Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Oregonian Printing Press Park

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Here's a slideshow of downtown Portland's tiny Oregonian Printing Press Park, at SW 1st & Morrison, right next to the Morrison Bridge. Most of the block it sits on is taken up by a curved ramp from Naito up to the bridge, and the park is a little triangle of land between the ramp and the street corner. This place actually featured in this humble blog's very first park post, way back in May 2006. Then, as now, I was attracted to oddities, and this little spot appears to be the one and only remaining Multnomah County park. The county used to have an extensive park system, but the others were handed over to Metro in the early 1990s. My theory is that the county kept this one because it owns the Morrison Bridge, and this place is really just a minor bit of landscaping around one of the bridge ramps. The park itself hasn't changed much since then; they've trimmed the bushes back recently, and the county's sign for the park was vandalized and removed within the last couple of years, and hasn't yet been replaced.

I didn't really have a "formula" for blog posts back in 2006; the same post also covered the nameless city park at 14th & Hall and a few others, which is something I kind of have a rule against now. The old post also doesn't have a Flickr slideshow or an embedded map, because those things didn't exist back then. That was at least 50 internet years ago, assuming internet years are still a valid thing. Yet another thing that didn't exist back then was the library's Oregonian database. With that as a resource, I can now tell the story of the place. It's not a long story, but there's more to it than I originally thought.

The park commemorates the site of the Oregonian newspaper's very first printing press, way back in 1850. I'm not sure how long the paper was located here, but this corner seems to have been commercial property for the next century and change. The original Morrison Bridge opened in 1887, and (unlike the current one) it connected to Morrison St. proper, instead of Alder & Washington. So this would have been a major intersection at one time.

When the present-day bridge arrived in 1958, several city blocks (including this one) were demolished for bridge ramps, which left a great deal of vacant land around the west end of the bridge. A 1956 letter to the editor noted the new bridge would have a large plot of land between the eastbound and westbound lanes, and proposed moving Skidmore Fountain there, since nobody wanted to venture into Old Town just to see a historic fountain. This proposal went nowhere, and the land's been a parking lot ever since then. Proposals exist to build a new Multnomah County Courthouse there, one major plus being that the county owns the land already. The last time I checked they didn't have any money to move forward with the idea, though. Another idea that's been considered recently is the "Morrison Bridgehead" proposal, which would site some sort of commercial or residential development here instead. It was under consideration as recently as 2011, and at that time the county made it clear they wanted Printing Press Park to be preserved in any development proposal.

The triangular plot of land here was created along with the Morrison Bridge, but it seems to have spent its first decade unnamed and unmarked. Then in 1969, the Lang Syne Society decided the Oregonian's first printing press merited one of their historical markers. They were (or are) the group behind all the Oregon-shaped historical plaques around downtown Portland. I've occasionally thought about doing a post or posts about these markers. The Lang Syne guys (I assume they were generally guys) had some unusual ideas about what merited a historical marker, such that (for example) there's a huge boulder in Lownsdale Square with a plaque that chats about the first long-distance electricity transmission to Portland from Willamette Falls. Anyway, they decided the Oregonian's first printing press merited a plaque too. The county took the idea and ran with it, and decided the new park would also need a huge abstract sculpture that sort of evoked the idea of newspapers. The sculpture was titled Web of Newsprint (link goes to a photo of it over on PDX Tales, a Tumblr blog I also run), and it was officially dedicated April 1st 1970:

The sculpture, a 65-foot-long "web of newsprint" fashioned from steel-reinforced concrete, was designed jointly by W. Riley Matsler, superintendent of the Multnomah County Division of Parks and Memorials, and Eric Jensen a county planning aide.

Also depicted is a lineal shaft extending downward through the form, representing "the power of the mighty pen of the press" according to Matsler.

This sculpture, as monumental as it was, only lasted thirteen years. The park was rededicated in its current form on July 30th 1983, in a big ceremony featuring the mayor and various local dignitaries; the Oregonian's longtime publisher was included, naturally, and they even invited the local Catholic bishop for some reason. The article describes what had occurred here:

The refurbishing of the park, where once stood a two-ton swirling mass of concrete pierced by a steel rod that was intended to represent a scroll of newsprint pierced by a pen, was organized by a four-man committee headed by Joseph R. Bianco, special projects director for The Oregonian.

The project, which started April 6, stemmed from public complaints about the "unsightly" sculpture at the site, Bianco said. The pen-and-scroll sculpture was dedicated by the Lang Syne Society in 1969 and dismantled in May, he said.

And as a result of all this, we got the present-day mini-plaza of cobblestones and reproductions of old Oregonian front pages, from the early days to Mt. St. Helens. Everything you see here dates to 1983 except for the historical plaque itself, which indicates it's the 1969 original. A similar set of front page plates adorns the current Oregonian printing press building in the Goose Hollow area, between the stadium MAX stop and Lincoln High School. Which shows continuity and relevance across the centuries or something, I guess. This, and the fact that the process was driven by an Oregonian manager for "special projects", makes me wonder whether the old sculpture really was unpopular with the general public, or whether it merely wasn't marketing the newspaper to maximum advantage.

I don't recall ever seeing Web of Newsprint in person -- I would have been a kid back then -- but I rather like it, just going by the one newspaper photo I've seen of it. If they hadn't removed it back in 1983 (when this sort of modern art was deeply unfashionable), it would probably be a beloved local landmark by now. I can pretty much guarantee I would have done a blog post or two about it by now if it still existed. I wonder what ever became of it? Did they just bulldoze it? Or is it quietly gathering dust in a forgotten corner of a county warehouse somewhere, just waiting to be rediscovered?

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