"We have taken away from the man in the street all the stereotyped little ornaments, cornices,
cartouches "but we have not yet been capable of giving him back the equivalent in emotional value."n
Pietro Belluschi, Reed College address, December 1950
This is the oldest part of the city, and the wharves and river traffic that once existed here were where Portland's real action was. Portland's commercial heart was Front Street (now Naito Parkway), which led to a building boom on Front, 1st, and 2nd avenues. The area's first buildings were wooden New England-style structures, which proved eminently flammable. After the Great Fire of 1873, buildings with cast-iron storefronts came into vogue.
The cast-iron pieces were prefabricated in factories and shipped to Portland for assembly. They were thought to be fire resistant, and the cast-iron style allowed for highly decorated storefronts and the ability to display wares behind large plate-glass windows. In parts of Old Town and the Yamhill District, these buildings show signs of context-sensitive design, as belt courses and cornice lines are continued from building to building, despite variances in style and construction date.
While the architects of these older buildings devoted great care to their faÃ§ades, they usually left the sides bare. Assuming that the building's neighbors were at least as tall as it was, that was well and good. But as many of them have since been demolished, the surviving buildings give certain blocks a certain staccato unevenness.
The Yamhill District remained the city's center until the construction of the Portland Hotel in 1889 heralded the rise of a new city core to the west. This move inland was hastened both by Portland's increasing population and by a new railroad, which cut into passenger travel on the Willamette River. The Yamhill District's flooding problems, particularly the Great Flood of 1894, also proved to be a powerful deterrent to businessmen who sought higher ground to the west.
These factors led to the Yamhill District's increasing neglect and seediness. Beginning in the 1890s, many cast-iron buildings became warehouses or went untended. A renaissance of sorts came with the 1914 opening of the Yamhill Public Market, a highly successful farmers' market that lasted until 1933. But riverfront businessmen killed the goose that laid the golden egg by moving the Public Market to an indoor site on the riverfront in a building called the Sea Wall Market. This gigantic warehouse proved a disaster. Produce retailers balked at selling their wares inside the building, and the project failed. (The Oregon Journal took over the Sea Wall Market from 1948 to 1961, and when they moved out, it stood vacant until its eventual demolition.)
The decomposing wharves and unsavory shoreline began to be replaced with a high seawall in 1928. Four years later, the city commissioned a study to advise on what to do with the waterfront. The subsequent report advised building a waterfront park and plaza in the area. Go figure! But the city council refused to even print up this advice, much less take it to heart.
Instead, the six-lane Harbor Drive highway bypass was built in 1942 as part of a "city improvement plan."To make way for it, almost eighty buildings were destroyed, including many contemporaries of the cast-iron front treasures that still exist in the area. Harbor Drive had no traffic signals, so pedestrians rashly attempting to access the river took their lives in their hands crossing the road. As for the drivers, they couldn't see the river because of the seawall. When Navy ships arrived for the Rose Festival, temporary wooden bridges had to be built over Harbor Drive and into the Yamhill area. (To get an idea of what a boondoggle Harbor Drive was, imagine Highway 405 running through where Waterfront Park is today.)
Harbor Drive was un-installed in 1974, and Waterfront Park was completed three years later. It was named after state governor Tom McCall, the man who led efforts to rid the city of Harbor Drive and to clean up the Willamette River. Of course, there was much opposition to the idea of a park on the river; many people thought the area should be turned into a parking lot instead. Sigh. Future mayor Frank Ivancie even actually recommended expanding the number of Harbor Drive lanes to ten.
Most of the buildings that survived the Harbor Drive carnage were demolished in the 1950s to make way for parking lots. The willingness to tear down old structures gradually was replaced by a preservationist spirit, and by 1975, the Yamhill District was designated a historic district and found a place on the National Register of Historic Places.Less Text