BY FRED LEESON
As Portland notes the 50th anniversary of the Columbus Day Storm this month, it’s worth noting that the record high winds on October 12, 1962, indirectly led to public purchase of perhaps the city’s best-known and best-loved residences: the Pittock Mansion.
Unlike the high winds that damaged the Pittock and thousands of other buildings that day, public acquisition took nearly two more years. But storm damage that led to talk about demolition of the mansion also led to public determination and fund-raising efforts to save it under municipal ownership in 1964. The numbers seem unreal today — a purchase price of $225,000, with $75,000 of that total raised in a public fund drive.
Today, the mansion managers expect to spend more than four times that amount to repair damage caused by the much slower attrition of water infiltration on the mansions exterior terraces. Plans call for removing and replacing damaged balusters, removing the tile floors, adding a new waterproof membrane, replacing the tile floors and then reinstalling new or repaired stone balusters.
“Anything we don’t have to replace we will reuse,” architect Peter Meijer told the Portland Landmarks Commission this month. He said stone from a quarry in Tenino, Washington, the source of the original baluster material, is no longer available. Meijer said a comparable match has been found at a quarry in Nova Scotia. Some of the balusters to be replaced are made of concrete, a substitute used in earlier repairs.
Meijer said the work is schedule to occur over 12 to 16 weeks next summer. The funding is being developed through a partnership between the Parks Bureau and the non-profit Pittock Mansion Society, which took over management of the building in 2007 as part of a Parks Bureau budget-cutting plan. A successful restoration project should prove that the partnership is an acceptable means of preserving the much-loved mansion, which attracts some 80,000 visitors per year.
In some ways, the building’s history is as quirky as its view is wonderful from high in Portland’s northwest hills. It was designed and built between 1909 and 1914 for Henry and Georgiana Pittock, early pioneers who accumulated extensive wealth from numerous business dealings, including Pittock’s conversion of the Weekly Oregonian, which he bought in 1860, into a daily newspaper.
The architect of the 22-room mansion was Edward T. Foulkes, a Monmouth native whose impressive career was spent mostly in the San Francisco Bay area and Fresno, Calif. Pittock wanted his mansion to showcase Pacific Northwest materials and craftsmanship, and Foulkes delivered. The architect was still in the early stages of his career at the time, after studying at Stanford, MIT and the famed Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. He also spent two years travelling much of the world in 1903-04.
The mansion project also showed the power of influential businessmen of the era. Portland historian Kimbark E. MacColl wrote about how Pittock and the City Water Board of the era reached a private agreement to extend a city water line to the mansion even though it was located a half mile beyond city boundaries. The quiet deal was cancelled, however, when a City Council member went public with it.
The Pittocks were elderly — 80 and 68, respectively — when they moved into their new home in 1914. Both were deceased within five years. By the time of the Columbus Day storm, a grandson had been trying to sell the building, without success.
An unexpected act of nature and the desire of Portlanders to share ostentatious opulence — albeit on a part-time basis — saved a monument and a fascinating look at life of the rich and famous of an earlier era.