Monday, January 15, 2018

Madrona Park

Next up we're paying a visit to North Portland's Madrona Park. I really do try not to say "you probably haven't heard of it" (and I was avoiding the phrase before it was cool), but this really is a pretty obscure one. It's due north of the Skidmore Bluffs, on the far side of the Going St. road cut, and it has sort of a view of the river from the south end of the park, and there's a small playground and a couple of basketball half-courts at the north end, and those have an unusual origin we'll get to in a bit. The rest of the park is just overgrown brush and trees, though. Supposedly the park's named after a particular madrona tree somewhere in the park, but I don't think I have any photos of it. Or at least there aren't any "This way to the famous madrona tree" signs, so who knows? The city's 2016 guide to official heritage trees doesn't mention any trees here, so maybe it isn't all that special, or the tree just isn't there anymore.

Since the scenery isn't that remarkable, we'll do like we often do here & play amateur historian for a bit. The city notes the land for the park was donated by Amos Benson, son of timber baron Simon Benson. You might know the elder Benson as the namesake of Benson bubblers, Benson High School, the Benson Hotel, Benson State Park at Multnomah Falls, the Simon Benson house on the Portland State campus, and probably a bunch of other things I'm forgetting. Though not as famous, Amos did pretty well for himself too, and a huge historic house of his can be seen next to the new city park at N. Polk & Crawford. So you tend to assume the donation was another act of noble civic-minded philanthropy, but that's not quite what happened.

To get the full story, we have to dive into the library's Oregonian newspaper archives again. Here's the September 16th, 1921 article on the donation of the park. It describes the park's semi-accidental origins:

This property and a few acres north of it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Benson from the Portland Gas & Coke company at the time that the county board of commissioners was endeavoring to locate the Greeley-street extension through the property. The gas company began litigation to stop the roadway and the property was then acquired by Mr. and Mrs. Benson for the sole purpose of permitting the roadway to be constructed without the delay that would ensue as a result of any legal battle.

The tract which has been given to the city is a sightly one, overlooking the river and Swan Island. It connects with the proposed boulevard system extending around the city, and is a valuable acquisition in that it will give a park to a section that now has no recreation spot. No playgrounds will be installed, it was announced.

Park Superintendent Keyser noticed the tract and its desirability as a park site. He conferred with Mr. Benson and as a result the donation was made.

Benson owned the land rather briefly before the big philanthropic gesture. Here's a September 14th 1917 article about the proposed Greeley extension, in which Benson is described as a major promoter of the project. Benson, it seems, had no interest in the area except for his precious road, and he quickly pawned the surplus land off on the city as soon as they expressed an interest in the place.

Wanting the land is not the same thing as having plans for it, and it appears the city never had any ideas around what to do with the park beyond not installing a playground. A 1933 guide to city parks said the park was undeveloped but had views over the city airport, which was still on Swan Island at that point. The park's next appearances in the news were due to repeated citizen complaints. A 1937 complaint to the city council stated that the park was continually being torn up by cars, spraying dust everywhere. Then there was another complaint the next year, possibly by the same person, informing the city that the park hadn't been cleaned since 1933 & was overrun with poison ivy. Neither article indicates the city promised to do anything about the park's condition, and the string of complaints seems to end at two, so either the original complainant gave up in 1939, or his annual complaints stopped being newsworthy.

The park itself rarely figured in the news over the next couple of decades, but for a while after World War II the surrounding neighborhood sometimes went by "Madrona Park", I guess that being the sort of name that sells real estate (such that Seattle has a Madrona park & neighborhood of its own, which I had to weed out of search results). It inspires thoughts of nice respectable real estate, on nice level land, laid out in a nice conventional grid. Which is doable in this part of North Portland, but not without a little unsavory help. In 1947 the Oregonian explained how the city used garbage to fill in uneven terrain in the Madrona Park area and other eastside neighborhoods. The article begins “Some of Portland’s best families are living on old potato peelings, coffee grounds, and egg shells.”, which is a pretty great lede. It goes on to explain that improving the landscape with garbage is being done scientifically, not randomly, so there's no cause for concern. I'd never heard of this before, so at some point the city must've stopped bragging about this scientific feat. I was also surprised not to see any angry letters to the editor complaining about the paper hurting property values by publishing this, or wondering if doing this was safe; it would be decades until anyone thought to ask how buildings on top of garbage would hold up in an earthquake. For those of you who don't have a local library card & can't get to the original article, here's a list of spots around town that got the scientific garbage treatment between 1923 and 1947. Some of the intersections listed don't exist today, but presumably did back then:

  • Guilds Lake (now industrial NW Portland), the original site, used until the entire lake was filled in.
  • A former gravel pit at NE 33rd & Fremont
  • Marquam Gulch, now Duniway Park
  • A gravel pit around 37th-38th Avenues & Klickitat & Siskiyou Streets, in the ritzy Alameda neighborhood. You can actually kind of see this one in Google Maps if you turn on terrain view, since it has an even slope stretching over several blocks instead of a steep bluff like the rest of Alameda.
  • Another old gravel pit south of Rose City Golf Course at NE 65th & Tillamook, a few blocks from one of the painted intersections I like to track down now & then.
  • 20th & 21st, Belmont & Yamhill, now Colonel Summers Park
  • Penn St. gulch, to provide a road to the Swan Island airport. I'm guessing this is today's Going St. but I'm not entirely sure.
  • A sand pit somewhere in St. Johns.
  • A gulch at Alberta & Greeley, which would put it right under an Adidas building just north of Madrona Park here (the park, not the neighborhood).
  • A gravel pit at Alberta & 39th, which I think puts it under the Alliance High School campus.
  • A gulch in Overlook park.
  • lastly, the old Mt. Hood Railway cut at 90th & E. Burnside, probably under the religious school that was built there shortly thereafter.
  • The article explains that all future garbage would be sent to the new St. Johns Landfill, which operated until 1991 and is meant to become a park someday.

The park did make another brief appearance in the news in in the summer of 1952, when it hosted one of 3 municipal forest fire lookouts to keep an eye Forest Park across the river, in response to a huge forest fire that had occurred there recently. In other parts of the state, old fire lookouts have been converted into amazing AirBnB rentals, but probably nothing that cool ever existed here.

1964 saw the one big change that's happened to the park over its history, when the city leased a chunk of it to Bess Kaiser Hospital next door for use as a parking lot. Curiously I have not been able to find a single news item about the original lease deal, and not for lack of searching. It's possible they kept the deal really quiet, since since turning parks into parking is rarely a popular move. It's also possible the database search feature is missing links here and there, which I already had grounds to suspect. At some point in the 80s or 90s, I'm almost positive there was an article about city workers coming to look for Madrona Park & not being able to find it, and realizing the part they were looking for was under a parking lot. It would have been easier to lose track of a park back then, in an era of paper records & no GIS systems. I could have sworn the article was about Madrona Park, but no such article shows up in search results no matter how I query for it, so either the search feature's broken or I'm broken, either of which is possible.

By 1968 the hospital wanted to expand further and offered to buy the whole park outright for $33,000. The city turned them down this time, admitting the park was lightly used but was part of the plan for a "Willamette Crest Greenway" connecting Overlook Park to the University of Portland. Most of this land is in public hands now, but it's been 50 years and the proposed greenway hasn't quite happened yet. It still sounds like a good idea, though.

The hospital closed in the late 1990s, and the campus was bought by Adidas in 1999 to be rebuilt as their new North America headquarters. It seems strange now, but less than 20 years ago the paper described the surrounding neighborhood as "struggling". I was about to say this was recent, because 1999 doesn't seem that long ago to me, but I suppose it kind of was. The city's lease arrangement continued with the new neighbors, though the parking lot became basketball courts and a playground, and apparently there is or was a skate park somewhere in the area too.

Which brings us to the present day, and now you know the complete history of yet another weird and unimportant place in Portland, or at least you know a few random anecdotes about it. Plus there's a chance you can now tell your fancy rich friends that they live on garbage, which is always great.

1 comment :

DJ Rick said...

"You're leveling out my neighborhood with garbage? But you're doing it scientifically, you say? OH! Okay, that's cool."

It's funny how people used to have such blind faith in science. Even the juxtaposition of "artificially flavored" and "new improved taste!" on a beverage labeled as "Strawberry" something-or-other might be assumed to taste even better than real strawberries back in those olden daze.

At any rate, outstandingly curious and fun blog you have here. I love to binge-read it from time to time. My city of Sacramento has very little in the way mysterious little parks, but I have often wondered about some of these obscure parks when I've visited your city and looked at maps. THANKS!