8 Historical Gems in Portland You Should Not Miss

With a rich and complex history, it’s no surprise that Portland is home to several fascinating historical sites. Whether you have a free afternoon with the kids, you’re looking for a cool educational destination, or are just curious about your community’s past, this is your guide to discovering historical gems in Portland. Let’s dive into the rich heritage of this area and uncover stories behind its most significant landmarks and events.

Pittock Mansion

The iconic Pittock Mansion, perched 1,000 feet above downtown Portland, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and the Cascade Range. Built in 1914 by Oregonian pioneers Henry and Georgiana Pittock, this French Renaissance-style mansion showcases the opulence and modern luxuries of its time, including innovative features like an Otis elevator and intercoms.

The history of the Pittock Mansion is deeply intertwined with the story of the Pittock family, who played a significant role in shaping the development of the city. Despite facing challenges such as damage from a storm in 1962 and threats of demolition by developers, the City of Portland stepped in to preserve this historic landmark, opening it to the public as a testament to the hard work and legacy of those who shaped Portland into the city it is today.

The Old Church

Built in 1882 in the Carpenter Gothic style, The Old Church stands out with its wood construction that mimics traditional stone Gothic churches, blending beautifully with the Pacific Northwest setting. It’s the oldest church building in downtown Portland and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

The Old Church now serves as a nonprofit dedicated to its restoration and preservation while offering cultural and artistic programming. Moreover, it’s a striking contrast to the modern mid- and high-rise buildings that surround it.

Simon Benson House

The Simon Benson House is a Queen Anne-style house built in 1900 by timber baron Simon Benson. It was originally located across the Old Church but it was moved in January 2000 to its current location at Portland State University.

Benson, a Norwegian immigrant, was a timberman, innovator, and philanthropist who promoted the Columbia Gorge Highway and donated land for parks. He also helped build Benson Polytechnic High School and gifted the “Benson Bubbler” water fountains to Portland. Today, the Simon Benson House houses the university’s alumni association and visitor center, serving as a testament to Benson’s legacy and historic preservation in Portland.

Pioneer Courthouse Square

Portland’s living room, Pioneer Courthouse Square, is located in the heart of downtown and occupies a whole city block. Additionally, it hosts a variety of events and provides great opportunities for people-watching.

The Pioneer Courthouse itself is the oldest federal building in the Pacific Northwest, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1977. It features an Italianate design, typical of West Coast government buildings of its time, and retains original architectural details like the grand stairway in the lobby and decorative plaster molding. The square's location across from the historic courthouse adds to its charm, making it a central hub for locals and visitors alike.

South Park Blocks

Spanning twelve blocks along S.W. Park Avenue, the tree-lined South Park Blocks features fountains, small gardens, grassy areas, and statues. It has been a significant location for events like the fifteen-hundred-person rally in memory of Mulugeta Seraw in 1990. As one of the oldest and most popular parks in Portland, the park hosts vibrant community events and programs throughout the year.

Frank Manor House

The Frank Manor House, a National Register of Historic Places site, was once part of the original Fir Acres estate owned by Lloyd Frank, of a local department store family. Today, it houses various offices, including undergraduate admissions and the college president.

This classic pre-Depression estate, designed by Herman Brookman for M. Lloyd Frank, showcases graceful period architecture and stunning landscape design. The house boasts rustic brickwork, an engineered hanging stairwell, and an eight-acre formal garden with views of Mount Hood. Sold to Lewis & Clark College in 1942, it now stands as a testament to the area's rich history and architectural heritage.

Pearl District

The Pearl District has a rich history shaped by its origins as a hub for trade and industry. Once the heart of the city's West Coast rail network and ports, it evolved into the Northwest Industrial Triangle, characterized by rail lines and warehouses. Over time, this industrial landscape transformed into a thriving artistic community, with warehouses repurposed into studios, galleries, and businesses.

The Maddox Building, one of the featured properties and stands as a testament to the district’s evolution, was constructed in 1906 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the district is a vibrant blend of historic and modern buildings, attracting visitors, residents, and businesses drawn to its dynamic energy and creative spirit.

The Watzek House

The Watzek House, designed by John Yeon, is an icon for bold, new regional interpretations of the Modernist movement. Constructed in 1937, the house showcases a unique blend of regional woods and inventive distillations of historical motifs, creating what Yeon described as "a sequence of revelations". Situated on 3.62 acres in the southwest Portland hills, the house offers breathtaking views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, and the Tualatin Valley.

The property was donated to the University of Oregon School of Architecture in 1996, leading to the establishment of the John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies. Notably, the Watzek House is a National Historic Landmark, recognized as a masterpiece that not only reflects architectural innovation but also preserves a piece of history that continues to inspire visitors with its beauty and design excellence.

So, there you have it. What do you think of the places mentioned above? Hopefully, this guide will inspire you to embark on your own journey through Portland’s rich history.

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