Located at the center of downtown Portland, Oregon, filling the block between SW 6th Avenue and Broadway and between Yamhill and Morrison streets, Pioneer Courthouse square is the town square, the central plaza, the zócalo of Portland. Commonly called "Portland's Living Room", its 1.56 acres of brick surface constitute the center of urban vibrancy in Portland. The square has been teeming with tourists, lunchgoers, students, businessmen, scruffy hippies playing hackey-sack, and homeless youth since its completion in 1984, as well as, since the completion of the first MAX light rail line in 1986, thousands of public transit commuters each day. Pioneer Courthouse Square features numerous public art installations including a large fountain, food carts and a Starbucks coffee shop, several small shops including a Powell's Books branch, two amphitheaters, and one of the most heavily trafficked light rail stops in the MAX system. The Square hosts dozens of public events each year, official and unofficial, fulfilling its role as the central gathering place of the city.
The first building to occupy the block between 6th, Broadway, Yamhill, and Morrison was Portland's first schoolhouse. Built in 1858, the New England-style Central School stood several blocks from the city's original commercial core and in the middle of a primarily residential neighborhood. As the downtown's center grew and shifted in the second half of the 19th century, the area became more desirable, and plans were made to build a hotel. The block was sold to journalist and railroad tycoon Henry Villard in 1883, and construction on a hotel was begun.
The same year, however, Mr. Villard was bankrupted by his efforts to rescue the Northern Pacific railroad, and the hotel's foundations sat on the block for five years. "Villards Ruins" became a downtown eyesore, a center of prostitution, and the dumping place for the bodies of two murder victims. Eventually, a coalition of leading businessmen, including the illustrious William Ladd, Henry Corbett, and Simeon Reed came together to build the hotel to occupy the block. However, they only offered half of the money necessary to complete the building; the other half came from 322 citizens who invested in the Portland Hotel Company.2 In 1890, in concurrence with the arrival of the railroads, the grandiose Portland Hotel was completed at a cost of $750,000. Called "the special pride of Portland" by Oregonian newspaper editor Harvey Scott1, the Portland Hotel was visited by presidents, celebrities, and the local well-to-do who ate oysters here after the theatre or attended galas in what was probably the most beautiful building ever to be built in Portland. But in 1951, Robert Moses had come to town, the country was forgetting its cities in the post-war suburban boom, and the City of Portland lost its mind, and thus the aging hotel fell under the wrecking ball and was replaced by an unassuming two-story parking structure, to be used by customers of the Meier and Frank department store cater-cornered from the square at 6th and Morrison.
Ever increasing automobile use led to parking problems downtown, and in 1969 Meier and Frank proposed replacing the two-story structure with an 8 to 10 story garage to hold 800 cars. A flurry of controversy erupted, and demands for a public park rose. The City Planning Commission denied the department store's request to build the larger garage in 1970, and the next 18 months were devoted to reconciling the need for public space in downtown with the inadequate parking situation. In 1972, a plan for a central square on the site was approved, and in the next few years negotiations with Meier and Frank led to a plan for the city to build two public parking garages along Morrison, the city's major shopping street, in exchange for rights to buy the future site of the square from the department store, which was acquired by the Portland Parks Bureau in 1979.2
In 1980 a design competition for the future square was held by the Portland Development Commission, which was won by a local team led by Willard K. Martin, who proposed a post-modern vision of the square, featuring whimsicality reminiscent of the nearby Portland Building but in a much more subtle implementation. This controversial decision called for an open square, which business leaders feared would attract "undesirables" but which the designers insisted would make the square more welcoming and accessible to the public. Ultimately, however, it was not design controversy, but financial difficulties which most threatened the square. In January of 1981, Mayor Frank Ivancie announced that the square was dead. However, in a move echoing the transformation of Villard's Eyesore into the Portland Hotel, a group calling themselves Friends of Pioneer Square launched a campaign to save the project. For $15, citizens could have their name engraved in one of the bricks to pave the square, and for larger amounts of money, they could purchase similar rights to planters, trash cans, benches, and so on. They raised half a million dollars from the bricks and a million dollars from the larger amenities, and on April 6, 1984, the city of Portland's 133rd birthday and also the birthday of designer Will Martin, Pioneer Courthouse Square opened to the public.2
As mentioned above, Pioneer Courthouse Square is absolutely dripping with public art, much of it whimsical in nature. Sixteen tiled columns line the north and south edges of the square, separating the light rail stops from the main section of the square. One of these columns was built "fallen", with the core of the base sporting a chessboard. Looming over the center of the square and at the edge of the larger of the amphitheaters is a waterfall fountain. A false bridge across the center of the fountain provides entrance to the tourist info and transit info. Above the larger amphitheater and towards the southwest corner of the square stands the beloved bronze statue, Allow Me (popularly known as the "umbrella man"), depicting a cheerful and friendly Portlander leaning forward to offer his umbrella. Tourists get their picture taken standing under his umbrella, campaign volunteers stick political stickers on his breast after rallies, and citizens of all types meet at his side. Another popular specific meeting spot, often referred to simply as the "direction pole", stands along the east edge of the square and points the directions and distances to local and world landmarks (including the TriMet Info 54 yards in one direction, Tipperary "a long way" in another, and the Crozet Basin of the Indian Ocean 12,415 miles in one direction... and 12, 415 miles in the other direction), and all of Portland's nine sister cities. Complementing Allow Me are a number of umbrella-or-mushroom shaped iron and glass pergolas in the northwest corner of the square surround the smaller amphitheater and the fallen column, which sit right next to the Starbucks. All the way across the square in the southeast corner along the sidewalk and near the direction pole stands a bronze sculpture of running horses. Towards the northeast corner stands the only remnant of the Portland Hotel, a wrought iron fence and gate which separates the main body of the square from the sidewalk. Finally, near the middle of the square near the fountain and the smaller amphitheater and at the height of utmost whimsy stands the Weather Machine. This delightful contraption trumpets and spits mist out every day at 12 noon, triumphantly presenting a sun, heron, and dragon in succession before announcing its weather forecast for the next 24 hours: the sun represents, unsurprisingly, a sunny day, the heron cloudiness and possibility of light rain, and the dragon, storms ahead.
Scattered about the square are a number of shops and services. Underneath the amphitheater and accessible from the bridge through the fountain are the tourist information center and Fastixx ticket office, public restrooms, and a TriMet office offering ticket and pass sales and schedule and route information. Also under the amphitheater, but accessible from the opposite end, are the Powell's Books travel store and a Thomas Cook currency exchange. On the upper level of the square in the northwest corner stand the dreaded Starbucks and a flower stand, while the opposite end of the upper level near the southeast corner holds a collection of food carts offering burritos, hot dogs, pasta, and barbecue.
The center of the square, however, is clear of public art and shops, instead offering its plain self simply as a public gathering space. The larger amphitheater, composed of steps and including a subtly integrated arcing ramp for wheelchairs, separates the smaller upper level from the main lower body of the square. This plaza is the site of hackey-sack playing, of political rallies, of frequent protests, of the Powell's Books annual surplus book sale, of the annual Flowers in the Square display, of an annual sand castle building competition, and of numerous concerts to be witnessed from the amphitheater steps. Every winter, a large Christmas tree stands in the middle of the square; its lighting is celebrated every year on the day after Thanksgiving by crowds of up to 15,000, which the square accommodates in a crowded but not uncomfortable fashion. (A large menorah also is to be found in the square, above the amphitheater in the southwest corner.)
Pioneer Courthouse Square stands in the very core of downtown, at the Peak Land Value Intersection of Portland. The MAX Light Rail lines and one half of the downtown bus mall abut the square (the other half of the bus mall is a mere block away). The major downtown street of Broadway completes the boundaries of the square. High-end services surround the square: the toney Nordstrom's department store is across the street, as are as a Verizon cell phone store, a GAP, a Swatch store, and two banks. An Abercrombie and Fitch, the large Meier and Frank department store, and a Hilton hotel are cater-cornered from the square. Across to the east stands the square's namesake Pioneer Courthouse, which, having been built in 1869, is the oldest public building remaining standing in the Pacific Northwest. Across the southwest corner of the square looms the newest building to surround the square, the shiny blue and white striped Fox Tower, which, built in 2001, offers a large cineplex, some storefront, and many offices.
While the physical image of the square itself has changed little since it was built in 1984 (save the redesign of the once lavender-checkered fountain into a more staid shale entity, in accordance with the original design), Pioneer Courthouse Square continues moving into the future. In the same public spirit characteristic of the history of this block and of the city of Portland as a whole, the Personal Telco project now offers, as of 2002, an 802.11b wireless access point. Anyone with a wireless card can tap into high-speed Internet access at no charge from anywhere in the square.
1: O'Donnell, Terence & Thomas Vaughan. Portland: an informal history and guide. Portland: The Oregon Historical Society, 1984. (pp. 35-39)
also includes information from:
http://www.pioneersquare.citysearch.com/1.html (the Square's official site)
http://www.pps.org/gps/one?public_place_id=19 (includes good pictures)