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Silverton: Oregon's Garden City

In the Willamette Valley, a small town shines with the Oregon Garden, Silver Falls State Park, and Oregon's only Frank Lloyd Wright structure.

  • Aylene Geringer at Chocolate Box, image
    Photo caption
    Try Oregon-made confections such as swarthy, single-origin bars at the Chocolate Box.
  • Oregon Garden Rose Petal Fountain, image
    Photo caption
    Annuals border the Oregon Garden's Rose Petal Fountain.
  • Silver Grille, image
    Photo caption
    At the Silver Grille, seasonal dishes, such as the lamb ragout with tangy Oregon goat cheese cavatelli, dazzle.
  • Slate stairway at the Oregon Garden, image
    Photo caption
    The Oregon Garden, divided into 20 themed areas, includes lovely touches such as these ornate handrails and slate stairway.

Not every small town, however sweet, has what it takes to become a great destination. To start, the main street must feel prosperous and vital, yet maintain its historic allure. You should be able to see the original facades of century-old buildings, but inside find, say, a restaurant serving fine cheese and wine—preferably local. Antique stores packed with Victorian sideboards and Depression glass are a must. Although not strictly essential, an extraordinary botanical garden is a major plus. And if the only Frank Lloyd Wright structure in the state also happens to be there? Well, that’s an embarrassment of riches.

Most small towns would be lucky to meet one or two of these criteria. Silverton, Ore., at the eastern edge of the Willamette Valley and just 45 miles south of Portland, meets them all.

Silverton was founded in 1854 as a mill and farming community, but over the last decade it has blossomed into a popular weekend getaway. Its star attractions sit side by side: an 80-acre arboretum established in 1999, and the Oregon Garden Resort, a spacious retreat with a spa, opened nine years later.

To tackle the garden, which is divided into more than 20 smaller themed areas, you need a strategy. If you like exotics, for example, the Conifer Garden is the place to start. There you’ll find 500 varieties of cone-bearing trees, many wonderfully odd, such as the Bush’s Lace spruce, which resembles an Afghan hound in need of a haircut. Head next to the Market Garden, full of Willamette Valley crops, where the paths are lined with crushed hazelnut shells. Its unusual, columnar apple trees grow narrow and straight, like telephone poles. This garden will have you rethinking your own yard—until you stumble across something so beautiful, perhaps a dazzling wall of dahlias with blossoms the size of softballs, that thinking stops.

But the most impressive feature here isn’t a plant. It’s a building. In 1957, Frank Lloyd Wright designed a farmhouse for Conrad and Evelyn Gordon, who lived in nearby Aurora. In 2001 the house was transported, its upstairs plank by red cedar plank, to Silverton. Now set amid oaks and fields of camas flowers, the Gordon House looks like it was meant to be here all along. Although it was built on a moderate budget, everything about this spare home feels right, from the compact kitchen, practical and elegantly conceived, to the “Taliesin red” poured concrete floors. Be sure to sit on the library banquette. Conrad Gordon loved his truck, so Wright designed the surprisingly comfortable bench to resemble the seat of a midcentury Chevy.

If you’ll settle for a Victorian rocker over a Frank Lloyd Wright banquette, you’re in luck. Downtown Silverton boasts half a dozen antique shops, including the Red Bench and Mayberry’s. Spend a few hours poking around and you might come away with a first edition of The Shaggy Man of Oz or a pair of butterscotch Bakelite serving spoons.

While its shops are quaint, Silverton’s food is cutting-edge. At the Silver Grille, in a building constructed in 1906, dinner might mean lamb ragout with tangy Oregon goat cheese cavatelli. The aptly named Garden View Restaurant at the Oregon Garden Resort offers hearty meals at lunch and dinner, plus inexpensive snacks such as sliders and “loaded” potato skins on its lounge menu. The Chocolate Box carries only Oregon-made confections, which range from single-origin chocolate bars (swarthy, intense) to chocolate-dipped Twinkies (goofy and delicious) to regional specialties such as white chocolates filled with marionberry cream. But that’s not all.

Less than 20 miles from Silverton you’ll hit Silver Falls, a state park so remarkable it almost became a national park. In 1926 a scout nixed the idea on account of logging damage, citing “thousands of stumps that from a distance look like so many dark headstones.” Today many of those “headstones” are obscured by lush ferns, thimbleberries, and hemlock. You can walk down to some of the park’s 10 waterfalls, staggered at intervals along Silver Creek, from the road—or hike to see all of them on a moderate, half-day expedition. As you descend the trail to South Falls, you spot the 177 feet of falling water first from above. Then the trail winds behind the curtain of water and you see (and feel, and hear) the cascade from a dozen feet away. You end up in an otherworldly valley of dense, primeval foliage, gazing up at the majestic falls. It’s hard to know whether this glorious sight is the whole point of a trip to Silverton, or just one of many reasons to visit.

Photography by Don Frank (Silver Grille, The Chocolate Box); Annuals and fountain courtesy Oregon Garden; slate stairway courtesy Wikipedia

This article was first published in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.