offers many places to be entertained, educated and involved. Pioneer
Courthouse Square has been doing it all for 150 years.
on the other side of the world from the fascinating undersea valley
called the Crozet Basin, just 75 feet above sea level, there is
a more accessible, very different, but just as remarkable place.
The Pioneer Courthouse Square is a brilliantly laid out public space,
so loved and important to Portland, Oregon's daily life that it
is fondly known as the city's "living room."
Photos by Joe Cabaza
Pioneer Courthouse Square: An active park
occupying one city block (1.56 acres), with an
information center, food vendors, public art,
and accessible seating.
What to bring: A camera, journal, or recording
device - there is always something to see here,
and you might want to remember it. If you want
to explore or take a walking tour from here, bring
comfortable shoes. Bring a hat or umbrella if
you are not as rain-friendly as Portland residents.
You can also bring your lunch here and eat while
you listen to a concert or watch a hackey-sack
Hours and Fees: As a public park, the Square
is open all days and hours, with the exception
of certain holidays, when the city may choose
to disperse large crowds due to safety and security
concerns. The Portland Oregon Information Center
is open Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturday.
10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Getting There: From Salem: Take I-5 North
to I-405; take exit #299B, merging onto Hwy 26
toward City Center. Continue and take exit #1A
onto SW Harbor Dr. Turn right onto SW Naito Pkwy,
then left onto Morrison St, up to Broadway.
From Seattle: Take I-5 South and merge onto I-405
via exit #302B toward Beaverton. Take exit #2A
(Couch St) toward Burnside St. Continue onto NW
15th Ave and turn left onto SW Alder St. Take
a right onto SW Broadway, and follow up to Morrison
Most public transport bus lines have stops within
2 blocks of the Square, and all 3 lines of the
MAX (Metro Area Xpress) stop at the South and
North ends of the park.
There are drinking fountains on every corner of
the square, and public restrooms available during
the Portland Oregon Information Center's hours
of operation. Because of its location, the Square
is the perfect location in between art-browsing,
shopping, and sightseeing destinations. An ATM
is located on the side of the café.
History: Pioneer Courthouse Square takes
its name after the oldest Federal building in
the Pacific Northwest, located directly across
6th Avenue, on the east side of the park, currently
home to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Originally purchased for $24 and a pair of boots,
this park served the pioneers of Portland as the
site of the first schoolhouse, Central School.
Making room for a railroad magnate's dream, the
school was moved, and plans were put in motion
for the construction of a luxurious hotel to serve
the jet set of the time. Henry Villard's fortunes
collapsed, leaving behind little more than the
foundations. Nicknamed Villard's Ruins, the site
provoked from scorn to fear in the general public,
until a group of individuals, including key Portland
figures such as William S. Ladd and Simeon Reed,
came together and completed the investment required.
The 17-story Portland hotel was the hub of Portland
nightlife through the Depression, but not much
longer. With the Fifties, down came the opulent
and up went the practical: the block housed a
parking structure for nearly three decades. In
1979, as part of a nationally-acclaimed plan to
revitalize the downtown area, a public square
was suggested for the site, instead of a larger
parking lot. Meier & Frank, the city's oldest
and largest department store, not only agreed
to sell the property, it also contributed substantially
to the plaza's construction.
Designed by William Martin and his team, Pioneer
Courthouse Square was dedicated on April 6, 1984,
a fitting present on Portland's 133rd birthday.
and visitors are certainly made comfortable in every nook and cranny
of this multifaceted plaza, literally by design. All week long people
of all ages and walks of life enjoy the Square's features, which
are equally diverse: chessboards built into stone columns, a collection
of public art, food carts and even a flower stand. Catering to one
of the city's obsessions, a coffee shop is conveniently perched
on the park's northwestern corner. All this only adds to the elegance
and beauty of the multi-hued brickwork, decorated columns, and a
granite waterfall fountain.
all its amenities, the park is still roomy enough for the 26,000
people flowing through it almost every day, partly due to its role
as the main public transport hub, leading riders to 3 corners of
the metropolitan area and everything along the way. It can also
handle 25,000 people coming together at once, as they do for the
holiday season's tree-lighting. A record crowd of 55,000 gathered
in 1994 to hear then-First Lady Hillary Clinton speak at a live
Square's - and Portland's - social calendar includes everything
from a splendid Festival of Flowers in the spring to the castle
craze of summer's Sand in the City, as well as heart-warming winter
celebrations. Music concerts, movie nights, and health fairs also
take place there. Its prominence in the city's life, however, also
includes less happy times, as befits a true living room: public
outcry finds a home in the form of vigils and political rallies.
All in all, the park hosts over 300 events a year, some sponsored
by the Square's management, some by corporate and non-profit groups.
For help deciding what to see or do (or how to get there), a visitor
need only walk between the cascading waters of the fountain, recalling
the beautiful falls along the gorge. Ensconced in the incline of
the park is the Visitor's Information Center, run by the Portland
Oregon Visitor Association to provide assistance and facts about
the square, the city and the state. TriMet, the area's much-admired
public transit system, also staffs a resource center at the same
location, offering schedules and trip-planning help.
is easy to see why the Project for Public Spaces clarified its 2004
opinion that the Square was "one of the best, if not the best
urban public Square in the United States" by naming it 3rd
Best Park in North America in 2005. "This square sets the bar
for public space programming," PPS explains. The plaza is "a
model for other cities [because] there is not another active park
like ours," says Katie Brown, Pioneer Courthouse Square's Marketing
Director. City planners nationwide agree, drawn to learn from this
urban oasis since its construction in 1984.
design by Willard Martin's team, submitted to a 1980 Portland Development
Commission competition, prevailed over 160 other entries from all
over the country because of its truly local vision. Rejecting the
notion of a covered space, the locally-based group acknowledged
that the residents love their town, cherish public connection, appreciate
open vistas, and have learned to live with the region's rain.
on the columns depict the flowers that give the City of Roses its
nickname; the built-in seats that form two amphitheaters (one with
an echo chamber) and a speaker's podium invite social discourse;
additional artwork portrays scenes from the town's past and present,
complete with a life-sized bronze sculpture of a Portlander volunteering
his umbrella. In one corner, an elegant towering machine announces
the weather for the next 24 hours everyday at noon, literally with
is no single factor that connects this park in the heart of Portland
to the hearts of its citizens. Many even have their names literally
written on it. In keeping with the city's tradition of public involvement,
individuals happily raised the money needed to finish the park's
construction by buying one brick at a time, having their name etched
on it in exchange. "The brick ownership program lets [people]
take part in Pioneer Square," says Ms. Brown of the fundraising
initiative, adding that anyone may still purchase and find his or
her brick by using the Square's website.
project's completion was the second time that individuals pitched
in to see this city block reach its potential. Originally the site
of Portland's first schoolhouse, it was purchased in 1883 by railroad
magnate Henry Villard. When he was unable to fulfill his dream of
a hotel to serve the influx of train travelers, private contributions
came together and finished building the luxurious 17-story Portland
hotel remained THE place to dine, stay, and be seen, until the vagaries
of history left it forgotten and abandoned by the end of the Depression.
In the 1950's the hotel was demolished and a parking structure took
its place as life fled to the suburbs, much like everywhere else
in the country. It would be another 30 years or so before the heart
of Portland would beat strongly again, prompting the birth of Pioneeer
of the block's history is integrated onto the east side of the park,
where the original iron-wrought gate to the Portland Hotel still
stands. A few feet away, a signpost names the distances between
the Square and other destinations around the world, such as sister
cities Guadalajara and Suzhou, and even an extraordinary place exactly
around the world: the Crozet Basin.
the real Frodo Baggins and Elvis Presley may not have actually bought
the pieces of Portland history bearing their names, someone thought
they deserved their own brick in the Square. Perhaps if these exciting
travelers had personally had a chance to fall in love with this
urban marvel, they would have done so themselves.