Sunday, May 25, 2014

Upper Hall Street Triangle

Today's adventure takes us to the West Hills just outside downtown Portland. SW Hall St. becomes Upper Hall St. just west of the nameless city park at 14th Avenue, and Upper Hall St. winds its way up the hill before morphing into 16th Avenue. Halfway up, the street makes a tight hairpin corner, which is where these photos were taken. The 'Triangle' of the title is the narrow bit of land on the inside of the hairpin turn. You'd normally expect a location like this to contain a tall, skinny million-dollar modern house, one that won all kinds of awards for working with a difficult site. This particular spot is public right-of-way, though, I suppose to keep it from being a totally blind corner. It's not really a city park or anything, but it's public, so I suppose you could set up a tripod here if you're willing to risk your camera on a slope this steep.

Surprisingly, I haven't found a lot of photos of the city taken from here. An image search on "Upper Hall Street" turns up nothing but real estate photos of ostentatious million-dollar houses. I suppose that makes sense, but the library's Oregonian database indicates this swankiness is a fairly recent development. An August 1934 news item described the community of modest houses along Upper Hall St.:

In passing you may have noticed the "Artists' Colony" which hugs the steep hill just below the hairpin curve on upper Hall street. It's quite an interesting colony, but there are no artists there right now, even though every place is occupied.

Twenty years ago Mrs. A.C. Wells Brown built the small, attractive lodges, 12 in all. They line three different "streets," made of thick plank, on three different levels, and the connecting links are up-and-down steps. The colony commands an excellent view of Portland, and were it not for an intervening apartment house, 'way down near Multnomah stadium, the cliff dwellers might see all the games and parades which take place there.

Everybody has a minute flower patch. All the cliff people work in downtown stores and offices, Mrs. Brown said, and the place is very quiet and orderly. No artists around to kick up didoes and make a Greenwich Village out of it.

There were amenities that would be welcome in any hip Portland neighborhood in 2014. From a Stuart Holbrook "Down Portland By-Paths" column a few days after the previous item:

On a bluff overlooking the city on upper Hall street some friend of man has built a small settee where one may sit and view Portland from the Heights to the buttes and hills east of the city. Carved on the bench, no doubt by its kindly builder, is a welcome to the weary traveler. In plain Gothic characters the legend says "If you are tired Rest yourself."

With a friend I sat on the wayside bench a while and marveled at the broad panorama which unfolded before our eyes. When we got up to leave my friend, a most pedantic fellow, paused to read the inscription. "He should," he announced, with a trace of severity in his tone, "He should have placed a comma between 'tired' and 'rest.'" I hope there will be plenty of commas in my friend's obituary. You can't tell what even a dead pedant will do when aroused.

This cozy state of affairs lasted for a few more decades, but in 1962 the city Bureau of Buildings decided The Village wasn't up to code and tried to condemn and raze the buildings. The city later stayed the razing order, as the owners and occupants were making good-faith efforts to bring the place up to code. I note that the first story called The Village an "artists' colony", while a month later it was a "controversial collection of 'shacks'". In February 1963, the owners reversed course and asked the city for a zoning change, in order to demolish the eleven existing residences and build twelve modern new ones. The city decided this was incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood and denied the request, though the owners were offered a compromise zoning change that would allow six new homes instead. At this point the Oregonian was calling The Village a "group of low-income rental residences". The place mostly vanished from the paper after that, though a December 1963 article on what Mayor Schrunk did over the preceding year mentions that "condemnation of The Village" was one of the crises he'd weathered during the previous twelve months. When not weathering crises, Schrunk also "challenged the mayors of Detroit and Los Angeles to a footrace to Salem -- the winner to get the 1968 Olympics", which is a whole other story.

Polina Olsen's Portland in the 1960s: Stories from the Counterculture (2012) spends a few pages on The Village, with photos, sketches, and reminiscences by former residents. The architect Pietro Belluschi lived in The Village in the 1920s, and Manuel Izquierdo called it home at one point as well, along with various other artists, musicians, and general Bohemians. In the book's account, the Columbus Day Storm is what really finished off The Village. The news stories don't mention this, but it seems quite plausible. Edit: The book says no such thing, and I misread the account. See comment by the author below.

In any case, it doesn't appear that the proposed redevelopment ever happened; instead, the Village was replaced by a single rich-person house on a large lot, because of course that's what would happen.

This wasn't the only controversy along Upper Hall St. in the early 1960s. Further up the hill, where it becomes 16th Avenue, developers proposed to build a huge 21 story apartment tower. Due to the hairpin bend in the road, this site was directly uphill of The Village, if I'm reading things correctly. This proposal ran into zoning difficulties at City Hall, compounded by angry neighbors who didn't want their views blocked. An August 1961 article about the controversy included a panoramic photo from the back deck of a leading anti-tower campaigner, in case it wasn't already clear where the paper's sympathies lay. This article had the tower site at 16th & Montgomery instead, downhill of the previously mentioned site, but still in a very view-blocking position. The paper then editorialized against the building in October. There are a few mentions of the proposal in the following months but no further news; that must have been the end of the proposal, since there are no 21 story buildings anywhere near this spot today.

In other news from the same era, a harrowing car accident happened here in April 1962, apparently right at the hairpin corner. A sedan was trying to park, but the brakes failed, and the vehicle rolled backward, jumped a curb, and plummeted off the cliff. Amazingly, the car got hung up in a tree, which kept it from falling another 150 feet down to SW Montgomery St. The three young men inside escaped without injury.

The area doesn't appear in the Oregonian very often after the mid-1960s, but a 1984 item mentions that a recent book Around Portland With Kids had proclaimed Upper Hall Street part of the best sledding route in Portland, which is kind of terrifying if you've seen how steep it is, and that's without the blind hairpin corner and 150+ foot cliff. This must have been just before the modern era of personal injury lawsuits really got going. I don't even have a real legal department, and I still feel like I need to tell everyone that Legal says, no, begs of you to please not sled here fer chrissakes. Just in case, and all that.

1 comment :

tandoor said...

Hi, Loved reading your blog about the Village... One small correction: My book does not say the Columbus Day Storm destroyed the buildings, in fact it says, "Despite talk of shoddy construction, the apartments survived the Columbus Day Storm. [Gretchen] Young woke to the wind, and from her window watched Portland power stations blow out one by one." The Village was condemned in 1963 much to the dismay of the owner, people who lived there, and people who would always remember this great place. ~ Polina Olsen