BY BRADLEY MAULE
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the ﬁrst in a series by Bradley Maule on buildings that have held the distinction of being the tallest in Portland. Maule is starting in 1907 with the 12-story Wells Fargo Building which, as the ﬁrst tall building with a steel frame, is considered Portland's ﬁrst skyscraper. It is, of course, not to be confused with Wells Fargo Center, the 41-story tower that will bookend the other side of this series.
At the turn of the 20th century, Wells Fargo & Company was well on its way to being the global mega-bank it is today. They had bank branches in Asia, Europe and South America, and their business operations and board members had overlap with American Express, Southern Paciﬁc Railroad, Levi Strauss and other household corporations. By 1907, when the building opened, the company had over 100 branches in Oregon, and the Lewis & Clark Exposition put Portland on the national stage.
The Sunday Oregonian described it thusly on June 3, 1906: “The Wells-Fargo building, for which a permit was taken out this week, is a type of the ofﬁce structures which are to grace Portland streets hereafter. This structure is speciﬁed in the permit as costing $320,000. The expenditure of the large amount represented in the cost of this structure by Wells Fargo & Co. shows the faith which outside business men have in the future of Portland."
Benjamin Wistar Morris Harris, a native Portlander who studied architecture at Columbia University in New York and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was tapped for the design. Morris went on to establish himself in New York with conceptual plans for Rockefeller Center, interior designs for the Queen Mary, and the Standard & Poor Building, whose arcade entrance faces the famous bull sculpture on the Bowling Green in lower Manhattan.
Morris' concept for the Wells Fargo Building is a colorful breed of circa-1906 vogue. The two-story base of the building features a granite plinth with limestone trim and Tuscan columns at the entrance, and the middle section's brickwork has a vertical pattern of diamonds with crosses inside, but its most notable attribute is its terra cotta. The building's crown, upper pilasters, keystones and various motif details (such as green Xs and blue- white waves just above the street level) accent the tan structure with vibrant color, especially at the top, where "WELLS" and "FARGO" are spelled out across the entablature on the Sixth Street and Oak Street sides, respectively.
US National Bank bought the building in 1922, a complement to A.E. Doyle's US National Bank building next door, which opened six years earlier. You can still read "US NATIONAL BANK BLDG" above the "WELLS FARGO BUILDING" arched entrance. These are each, naturally, just above the signs for IronStone Bank, the institution currently occupying the ground ﬂoor. US National Bank sold the building in 1986, by which time the company was known as US Bancorp, and they instead preferred their new, 43-story, big pink tower kitty-corner across the street.
Both Morris' Wells Fargo Building and Doyle's US National Bank Building entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. And while Doyle's bank might be considered more grand, with its opulent lobby inside and soaring Corinthian columns and Fairbanks sculptures outside, its neighbor will always be the one carrying the superlative distinction: Portland's ﬁrst skyscraper, the Wells Fargo Building.
Bradley Maule is a photographer whose work has been published by SkyscraperPage.com and published his own PhillySkyline.com before moving to Portland in 2009. His new web site is at PortlandUrbanResource.com.