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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Pioneer Courthouse in
Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon, was established in 1845 along the west bank of the Willamette River.  By the time Portland was incorporated in 1851, it had more than 800 inhabitants. In 1859—the year Oregon gained statehood­­—Matthew Paul Deady became the first U.S. District judge for the newly-created federal judicial district of Oregon. Deady first convened the federal court in Oregon’s capital city of Salem, but he moved the court to Portland in 1860. During this period, many towns in the Pacific Northwest hoped to demonstrate their prosperity and permanence by obtaining a federal courthouse or custom house. A notable public building could bring attention and prestige to a growing town. As the major port of the Pacific Northwest and the seat of the federal district court, Portland was a natural location for such a building. In 1869, the U.S. government purchased a block of land from the city for $15,000 for construction of a building that would house all offices and services of the federal government in Portland.

Supervising Architect Alfred B. Mullett designed Portland’s federal building in the Italianate style. Inspired by Italian Renaissance villas, this style was typical of civic and government buildings in San Francisco and Portland during this period. Completed in 1875, the three-story, rectangular, stone building cost $396,500, an enormous amount of money at the time. Articles touting the impressive new federal building appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the West. Its symmetrical design featured classical Italian elements such as pilasters (flat columns attached to a wall) and an octagonal wood cupola (small dome-shaped structure) on the roof. The U.S. Post Office occupied the first floor and the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon was located on the second floor. Other offices included the U.S. Customs Service and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (now the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS).  

Mullet designed the federal building for a community that had fewer than 15,000 citizens. By 1889, Portland’s population had quadrupled, and this structure could no longer meet the city’s needs. Even after the Bureau of Internal Revenue moved out of the building, the U.S. Post Office still did not have enough space to operate efficiently. At the time, Portland’s bustling post office was open seven days a week and produced more revenue for the federal government than any other post office in the country.1 In June 1902, Congress approved $200,000 for remodeling and expanding the building. The project, carried out between 1903 and 1905 under Mullett’s successor James Knox Taylor, doubled the size of the first floor and basement and created two wings at the second and third floors.  The additions closely matched the style of the original structure. On the interior, the use of steel I-beams, cast iron columns, and new electrical and heating systems modernized the structure. 

During this period, many of the federal court cases for the District of Oregon involved disputes over mining claims as miners came to Oregon and nearby states searching for gold, silver, and other mineral resources. Between 1903 and 1906, several important trials for timber and land fraud took place in the building. Federal investigations found that land speculators and timber companies had illegally obtained large areas of public land with the assistance of public officials. The Oregon Land Fraud Scandal resulted in the indictments of some of Oregon’s most prominent politicians, including Senator John H. Mitchell and Representative John Williamson.

In 1933, the U.S. Post Office and the U.S. District Court moved to new quarters. The federal building reopened in 1937 as a branch postal station and was renamed the Pioneer Post Office. In 1939, Congress authorized demolition of the building when it could not find a buyer. Congress never appropriated funds for the demolition, however, and the courthouse remained standing. During World War II, the government used the structure for military offices. In the 1950s, the building remained empty while heated debate ensued over its fate.

During the late 1950s and 1960s, many of Oregon’s citizens and public figures—including Congresswoman Edith Green, Senator Mark Hatfield, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Chambers, and District Court Judge John Kilkenny—worked to save the building from demolition. In 1969, the federal government finally authorized restoration of the building to accommodate a post office branch station and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Congress had established the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1891 to hear appeals of decisions made by the U.S. district courts in California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. Today, the Ninth Circuit has expanded to include nine states and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Between 1969 and 1973, GSA undertook a major exterior and interior rehabilitation project to prepare for the new tenants. Work included creating a new central corridor and post office lobby and replacing materials that were not original to the main lobby with windows, doors, and paneling to match the original finishes. GSA also modified second and third floor offices to create hearing rooms and space for judges and clerical staff. In 1973, the building was renamed Pioneer Courthouse and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Four years later, the Secretary of the Interior designated Pioneer Courthouse a National Historic Landmark (NHL). To become an NHL, a building must “possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States."2 In 2002, more restoration and rehabilitation took place to modernize systems.

The efforts to preserve Pioneer Courthouse have resulted in it being the oldest standing federal building in the Pacific Northwest and the second oldest federal courthouse west of the Mississippi. Over the years, the building has welcomed many visiting presidents, provided a place for countless citizens to conduct business, and witnessed important trials such as the Oregon Land Fraud trials. Today, GSA continues to manage the Pioneer Courthouse and aims to “encourage public visitation, enhance and celebrate appreciation of the Courthouse, promote understanding of its historical and architectural significance and evolution, and increase its visibility and image as a prominent federal public building.”3

Questions for Reading 2

1.
What architectural style did Mullett choose for Portland’s federal building? Why would this choice have been considered appropriate?

2. Give a brief history of the building’s use over time. Who occupies the building today?

3. Why did the building need to be altered at the beginning of the 20th century? What did this say about Portland’s continued growth?

4. When and for what purpose was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit established?

5. What do you think would have happened if citizens and public officials had not argued for the building’s continued use? Do you think the loss of such a building would have impacted the community? Explain your answer. 

Reading 2 was adapted from Carolyn Pitts, “United States Courthouse, Custom House and Post Office” (Multnomah County, Oregon) National Historic Landmark Nomination Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1977; U.S. General Services Administration, Re-Dedication of the Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (Portland, Oregon, 2005); U.S. General Services Administration, Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (GSA, n.d.); and U.S. General Services Administration, At the Forefront of Adventure and Architecture: Pioneer Courthouse [Video Recording].

1U.S. General Services Administration, Re-Dedication of the Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (Portland, Oregon, 2005).
2
National Historic Landmarks Program, National Park Servic.
3
U.S. General Services Administration, Re-Dedication of the Pioneer Courthouse [Brochure] (Portland, Oregon, 2005).


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