Schoolchildren visiting the mural in 1970 (photo courtesy Tanya March)
BY TANYA MARCH AND VAL BALLESTREM
In 1959, architect and artist Will K. Martin, of the Eugene firm Wilmsen & Endicott, won a design competition for the entrance wall to the new Portland Zoological Gardens. Martin’s design, a 50-foot long mosaic mural, was the background for a freestanding sculptural “tree of life” and shallow fountain pool. In the pools were statuettes of turtles that quickly became a favorite attraction of young visitors to the zoo. Martin’s zoo entrance mural is similar to what other parks and zoos were erecting in the late 1950s, according to Kristen Overbeck Laise, Director of Rescue Public Murals, an organization that seeks to document and bring attention to the historic and artistic significance of murals in the United States.
The sponsors of the design competition at the City of Portland hoped that a magnificent Zoo entrance would be a highlight of the 1959 Oregon Centennial celebration. But the development of the entrance was not without its challenges.
In a September 15, 1958 letter from Portland Zoo Commissioner Herbert R. Ketell to Loyal C. Lang of the Portland Zoo Commission, Ketell noted that the project lacked adequate funding. The Zoo sought $115,000, including $25,000 for an entrance replete with pre-historic monsters created out of mosaic tile, along with a water fountain as a loan from the Park Department’s “windfall” money or the general fund. The project goal was to have the entrance completed in time for the Zoo’s grand opening in June 1959. A lack of funding remained an issue however, and it was not until one year later, on September 15, 1959, that the Portland City Council passed an ordinance to hire Martin.
For a modest sum of $7,000 Martin was to complete the installation of the mosaic tile mural within 45 days. According to city records, the short project timeline was so that work would be completed before the first frost. Martin was known as a tenacious and vocal architect and it may be that he used some of the same tactics (like speaking directly to City Council) that he later employed when competing for the design of Pioneer Courthouse Square – another competition that he ultimately won.
The Martin-designed entrance has been closed off for several years, and the under-utilized space is currently blocked by chain-link fencing. The mural will soon be replaced as the zoo embarks on a much-needed expansion of their educational building. Regrettably, it is not deemed cost effective to move the mural to another site where future generations can enjoy its beauty. History, apparently, doesn't pencil out.
Thankfully, the zoo is being thoughtful about their expansion plans and they want to honor Will Martin’s historic contribution. To that end, they are currently documenting the mural prior to its dismantling. Katie Wisdom Weinstein, Public Arts Administrator for the Zoo, recently contacted Martin’s family and also the Architectural Heritage Center in order to help inform the community about the mural and its removal.
The mural is an object of art and a free standing wall created by a beloved and controversial local architect who died tragically in the middle of his career, not long after the creation of his team’s winning design of Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Val C. Ballestrem is the Education Manager of the Architectural Heritage Center
Tanya March, Ph.D. is a historical consultant and the author of historicpreservationclub.blogspot.com