The Mark Building struts its five-story glass pleat.
Portland is a town where refined and wild elements are beautifully balanced, where patrons of the Center for the Performing Arts are as likely to sport performance fleece as pearls. How fitting, then, that the city’s Cultural District wraps its offerings in a seamless blend of urban foliage and artistic flair. Stretched along an almost imperceptible grade in the heart of downtown, the easily walkable enclave boasts one of the largest collections of 20th-century art in the Pacific Northwest, six theaters, an archive of Oregon’s eventful past, numerous buildings of architectural note, and a ribbon of greenery known as the South Park Blocks.
Two serene, parallel one-way streets flank the park for 12 blocks from Salmon to Jackson streets. Jointly known as Southwest Park Avenue (though one leg turns into Southwest Ninth Avenue after it crosses Southwest Salmon), these elegant boulevards compose the geographic and metaphorical heart of the genteel district. They’re thick with neat apartment buildings and historic churches (look for the 1895 First Congregational United Church of Christ, built in Venetian Gothic style, and the 1890 St. James Lutheran Church, a Gothic Revival edifice).
Daniel Lownsdale, a tanner who smartly bought up much of Portland while the town was still being laid out, gave the South Park Blocks to the city in 1849, two years before it was incorporated. Shaded by a colonnade of elm and oak trees and adorned with flower beds, benches, paths, and public art, the park lays a six-block path of calm through the middle of the Cultural District, then heads into Portland State University for another six blocks.
At the northernmost edge of the lush campus you’ll find Lincoln Hall. This handsome 1911 building contains three presentation spaces for music, theater, and dance performances. Three blocks farther north, the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society face one another across a section of the South Park Blocks where a massive bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt, dressed in his Rough Rider attire and astride a steed standing ready to charge, keeps watch over the flower beds. The historical society, which houses a collection of 85,000 Oregon artifacts, has recently been attracting crowds with the only West Coast appearance of Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition. (The show opened in November and continues through March.)
The Portland Art Museum is also drawing crowds with something new. Its Mark Building, originally a forbidding Masonic Temple, has been reborn thanks to a $40 million renovation. The building now holds the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, brimming with masterpieces such as Monet’s iconic Waterlilies and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent-light installations; a 33,000-volume public art library; and the Northwest Film Center, which screens intriguing foreign and independent movies as well as Hollywood classics every week.
Over on Broadway, you’ll find two of the three buildings that make up the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. (The third, the Keller Auditorium, sits eight blocks southeast.) The 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall—a rococo auditorium built in 1928—is home to the Oregon Symphony. The nearby New Theatre Building houses three performance arenas and a busy bar; its contemporary space spirals upward from a circular entrance hall to a rotunda crowned with flashing rectangles of mirrored glass.
West of the South Park Blocks, Southwest 10th Avenue is studded with less-formal attractions along the route of the city’s electric streetcar. Here you’ll find eclectic boutiques, casual cafés with outdoor tables, and Portland’s gracious 1913 Georgian Revival central library.
Every art institution in the Cultural District makes its own statement; but the area clicks because of the collective effect of its serene interior and pulsing exterior blocks. Their combination makes for a perfectly Portland mix.
DRINK UP Lumber baron Simon Benson gave 20 outdoor drinking fountains (the Benson Bubblers) to Portland in 1912. The elegant spouts still serve South Park Blocks visitors.
STROKE OF GENIUS Fans of Roy Lichtenstein can view the artist’s 30-foot-tall work Brushstrokes for free near the Portland Art Museum’s sculpture garden. (503) 226-2811, www.pam.org.
Photography by Bruce Forster
This article was first published in January 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA's Oregon & Washington TourBook and Portland map. For more information, contact the Portland Oregon Visitors Association, (877) 678-5263, www.travelportland.com. Area code is 503 unless noted.
Lincoln Hall 1620 SW Park Ave., 725-3307, www.pdx.edu. Northwest Film Center. 219 SW Park Ave., 221-1156, www.nwfilm.org. Oregon Historical Society 1200 SW Park Ave., 222-1741, www.ohs.org. Portland Art Museum 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811, www.pam.org. Portland Center for the Performing Arts (includes the New Theatre Building and the Schnitzer Concert Hall), 1111 SW Broadway, 248-4335, www.pcpa.com.
Finnegan's Toys & Gifts Classic games such as Connect Four and Battleship. 922 SW Yamhill St., 221-0306, www.finneganstoys.com. Made in Oregon Locally crafted wines, Pendleton woolens, and other staples of state pride. 921 SW Morrison St., 241-3630, www.madeinoregon.com. Maloy's Jewelry Workshop Custom and antique jewelry in a jewel box–size shop. 717 SW 10th Ave., 223-4720. SaySay Boutique Well-priced, casually hip women's clothing and jewelry. 1010 SW Morrison St., 223-1282, www.saysayboutique.com.
Higgins Restaurant Nearly all ingredients come from sustainable organic farms. 1239 SW Broadway, 222-9070, www.higgins.citysearch.com. Jake's Famous Crawfish Serving seafood for 104 years and still going strong. 401 SW 12th Ave., 226-1419. Southpark Seafood Grill and Wine Bar Savory Mediterranean seafood and a wine list that ranges from easy on the wallet to rare and costly. 901 SW Salmon St., 326-1300, www.southpark.citysearch.com.
ArtBar & Bistro Light fare and big beers served in the lobby of the New Theatre Building. 1111 SW Broadway, 432-2905, www.art-bar.com.
Benson Hotel Old-fashioned elegance a short hop from the Cultural District. 309 SW Broadway, 228-2000, (888) 523-6766, www.bensonhotel.com. Heathman Hotel European-flavored luxury. 1001 SW Broadway, 241-4100, (800) 551-0011, www.heathmanhotel.com. Hotel Lucia Stylish boutique hotel with a lobby gallery of con-temporary art. 400 SW Broadway, (877) 225–1717, www.hotellucia.com. Paramount Hotel Clean-lined modern style. 808 SW Taylor St., 223-9900, www.portlandparamount.com.