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A History of the 511 Building: Part 2

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Oregon Senator Harry Lane's influence on the 511 Building and on 20th century government architecture

UNTITLED presents the history of the 511 Building (now the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design) in a five-part series exploring the characters, events, and architecture of this historic building. Enjoy. – The Editors

hobart and lane

Architect Lewis Parsons Hobart and Senator Harry Lane. Illustration by Zoe McGuire ’15.



A History in Five Part: Part Two

The Architect and the Senator


Buildings of prominence are places that make impressions. As the architect of the Federal Post Office at 511 NW Broadway—what we’ve been calling the 511 Building—and as an architect in general, it was Lewis Hobart’s job to be concerned with first impressions and how they’d last.

Lewis Parsons Hobart [1] (1873-1954) was a noted San Francisco architect who made his name helping to rebuild the city of San Francisco after the devastating 1906 earthquake. He attended the University of California at Berkeley where he studied and drew with celebrated architect Bernard Maybeck. [2] At Maybeck’s urging, Hobart left Berkeley after a year to study architecture formally at the American Academy in Rome, which he then followed with three years of further architectural training at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1901 to 1903, before moving to New York.

When he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1906 after the earthquake, the 33-year-old Hobart’s classical training and knowledge of steel-frame construction helped him to gain early commissions for several downtown office buildings. Over the next five decades of his career, Hobart would design more than 50 buildings along the West Coast including the original California Academy of Sciences buildings in Golden Gate Park (1915-31), the Alexander Building (155 Montgomery, 1921), the O’Connor Moffatt store (now Macy’s, 101 Stockton, 1928, with an addition along the O’Farrell Street side also by Hobart in 1948), the Bohemian Club (624 Taylor, 1930), the Mills Tower (added to 220 Montgomery, 1931), the Union Oil Co. Building (425 First Street, 1941), [3] and, the building for which he is perhaps best known, the monumental French Gothic Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Nob Hill (1964). Four of his buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places, including the former Federal Post Office at 511 NW Broadway in Portland, Oregon.


Hobart’s Grace Cathedral in San Francisco [left] and PNCA’s future Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design [right].




Harry Lane—U.S. Senator, Doctor, and Portland’s Mayor from 1905 to 1909—would probably have been difficult to impress with ornamentation or architecture. He was known for favoring thrift over extravagance, practicality over spectacle. His contemporaries admonished him as having had “no pretensions to eloquence” and “no distinction as an orator.” [4] But, in the responsibilities that “Doctor” and “Statesman” have in common, Lane was pretty brilliant. He aspired, above most else, to improve the quality of life for the working classes of Oregon. [5] But to those responsibilities, however, which are unique to politics, Lane was less naturally suited. He aimed his career at wiping out graft and corruption in local and state government. [6] In certain circles of the Oregon Legislature, this made him rather unpopular. He was not quite Mr. Smith, and Portland was not quite Washington, but “not quite” was not far off.

Nevertheless, Harry’s principles made their way into the blueprints of the 511 Building, and it was his idealism—the same idealism that made him a controversial politician—that made the Senator the lesser-known, but no less important draftsman of some of the building’s most unique attributes.


Portland around the time of the construction of the 511 Building. Source: Vintage Portland.




In 1851, when the city of Portland, Oregon was first incorporated, approximately 800 people lived here. [7] Twenty-eight years later, in 1879, that population had exploded to more than 17,500. [8] In 1909, the first Portland to Seattle rail line was completed, and by 1910, the city’s population had expanded to 207,214. [9] With the rise of the railroads and the advent of the automobile, Portland boomed. In 1912, the city processed more mail than it had from 1850 to 1890 combined. However, Portland’s main post office at the time operated out of the old Portland Post Office and Courthouse in Pioneer Square, a thirty-year-old federal building located at SW 5th and Morrison Streets, which the city had quickly outgrown. [10] By 1910, city leaders and citizens began to make serious calls for a new post office.

The initial proposal for the building was submitted in June 1911. Construction began five years later, after considerable debate over the new structure’s location, size, orientation, and materials. Historically, the Office of the Supervising Architect, a branch within the U.S. Treasury Department, had used in-house architects to design the nation’s monumental federal buildings. That changed in 1893 when Congress passed the Tarseny Act, a bill that allowed the Supervisory Architect to hold competitions for the designs of major structures. The classically trained Hobart was awarded the contract for the 511 Building in the summer of 1914. His revised plans for the project were submitted in 1916.

511 Bldg on 1897 USGS topographic map. Illustration by Zoe McGuire '15.

511 Bldg on 1897 USGS topographic map. Illustration by Zoe McGuire ’15.

In any building, the first material is money. Hobart and his Supervising Architect were accustomed to building with a lot of it. The Treasury Department had set the building’s budget at $1 million (roughly $20 million in today’s dollars), markedly less than the cost of any similar building at the time. Hobart’s architectural team publicly decried their conservative budget, arguing that a building of this size and importance deserved a budget to match.

They very nearly got what they wanted. In January 1914, The Portland Oregonian revealed that the Treasury Department and the Supervising Architect had drawn up plans to alter the building, increase the budget, and incorporate more offices and facilities. Proposed building materials had also been altered, and more ornamental features incorporated. [11]

True to form, however, Senator Lane fought the proposed alterations tooth and nail. This building wasn’t going to be a palace. It would not indulge, even architecturally, in what Lane saw as a vice of excess. Government buildings, Lane argued, existed to do jobs. Could Hobart’s building sort mail? Could it facilitate the necessary functions of a Post Office? House the necessary procedures? For Lane, those were the questions that mattered, and in that respect, the Senator was truly ahead of his time.

ornamentation

Gilt coffered ceiling in the main corridor of the 511 Building. Source: National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Government architecture before 1900 was mired in symbolism. Offices were more edificial than efficient, more monuments than assembly lines. Lane insisted that Portland’s new Post Office would be built from Oregon Brick, and would tolerate no pretentions towards costly ornamentation. [12] In his eyes, there were places for monuments and there were places decoration; but Portland’s new Post Office would not be one of them.

According to The Portland Oregonian, Senator Lane threatened to introduce a Senate resolution indicting the Supervising Architect for attempting to circumvent congressional instructions, and questioned the Secretary of the Treasury himself as to the reason behind the costly new plans. [13] Lane’s vision for an economical, pared down Federal Building won out, and not only in the case of the Portland Post Office.

There is a reason the 511 Building doesn’t look like a low-budget alternative. It doesn’t look cheap. Its size is imposing, its details, to our eyes, ornate. This is because when Senator Lane won the argument with the Treasury and the architectural team, he also predicted and successfully implemented the direction that government architecture would take for the duration of the early 20th century. In April of 1914, The Portland Oregonian quoted Hobart as saying:

“Portland’s Post Office…will be an entirely new departure in such buildings in the United States. It will be the first strictly office building for Post Office purposes to be erected, it being the plan of the government to abandon the monumental type of structure so generally in use. The Chicago Post office is in part of the new type, being several storeys in height, but it remains for Portland, it is said, to inaugurate the new architecture as applied to Post Offices.” [14]

On July 14, 1915, The Portland Oregonian wrote:

“Even before work is started on the new Post Office building at Portland, a new building of a type never before erected by the government, the Treasury Department is contemplating the erection of similar modern office buildings in some of the larger cities of the east, in lieu of the old Greek Temple type that has been followed by government architects for years. Yet, when Senator Lane, of Oregon, first suggested that the government erect a modern, light and airy office building to accommodate a Post Office and other Federal officials in Portland, the then supervising architect let out a protest… The old type of Federal Building was designed to be a monument as well as a government office building. The new type is designed primarily for use… The Treasury Department also hereafter will construct Post Offices and other Federal Buildings in accordance with the needs and importance of places where they are situated, instead of spending all that Congress appropriates. IN some instances expensive Post Offices have been built in towns where postal receipts were not sufficient to maintain them…” [15]

The 511 Building could have been built to symbolize the greatness of the federal government. It could have been an emblem of nationalism, a self-aggrandizing badge. Instead, it symbolizes thinking differently. Lane was a forbearer of ideas that would soon be adopted nation-wide (Populism and the “Initiative, Referendum, and Recall” system, for example). [16] He was unafraid to disregard precedent and unaffected by an initial rejection of his values. [17]

Lane was never to see the finished building open. In April 1917, a chronically ill Lane traveled to Washington as one of only six Senators to vote against U.S. intervention in World War I. This was one of his last acts as Senator, as he died shortly after his journey home.

511-Corner-Stone

The new Post Office opened for operations in July 1918, more than seven years after it was first proposed. Thanks to Senator Lane, the 511 Building symbolizes a progressive way of thinking, a thoughtful approach to government, and a willful ignorance of popularity when it interferes with principle. If Harry Lane is a part of what makes the 511 Building a place, then he is as strong a cornerstone as any place could ask for.

NOTES:



1. Parry, David. “Hobart, Lewis Parsons,” Encyclopedia of San Francisco. December 2, 2013. http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/h/hobartLewis.html

2. Parry, David. “Maybeck, Bernard,” Encyclopedia of San Francisco. December 2, 2013. http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/m/maybeckBernard.html

3. Parry, David. “Hobart, Lewis Parsons,” Encyclopedia of San Francisco. December 2, 2013. http://www.sfhistoryencyclopedia.com/articles/h/hobartLewis.html

4. Cockley, R (Ed.). (1928). History of the Columbia River Valley From The Dalles To The Sea (Vol. 2). Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Gibson, Campbell (June 1998). Population of the 100 Largest Cities and Other Urban Places in the United States: 1790 to 1990. U.S. Bureau of the Census – Population Division.

8. Loy, William G.; Stuart Allan, Aileen R. Buckley, James E. Meacham (2001). Atlas of Oregon. University of Oregon Press. pp. 32–33.

9. Portland Auditor’s Office, Portland Historical Timeline. December 2, 2013. http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?a=284506&c=51811

10. Report on the 511 Building (Portland, OR), by Heritage Consulting Group.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. “Post Office to be Started Soon and Finished in 14 months—Lewis P. Hobart,” April 5, 1914, p. 14. The Portland Oregonian.

15. “Treasury Department to Model After Portland Building,” July 14, 1915, p.5. The Portland Oregonian.

16. Jensen, Kimberly. “Harry Lane,” Oregon Encyclopedia. December 2, 2013. http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/entry/view/lane_harry_1855_1917_/

17. Cockley, R (Ed.). (1928). History of the Columbia River Valley From The Dalles To The Sea (Vol. 2). Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company

by Daniel Casto. Illustrations by Zoe McGuire, '15.

— Posted on 11/20 at 06:21 AM

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