Documenting Demolition and Change: A Look at Minor White’s Photographs of Portland’s Old Town and Waterfront

May 19, 2020

By Ilana Sol

From 1938 to 1940, Minor White photographed the Portland waterfront and iconic cast-iron buildings of downtown as they were set to be demolished. This August 4, 1939, photograph of the Portland Lumber Mills on the Willamette River in St. Johns is part of the OHS Research Library’s Minor White negatives. The negatives include 210 images of downtown Portland and the waterfront, which are now available to view on OHS Digital Collections. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390804-1

In January 2020, I began working as the Digital Collections Assistant at the Oregon Historical Society. One of my first projects was working with OHS Research Library staff to digitize the Minor White negatives. Before working with the collection, I had heard of the photographer Minor White but did not know much about him or his work. As soon as I saw his images of Portland, though, I fell in love with his photography of a cityscape that no longer exists.

View of cast-iron buildings on Front Avenue in Portland from atop the Burnside Bridge, February 12, 1939. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390212-2
Minor White took this photograph of Front Avenue in Portland from atop the Burnside Bridge, looking south, on February 12, 1939. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390212-2

Many of White’s photos focus on the demolition of buildings in Portland, and despite the fact that he took these photos 80 years ago, the parallels to the city today are undeniable. In recent years, cranes have become ubiquitous in Portland’s skyline. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed as though every week marked the beginning of a new construction project as older buildings were demolished to make way for new ones. Walking around Portland, I’ve come across a lot of newly vacant lots, surrounded by chain link fences, and what is most striking to me is how often I cannot immediately remember what used to be there. Even in my own neighborhood, I have found myself staring at a pile of debris for several minutes, thinking, “Wait, what used to be here? What did it look like?”

Opitz Building in Portland, Oregon, February 2, 1939. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390205-1
A large cast-iron pillar lies in the debris of what was the Opitz Building. This photo was taken on February 2, 1939, from First Avenue and looks along Pine Street to Front Avenue. By zooming in on this image on OHS Digital Collections, a viewer can get a sense of the businesses that used to populate Old Town Portland, including the Boxer Fixture Co. and Hochfeld Bros., whose sign advertises that they were “Dealers in Bankrupt Stock.” OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390205-1

In the late 1930s, Portland was going through a similar phase of change, as many of downtown’s iconic cast-iron buildings were slated for demolition. These were buildings constructed in the mid- to late-1800s, and their columns and ornate façades had lined the streets of Old Town and the Portland waterfront for decades. It was a style of architecture that had dominated the area for over 50 years. By the early twentieth century, the commercial center of the city had shifted, and many of these buildings sat empty. City officials determined it was time to make room for more modern buildings and new infrastructure, such as the Morrison Bridge.

It was around this time that the Federal Art Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), hired White as a creative photographer. The WPA was a Depression-era agency that sought to put unemployed Americans to work, and staff at the Federal Art Project in Oregon believed it was important to document Portland’s historic buildings. From 1938 to 1940, White photographed the cast-iron buildings of downtown Portland before and during their demolition. He also photographed the east and west ends of the waterfront on the Willamette River, capturing snapshots of factories, ships, and everyday life during that time.

Looking at White’s photographs, it is immediately clear that he did so much more than just document the city of Portland; these rich, black-and-white photographs are works of art. White walked across Portland’s many bridges to photograph river scenes from above and climbed to the tops of train cars to capture industrial scenes on the waterfront. From atop the Burnside Bridge, he composed shots that masterfully document the grandiose beauty of the cast-iron architecture of Front Avenue. One of my favorite photographs is a film noir-esque shot of the Hawthorne Bridge at night; I half expect Ingrid Bergman to materialize out of the dark fog on her way to the nearby Madison Hotel.

White himself emphasized that his work photographing buildings in Portland was not merely documentation. Rather, as he wrote in his journal, he intended “to render them in such a way that anyone looking at the images will re-experience something of the pride the Portlanders of 60 years ago must have felt for their new city.”

Madison Hotel, Portland, Oregon, January 31, 1939. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390131-3
This January 31, 1939, nighttime view of the Madison Hotel on Madison Street shows the Hawthorne Bridge in the background. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390131-3
Great Light Way, SW Third Avenue and Oak Street, Portland, Oregon, May 4, 1939. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390504-3
The arches of the Great Light Way used to span several intersections on downtown Portland’s Third Avenue. This May 4, 1939, photograph shows the intersection at SW Third Avenue and Oak Street. Hanging at the top of this arch is a 750-watt nitrogen lamp, while the steel arch contained an additional 96 bulbs (at 40-watts each) to light up the street at night. By the time White took this photo in 1939, many of the arches had been destroyed to widen the roads, and those remaining no longer lit up, partially due to Depression-era power outages. OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390504-3

Now that these photos have been digitized, I can pull them up on my walks around the city and see what Portland looked like from the mid-1800s to 1930s. What did Front Avenue look like when cast-iron buildings lined both sides of the street? What did the waterfront look like when timber was king? What did SW Third Avenue and Oak Street look like when a giant light arch spanned the intersection? We don’t have to imagine any of these things, because Minor White photographed them beautifully.

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_3994

Minor White photographed the Dodd Block and Cook’s Building from the window of the abandoned Dekum & Reed Block, where demolition had already begun. The Dekum & Reed Block stood on the corner of SW Front Avenue and Ankeny Street. 

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_3994

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/front-avenue-cast-iron-buildings-2

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390914-7

A tugboat pulls logs down the Willamette River in September 1939. Photograph by Minor White. 

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390914-7 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/tugboat-pulling-logs

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390308-6

Minor White captured the architectural details of this cast-iron doorway of the Allen and Lewis Block, located on Front Avenue and Couch Street. The Steel Bridge stands in the background. 

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390308-6 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/allen-and-lewis-building-with-steel-bridge

OHS Research Library Org. Lot 52_390713-3

Minor White climbed to the top of a railroad car to snap this photograph of the Kerr-Gifford grain elevators near Swan Island. 

OHS Research Library Org. Lot 52_390713-3 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/grain-elevator-as-seen-from-a-railroad-car

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390226-1

Minor White photographed the partially demolished Dekum and Reed Block from the upper floors of the Johnson Building on Front Avenue. Part of downtown Portland is visible behind the partially demolished building. By zooming in on this photo in OHS Digital Collections, viewers can see various signs of downtown businesses, including 76 Union Gasoline, Portland Trust, and General Electric Motors.

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390226-1 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/demolition-of-dekum-reed-block

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_381016-5

On October 16, 1938, Minor White stood on the Burnside Bridge, looking south, and took this photograph of the cast-iron buildings on Front Avenue, between Ash and Pine streets. They are (from left to right): Johnson and Spaulding Building, Johnson building, Dodd Block, and Cook’s Building. 

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_381016-5 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/front-avenue

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390714-1

When photographing the Portland waterfront, Minor White often took photos from overhead bridges, as in this image of a dock on the Willamette River. 

OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 52_390714-1 

https://digitalcollections.ohs.org/dock-view-from-above

For other collections of Minor White’s work:

Portland Art Museum Collection of Minor White Photography: https://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/in-the-beginning/

Princeton University’s Minor White Archive: https://artmuseum.princeton.edu/minor-white-archive

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