"Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to
raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture."n
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
In 1843, city founders Asa Lovejoy and William Overton marked the site of the first claim in what is now Old Town with a tomahawk. (Don't try this technique now; it doesn't work anymore.) Much of the riverfront was shallow marshland, but with development, it quickly became the commercial center of Portland. Many of the city's oldest buildings still survive here, untouched by the demolitions that happened all around them.
As the city grew, the waterfront blossomed into a wild assortment of private wharves and warehouses jutting into the river in an unregulated cacophony, serviced by river steamers and schooners.
* Ex-skews Me? Portland's 1846 layout or "plat"was eight blocks in length and two blocks deep, and the blocks were oriented to the river, not to the points of the compass. Yet Old Town is aligned in cardinal directions, so there is a "street skew" mismatch between the northwest and southwest sections of Portland where they meet at Burnside Street.
While Old Town suffered the same neglect as Yamhill District, its decline was not as rapid. Visiting sailors and lumbermen lodging their families in town kept money flowing into the area, and a rich assortment of immigrants lived on the waterfront. Greeks and Gypsies mixed with Japanese and Chinese workers here.
The population of the area was 80 percent male. Woodsmen, deckhands, railroad workers, shanghai-ers and shanghai-ees crowded the docks, and apparently there was even some heavy drinking from time to time. It would be interesting to transport some of our city's contemporary tattooed hipsters to this epoch to give them a feel for Portland's lost wild side.
* Addison M. Starr (Portland's mayor from 1858 to 1859) owned a waterfront distillery north of Old Town. His ads read: "If people must ... have whiskey, let them buy Starr pure and unadulterated white whiskey."n
Wood mills, factories, and wharves were to the north of Union Station, while the rail yards held sway in what is now referred to as Old Town. From Old Town to the south border of the Portland waterfront were cheap lodgings, pricey women, and skid road, baby. If you wanted to make your way, you walked with a swagger, kept one hand on your wallet, and laughed loudly. (In 1924, you could swagger across the Willamette if so inclined; it was so cold that December, automobiles drove all the way across the frozen river.)
The Skidmore Design zone (created in 1959) established architectural parameters over new construction and remodeling in the area. In the mid-1970s, a variety of groups persuaded the city to establish a historic district around Skidmore Fountain. This done, financial incentives kept existing property owners relatively happy and eventually encouraged outside investors to the area, resulting in a dramatically successful upgrade to the district in the early 21st century.Less Text