BY ALEXANDER CRAGHEAD
Portland is blessed by the preservation and continued existence of many notable historic structures, not the least of which is its beautiful Union Station. Being the city's first modern unified transportation terminal, the 1896 structure, designed by Kansas City architect Henry Van Brunt, was in some ways the forerunner of today's Portland International Airport. Union Station is not, however, the city's first railway station, nor the first attempt at creating a unified terminal. In some ways, it's not the most interesting either: that honor belongs to one that was never built.
The railroad arrived in Portland in the late 1860s, but at the time it was a rather anemic, short-haul mode of transport.
In the wake of the Civil War both Portland and the Pacific Northwest were merely, as the late Stuart Hollbrook put it, a "Far Corner" of the United States, isolated from the rest of the nation. As a consequence, the railroad remained long unimportant, and as a consequence Portland's urban rail facilities were practically non-existent.
Enter Henry Villard. A correspondent during the Civil War, Villard became an emissary of worried Oregon railway investors from his native Germany. Arriving in Oregon in 1874, he quickly deposed Ben Holladay from control of the Oregon & California Railroad, then managed to gain control of the city's storied Oregon Steam Navigation monopoly, a virtual cash machine. By 1881, thanks to an infamous financial scheme called the "Blind Pool," he controlled every rail line to and from the city of Portland and headed up one of the largest business enterprises in US history. The seemingly charmed Villard was the Steve Jobs of his era, and only two years later, Portland was linked to the east by rail.
Villard planned a single, unified rail station in Portland, not only to provide greater convenience for passengers or improved efficiency, but as an edifice that reflected the greatness of his creation. A grand station would be the final punctuation mark of Villard's signature across the continent. To do the job, Villard set aside a budget of $3 million ($68.8 million today), and in late 1881 hired the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White to design it.
McKim Mead & White had come into being just two years before, in 1879, when Stanford White joined the partnership of Frank McKim and William Mead. Both McKim and White had been understudies of Henry Hobson Richardson, then American's most famous architect. Villard hired the firm to design at least three structures for him: a private residence on New York's Madison Avenue, a grand hotel in Portland, and his unified passenger station also in Portland.
These three structures have always carried with them a degree of mystique and controversy. Villard's Manhattan palace was built (1884), and survives to this day, although it has been significantly altered to become a forecourt structure for a modern hotel tower. The design quoted overtly from the Renaissance Era Palazzo della Cancelleria (1489-1513) in Rome, perhaps exhibiting the desire of New York's emerging Millionaire Society to identify themselves with the merchant princes of that time.
Villard's hotel commision became the iconic Portland Hotel, opened after a long construction delay in 1890. It became the social center of Portland, faded from glory in the 20th century, and was torn down in 1951. Its replacement was a parking lot, and its eventual replacement by Pioneer Courthouse Square (1984) is a story well known to most urbanists. McKim, Mead & White's role in the design of the hotel, however, remains murky and shrouded in controversy.
Some scholars argue that, following the long construction delay, the bulk of the structure is the work of William M. Whidden, while others claim the structure as mostly the work of the New York firm. Architectural plans for the hotel are not known to exist, and the matter remains unsettled.
The last of the three structures commissioned by Villard with the firm is the city's passenger station. One oft-used illustration, originally printed in the April 1882 issue of The West Shore, shows a symmetrical building with a large forecourt, spreading wings, and a high central clock tower. Other than this illustration, however, there has never been clear evidence to show that McKim, Meade & White had ever done any design work; the West Shore, notorious for its regional boosterism, was not above showing highly speculative pictures.
Did this illustration have any basis in reality? As it turns out, yes. The Oregon Historical Society holds architectural drawings relating to the Van Brunt station that was constructed a decade later. Buried in with these drawings is a single oversize vellum sheet, cataloged as a drawing relating to the Van Brunt station and penned, it is alleged, by Whidden. The drawing, however, has no relation whatsoever to the Van Brunt design. Instead it is an elevation of the 1881 Villard commission, and is labeled as the work of "McKim, Mead & White Architects, 51 Broadway, New York."
The structure shown is handsome, built of stone with long arched arcades of doors and windows on the ground floor and generously proportioned windows on the second.
The tower in some ways resembles the walled city towers of Germany's Romantic Road, with a central arched passageway at the base, narrow windows that resemble mediaeval arrow-loops above, a high and large clock face.
Crowning the tower is an an arcade and roof that resemble a late Venetian campanile.
If the article in The West Shore is to be believed, if built, it would have been not only a grand statement for Portland, but the largest railway station in the world. The footprint suggests this is not hyperbole: the station would have occupied the entire property now used by the Post Office, and would have been larger in surface area than Seattle's Safeco Field.
To construct it, fully twelve blocks would have been occupied, and perhaps for the first time in Portland's history, there was public controversy over breaking up the small block grid with big, obstructing super-blocks. The West Shore dismissed these concerns as "silly twaddle," noting that the site was "an unsightly swamp; has no streets, and never will have any, unless the railroad companies see fit to make streets."
Though a grand thing, this incarnation of Villard's unified station for Portland was brought to a halt by financial panic in international money markets. Villard lost almost everything, including his control of Portland's railroads. Under financial strain, the railroad management that replaced him axed both the station and the hotel plans. While the hotel found local champions who eventually completed that scheme, the station plan was not revived until the early 1890s, and then in a new location with a less ambitious footprint and a different architect.
Many questions remain. Was Whidden really responsible for this drawing? It's possible, as he had worked in the McKim, Mead & White offices in New York in the early 1880s. More importantly, is this the only surviving drawing of this building? If not, where might the remainder be?
More intriguing is to contemplate how different the city would be had the McKim, Mead and White station been built. The city's railway station was for sixty years its most important transportation facility, and its location at the head of the north park blocks would have dramatically altered how downtown functioned. As The West Shore noted:
"The principle entrance will be at Park and H streets, and should the idea be carried out of throwing the Park blocks into one continuous boulevard, it will give the city pleasant and very necessary recreation grounds of over two miles in length."
It seems likely that it would also have made the streets lining the park blocks more retail in character, turning them into the main commercial boulevard of Portland. The likely conclusion is that Broadway would not have developed as it did.
As for the building itself, even with the splendid elevation drawing that survives, it is difficult to grasp how it would feel. It is likely that the closest experience possible is the San Francisco Ferry Building (A. Page Brown, 1892), whose vast arcades and Beaux Arts central clock tower tower at least echo the scale and general massing that had been planned for Portland. Walking through that structure provides a hint of what we might have had, if only Villard's money had not run out.