Pioneer Square could have been a crystal palace
By Finn J.D. John
In January of 1969, the owners of Meier and Frank Department Stores in Portland had a problem.
Business at their legendary department store, located smack in the middle of downtown Portland, was starting to slow down, even as sales galloped ahead at their Lloyd Center store. They were pretty sure they knew what was holding the downtown location back: Parking.
Fortunately, a solution was right at hand. All they needed to do was demolish the grimy, low-slung double-deck parking lot next to their store and replace it with a more modern facility — one eight or 10 stories tall, with space for about a hundred cars per floor.
Of course, there was the hassle of getting permits to be gone through before they could get construction started. But Meier and Frank anticipated no trouble there. The Portland city government had always been very friendly to the needs of businesses ... although it was true that just recently, a certain “hippie” spirit had started making inroads there.
That new spirit, which the old Chamber of Commerce warhorses had little patience for, had been brewing for a while. During the city’s passionate embrace of “urban renewal,” early in the ‘60s, there had been no sign of it. But although in most ways it followed the mid-century Robert Moses playbook — razing several of Portland’s more colorful ethnic neighborhoods and handing the resulting bare land over to developers — the Portland Development Commission had decided to spend some of its resources getting the aesthetics of the brand-new cityscape right. They’d set aside pieces of land as public spaces, and hired legendary landscape architect Lawrence Halprin to design them.
Residents of Portland really liked what they’d seen of Halprin’s work so far — Lovejoy Fountain and Pettygrove Park had been opened in 1966 to universal acclaim. And there was a growing sense among a certain set of Portlanders that this was what a modern city should be like, that their city’s most prime bits of real estate should be used as public spaces rather than “bomb-crater” parking structures.
Well, as a “bomb-crater” parking structure, the old Meier and Frank parking lot was like Exhibit A, and it occupied probably the most desirable piece of real estate in all of Portland. But the company planners probably figured they’d have solid support for their plan to replace it with a taller, more architecturally interesting parking garage.
They were, as it turned out, mistaken. In January 1970, the Portland Development Commission took an action that shocked the more conservative members of the business community:
It told Meier and Frank “no.” And then it followed up by asking if the store might be willing to sell the property instead, so that it could be made into a huge public space — the centerpiece of them all: Pioneer Courthouse Square.
The Meier and Frank execs were game, on one condition: They’d wanted to build the parking garage to solve a serious parking problem. If the city could solve that problem for them for less than it would have cost the company to build the new parking lot, fine.
It took most of the 1970s to work out the details, but eventually this was done.
But meanwhile, prominent members of the Portland business community were starting to have second thoughts about the whole “public spaces” thing. The problem was, as they saw it, parks and fountains were attracting “hippies.”
Author Randy Gragg recounts a Portland City Council meeting called to discuss a curfew on the parks, at which one of the commissioners “lashed out at what he called ‘sex bums, punks, pushers and rabble-rousers’ who have ‘gravely offended the sensibilities of this city and its responsible inhabitants,” and a local pastor presented a petition signed by 5,000 residents titled “A Petition to Discourage the Influx of Hippies to Our City.”
It was with these fault lines already widening that the city set to work designing what would soon become Pioneer Courthouse Square. One side — the one on which the “hippies” would find themselves — wanted an open, accessible public space there; the other — represented with great vigor and articulateness by City Councilor and later Mayor Frank Ivancie — wanted a giant atrium, access to which could be controlled and possibly even charged for, to keep transients, hippies, communist agitators, “sex bums” and other non-conforming people out.
The backers of open public space won this fight, obviously. But the way they did so was as audacious as it was clever. In 1980, following nine years of planning and wrangling, the Portland Development Commission launched an international design competition. A total of 162 entries came in, and Portland residents got to evaluate each in turn.
In the end, the winner was a local team, led by Willard Martin and featuring landscape architect J. Douglas Macy, historian Terrence O’Donnell, writer Spencer Gill, photographer Robert Reynolds and sculptor Lee Kelly.
When this was announced, the “giant atrium” faction — still led by Ivancie, who was now the mayor — was very unhappy. They attempted, through parliamentary processes at City Hall, to reset the whole thing and have another shot at the atrium, but they quickly realized they were stuck. The design competition had tapped thousands of Portlanders, each of whom spent many hours helping arrive at a design that almost all of them liked. The suggestion that a few power brokers at City Hall might simply override their choice by fiat did not go over well.
So the open-space “hippies” got their design approved. But could they pay for it? Almost all of the big-money donors were on Ivancie’s side and, acutely aware that they’d been outplayed, were not feeling generous.
That’s when Mayor Ivancie accidentally came to the rescue. In what was widely interpreted as a declaration of victory, he declared the Pioneer Courthouse Square project dead.
His words galvanized the square’s backers. Furious with Ivancie and desperate to prove him wrong, they came together, got organized and brainstormed. And along the line, somebody came up with the idea of selling engraved bricks — a common fundraising technique today, but at the time very innovative.
The idea was to cover the square with the names of thousands of Portlanders, each of whom had kicked down $15 — a thousandth of one percent of the $1.5 million they needed to build the square.
“If you could prove that the people of Portland really were behind this idea, and really wanted it, the big gifts would come,” Friends of Pioneer Square Director Molly O’Reilly told videographers Gregg Kantor and Ernie Bonner.
“That’s the way the thinking went.”
It worked. Three years later, on April 6, 1984, Pioneer Courthouse Square opened to the public.
(Sources: Video, “Portland’s Living Room,” KGW News 8, 2009, at thesquarepdx.org; Kantor, Gregg, and Bonner, Ernie. Video, “Pioneer Courthouse Square,” Portland State University, 1986; Gragg, Randy. Where the Revolution Began. Washington, D.C.: Spacemaker Press, 2009)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: email@example.com or 541-357-2222.
Image above: UO Libraries. Pioneer Courthouse Square when it was under construction, in the summer of 1983. This image was made by architect Willard K. Martin, leader of the square’s design team.
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