Portland had its own Ford Motor Co. assembly and distribution building in SE (which is now used for creative office and retail space). As soldiers returned from war in the 1940s, the city needed space to accommodate more vehicles and abandoned cast-iron waterfront buildings began to be demolished, replaced with surface parking lots.
One example is the parking lot on SW Naito Pkwy adjacent to Smith Block. The lot once held one of the area’s most ornate buildings, Kamm Block. The four-story property was erected in 1884 and was home to a popular leather goods store; it was demolished in 1948. Just a few blocks away at SW 3rd Ave & Oak St is another lot that was once home to the city’s most expensive building. Another ornate cast-iron structure, the three-story Ainsworth Block was completed in 1888 at the cost of $100,000. This made it the most expensive building in Portland at the time. It was demolished in 1955.
Dozens of other waterfront buildings were removed along Naito Pkwy (then Front St) to make way for a project called Harbor Drive. Completed in 1943, the freeway stretched along the waterfront from Barbur Blvd to the Interstate Bridge and became a main route of transportation through the city. The freeway was eventually closed in 1974 and replaced by Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
The waterfront area wasn’t the only area to experience demolition, however. One of the most iconic buildings in Downtown Portland at the time was the Portland Hotel. Located on SW 6th Ave between Morrison St & Yamhill St, the luxurious eight-story, 326-room hotel opened in 1890 and was considered one of the finest in Oregon. In fact, eleven presidents stayed at the Portland over six decades. In 1951, the nearby Meier & Frank department store purchased the building and razed it in order to build a two-level parking structure.
On the Decline
The replacement of older buildings with parking lots and structures continued through the 1960s and 1970s and altered the look of Downtown Portland significantly. In fact, New York Times’ architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable once said of the city: “The scattered bomb-site look of downtown parking lots made by demolishing older buildings… are destroying the cohesive character of the city as decisively as a charge of dynamite wherever they occur.”
In addition, Portland’s local economy was struggling and large shopping malls like the Lloyd Center and the Washington Square Mall began drawing people away from small Downtown businesses. Many local retail stores and restaurants were forced to close and foot traffic lessened dramatically. This left Downtown more vacant than usual, and it became a hot spot for crime and violence.
As the last third of the century set in, the economy began to recover, and Downtown Portland began to experience a reinvigoration. To offset the congestion of automobile traffic, the TriMet light rail project was introduced by Governor Tom McCall and approved in 1978. TriMet’s first MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) line, the 15-mile Blue Line between 11th Ave and Gresham, began operation in 1986.
Around the same time, the Portland Planning Commission proposed a “multi-use urban plaza” to bring people back to the area. The commission decided to raze Meier & Frank’s parking structure (the former location of the Portland Hotel) and use the 40,000 square-foot block to build Pioneer Courthouse Square. The square opened in 1984 and incorporated the Portland Hotel’s original iron scrollwork gate into its design. Today it’s known as an area where people can gather for coffee, lunch, live music, and a variety of celebrations throughout the year.
Other projects like the establishment of the Portland Center for the Performing Arts in 1987 and the construction of Pioneer Place in 1990 also helped bring activity back to the area. In addition, annual Downtown events like the Oregon Brewers Festival, the Waterfront Blues Festival, and the Portland Farmers Market became popular amongst both locals and visitors.
Portland also defined much of its skyline during the last few decades of the century. In 1983, the U.S. Bancorp Tower joined the Wells Fargo Center as the city’s second-tallest building. At 536 feet, it sits just 10 feet shy of the Wells Fargo Center, but its iconic pink glass gives it a unique look and the local nickname “Big Pink.” One year later in 1984, the PacWest Center was constructed diagonally across from Wells Fargo Center and was renowned for its sleek design. KOIN Tower was also constructed in 1984, which added an orange color and a “modern art deco” shape to the skyline.
After the turn of the century, Portland’s population rose over 90,000 between the years of 2000 and 2014. Downtown saw the reemergence of the streetcar, more annual events, and several new high-rise towers that provided living, office, and retail space. The area continued to prosper and although it experienced recent set-backs due to the effects of COVID-19, Downtown is still a desirable part of the city with plenty of restaurants, shops, cafes, theaters, and public spaces to enjoy.