If your idea of travel is taking a trip either to or around the big city, consider visiting one of Oregon’s many college campuses.
Eric Wheeler, who offers tours of 70 neighborhoods in the Portland area, believes walking tours are the best way to learn about a city. Buildings, he says, tell stories. Architecture provides both urban art and history.
One of his favorite tours includes Portland State University, where a mix of historic and modern buildings bring together the city’s eclectic history. He covers 20 blocks in just 90 minutes.
Meet at “the Schnitzer” with your walking shoes on. Not only will you see the exterior of many buildings, but this tour often includes a visit inside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and stops at homes along the route, where local residents invite tourists inside for quick tours.
The South Park Blocks tour includes Oregon Historical Society, First Congregational Church, Arlington Club, Portland Art Museum, St. James Lutheran Church, Sixth Church of Christ Scientist, Cumberland Apartments, Jeanne Manor, Vue Apartments, Blackstone Apartments and First Christian Church.
One of the favorite stops is the Masonic Temple, Wheeler says. This building started out as the home of Henry J. Corbett, son of pioneer merchants and U.S. Sen. Henry W. Corbett.
Built in the 1880s, it was designed by architect William Whidden in the style of Richardson Revival. Charles E. Ladd, brother of Henry J.’s wife Helen, lived just north of the home until 1888. Both homes stayed with these families until 1920, when the Corbetts sold their home to the Ladds for $90,000 — the highest amount ever paid for a residential property at the time.
It eventually became a boarding house before being sold to the Masons, who razed the property in 1924. Frederick Frisch designed the new Masonic Temple for the area’s 20,000 Masons.
Tourists should notice bold perforated screens above an imposing door, reminders of the importance of lodge life.
In 1991, the 141,000-square-foot building was purchased by the adjoining Portland Art Museum, underwent another major renovation, and is now named for the Pete Mark family.
Another favorite is the Simon Benson House, built in 1900 as the original home for the wealthy lumberman and his family. Benson helped finance the Historic Columbia River Highway and Portland’s famous “Benson Bubbler” water fountain. The house was moved to its present location and is the only surviving mansion of its era.
On his South Blocks Tour, Wheeler stops at the Portland Art Museum. Built in 1892, it is the oldest art museum on the West Coast and the seventh oldest art museum in the United States.
He chose the name for this tour because of Portland’s decision back in 1876 to develop a series of downtown blocks with shade trees, walkways and fountains. It has been a source of pride ever since.
The Park Blocks themselves have an interesting history.
“The South Park Blocks were impacted by the Vanport flood and the Vanport Extension, then a technical school,” Wheeler says, “eventually becoming Portland State University.”
The park blocks, he continues, were designed for fire suppression and all the trees were cut down. The neighborhood was home to aristocrats who later moved to the neighborhoods of Dunthorpe and Irvington when downtown became too crowded, noisy and congested.
“I like the mix of architectural styles from modernist to traditional, early 20th-century churches, primarily Protestant,” Wheeler says of the downtown core and the PSU neighborhood.
Other interesting points along the tour:
St. James Lutheran Church was the first English-speaking Lutheran congregation in Oregon.
Vue Apartments was Portland’s first venture in high-rise living and, at 15 stories, it was the tallest apartment complex.
The original Blackstone Apartments were razed in the 1930s and designed for university housing.
The First Christian Church Disciples of Christ, with its chapel dating back to 1881, is the oldest congregation in Portland that still occupies the same property.
Lincoln Hall, built in 1911 as Lincoln High School, was on land originally owned by a pioneer steamboat captain.
Shattuck Hall, now part of the PSU campus, was built in 1916 as a replacement for the original Harrison Street grade school. Designed by Floyd Naramore, the Portland School District’s in-house architect, the school was named for teacher Erasmus Shattuck.
Wheeler describes Shattuck Hall as a “stunning” building built when American architecture was moving away from European traditional styles and evolving to modern structures. He likes its simplicity, functionality and beauty.
While Pioneer Courthouse Square is considered by many to be the city’s “living room,” Wheeler considers his South Blocks Tour to be “Portland’s family room, with churches and schools, and Portland’s cultural district with its history, art, music, scholarship and worship places.”
Wheeler is a relative newcomer to Portland. Working for 30 years in real estate appraisal in the Midwest, he visited Portland and was instantly drawn to the climate, topography, mountains, ocean, Columbia Gorge, dynamic cultural scene, “great neighborhoods with Craftsman architecture, and public transit system,” he says.
He was especially attracted to the streetcar era of neighborhoods such as Montavilla, Nob Hill and others of the early 20th century.
With a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in teaching history, Wheeler had been designing and leading tours in Wisconsin.
“When I travel, I look for stories of the city, village or town,” he says. “It’s one of the best ways, through buildings, to learn history.”