Newspapers to Roses The Fascinating Human Story Of the Pittock Mansion

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History: The Pittock Mansion

Written by Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

The Pittock Mansion

The mansion on the hill: this is how many local residents think of the stately French Renaissance-style mansion with the red-tiled roof perched high above the city in the West Hills. One of Portland’s beloved landmarks, the Pittock Mansion has been treasured for generations, and is symbolic of the ambition, glamor and spirit of those intrepid entrepreneurs who shaped the city of Portland at the turn of the 20th century. But just who were the Pittocks, and how did they amass the fortune to build such a palatial estate in the first place?

Born in London, England and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Henry L. Pittock learned the printing trade in his family’s printing firm while completing his education at the Western University of Pennsylvania’s preparatory school. By 1853, he had moved west to Portland, where as a poor but industrious youth, he found work at the Weekly Oregonian newspaper owned by Thomas J. Dryer. By 1854, Pittock had risen to the position of business manager and partner. By 1860, due to debts Dryer had incurred, Dryer mortgaged the newspaper to Pittock and departed town. Only 24 years old, Pittock had risen from a penniless transplant from the East Coast to the proprietor of Portland’s primary newspaper. It was in 1860 that Pittock married Georgiana Burton, a woman of privilege whose family had migrated to Portland on the Oregon Trail.

Republican, conservative and pro-Union, Pittock found himself in good company with Portland’s business elite of the time — many of whom leaned in the same direction. Over the next few decades Pittock expanded The Oregonian from a weekly publication to a six-day-a-week newspaper, eventually adding a Sunday edition due to popular demand. By the turn of the century, The Oregonian had become the largest newspaper in Oregon, in both circulation and popularity.

Having diversified his business interests into real estate, transportation and industry, Pittock had acquired a sizable fortune. It was this fortune that made possible the construction of his famous mansion. In 1909, Pittock hired the Oregon-born and nationally famous architect, Edward T. Foulkes, to design his dream home. The 16,000 square foot home, built on a 46-acre wooded estate, was constructed in the French Renaissance style on the exterior; however, the interior reflected a variety of styles.

Among the different styles featured on the interior were an Edwardian style mahogany-paneled dining room, a French-styled oval drawing room, an oak-paneled Jacobethan library and a Turkish smoking room with a hand-painted ceiling by the artist Harry Wentz. On the west wall of the dining room a mirror is positioned to capture the reflection of Mount Hood, providing everyone seated at the table a magnificent view of the mountain.

The Interior of the Pittock Mansion

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the house is a grand three-story high central stairwell constructed of marble and eucalyptus wood with elaborate bronze grillwork that twists gracefully upwards. Despite its grandeur, the mansion was also designed to be a family home. While the third floor consisted of servants’ quarters and Henry’s office, the second floor included three separate suites, each consisting of bedrooms, sitting rooms with fireplaces, bathrooms and sleeping porches. Also on the third floor was a children’s playroom with space enough for riding tricycles. The underground level featured an oval billiard room with adjoining card rooms, wine cellar, vault and laundry facilities. In addition to the masterful layout of the rooms themselves, the house included technical innovations such as an elevator, walk-in refrigerator, central vacuum and dumbwaiter.

On the estate grounds was a four-story gatekeeper’s lodge, and a three-car garage with a chauffeur’s apartment above. Renaissance style gardens and a terraced flower garden were accompanied by a tennis court and access to the nearby trails of what was to become Forest Park. Henry’s wife, Georgiana, a passionate advocate for women’s rights and a prominent local philanthropist, delighted in cultivating many varieties of roses in her flower beds. In 1888, Georgiana founded the Portland Rose Society, and in 1889, as a benefit for her Unitarian church, organized a competition on her property for the best home-grown roses. It was from this event that Portland’s famous Rose Festival emerged.

The Pittock Mansion

Although construction on the Pittock Mansion was completed in 1914, with the family moving in the same year, Henry and Georgiana, sadly, were not able to enjoy the fruits of their labor for very long. Georgiana passed away in 1918, and Henry a year later. Their family, however, continued to live in the mansion till 1958. The last family member to reside at the mansion was Peter Gantenbein, who was also born there. The house stood empty for six years, during which time it sustained damage from squatters who occupied the property and the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, which severely damaged the mansion’s roof. Recognizing the cultural and historic significance of the house, the City of Portland acquired the neglected structure in 1964 for $225,000, and in the process protected the 46-acre estate from developers who planned to turn it into a subdivision. Amazingly, some of the original craftsmen who had worked on the mansion were still alive at the time, like Fred Baker, who had installed the lighting, and Bruno Dombrowski, who laid the wood floors. Both of these craftsmen agreed to come out of retirement to help with the restoration of the mansion, which took fifteen months.

Today the Pittock Mansion is a public museum that hosts 60-70,000 visitors per year. The estate has also been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. Due to its unique character and striking appearance, the Pittock Mansion has garnered the attention of Hollywood on a number of occasions. In 1993, the mansion was featured prominently in the movie “Body of Evidence,” starring Madonna and Willem Dafoe. The estate was also used as the finishing point for “The Amazing Race” in the finale of the show’s 13th season. In the literary realm, the mansion figures into the plot of local author/musician, Colin Meloy’s novel, “Wildwood.”

A view of Portland to Mt Hood

The next time you’re driving in the West Hills, and you see a sign for the Pittock Mansion, stop by for a visit. Enjoy the breathtaking views of Portland from the grounds of this historic estate where a young, industrious entrepreneur named Henry Pittock helped lay the foundations for the city we know today, and whose wife Georgiana’s passion for roses led to Portland being known as the “City of Roses.”