Pioneer Courthouse Square lives today. That rainbow represents the steps! Surprisingly, this city block has been through a lot to get to where it is today. In the 1840's, a shoemaker by the name of Elijah Hill came to Portland in hopes of starting a new life in a frontier town. He purchased the empty lot of land for $24 and a nice part of shoes. (Not kidding!). Soon after, James Fields acquired the spot and, after striking it rich, sold it to the Portland School District in 1849 for $1,000. Portland's first schoolhouse was built and opened on May 17, 1856 and named Central School with 280 pupils registered. Later, it was sold to Henry Villard's Northern Pacific Terminal Company in 1883 for $75,000 (go Portland School District!).
Central School - image from Portland Public SchoolsThe plot of land took a turn for the worse when Henry Villard went broke soon after he lay the foundation for a hotel. The "ruins" sat for five years as an eyesore in the center of downtown Portland. It even became a dumping ground for murders from the neighboring seedy saloons. The community became fed up and 6 local businessmen put up $250,000 to open a first class hotel. Along with the contribution of 322 Portland citizens, the Portland Hotel Company was built. It opened on April 7, 1890. This hotel boomed as a social mecca for Portland and had seven presidents, among other notable people, stay in it's luxurious rooms.
Portland Hotel 1890 - image from Oregon Historical Society
With the arrival of other hotels in the area, the Portland Hotel declined in the 30's and by 1944, Julius Meier and Aaron Frank (Meier & Frank) had purchased the building. After announcing in 1951 that the building would be demolished, the duo built a two-story parking structure to take the hotel's place. Because of peoples' addictions to cars in the 50's and 60's, places to park downtown became impossible to find. Meier & Frank proposed an eight to ten story parking garage. After protests and proposals for a city park instead, Meier &wqs Frank's idea was denied by City Planning Commission.
A national design competition was conducted by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) in 1980 and over 160 submissions were received to make this city park. The winner was a design team lead by Willard Martin. To celebrate the win, Martin lay the life size design on the vacant lot in bright colors. With paint donated by Rodda Paint and help from a handful of volunteer painters, the design was revealed to the city of Portland in a way that was outlandish and wonderful at the same time. It gave the city an idea of what was to come. And, after such a fight with Meier & Frank to posses this lot, it was a civic victory and a celebration of something unique.
Volunteers painting the plan for Pioneer Courthouse Square - photos by Bruce Forster
Now we can sit in what Willard Martin named "Portland's living room" and know it took so much for it to exist.
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