Monday, November 2, 2020

New Landscape at Multnomah County Central Library


(Henneberry-Eddy Architecture)

It isn’t clear what A.E. Doyle had in mind, if anything, for landscaping the fringes of ground on three sides of the Multnomah County Central Library when it was completed 107 years ago. 

 Faced with the difficulty of a block that sloped in two directions, Doyle backed up the rear of the building flush to the S.W. 11th Avenue sidewalk, and then centered it between side yards approximately 25 feet wide on the north and south, and roughly the same width on either side of the grand staircase to the east in front.  

 On those three frontages, Doyle designed a balustrade at the public sidewalks interrupted occasionally by benches.  “Doyle’s magical touch is the way in which he steps his surrounding wall, alternating benches with sections of wall, effectively concealing the extreme slope of the site, and reducing the scale of what is actually a very large building,” wrote architectural historian Richard Ritz.

 But that left the earth between the edges of the building and the sidewalk balustrade.  The landscaping was primarily grass in the early years, and has undergone a number of changes through the decades.  Now, faced with drainage issues, a non-compliant wheelchair ramp installed in 1982 and a desire to make the “open space” more functional for public uses, the library is overseeing a new landscape design.

 Primary elements include a longer, less-steep wheelchair ramp, two paved terraces on either side of the main staircase, new outdoor lighting near the front of the building at a low retaining wall to break up the steeper slope on the north and northeastern yards.

The revisions also would solve the problem of an emergency exit on the north side “that basically goes nowhere,” said David Wark, a principal of Henneberry-Eddy Architects, the firm designing the changes.  At present, the door empties into the side yard, but there is no way out short of wandering through the foliage and climbing the balustrade.  Under the new design, a narrow walkway would connect the door with the new terrace abutting the main stairway at the front of the building.

In accord with changes approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, the wheelchair ramp that currently creates an entrance from the sidewalk through space formerly occupied by one of the benches will be moved one bench to the south, providing a gentler slope to the main entry.  The bench that was removed for the original accessibility ramp will be replaced to look like an original.


(Henneberry-Eddy Architecture) 

As illustrated above, the north terrace would have room for tables and chairs.  The library envisions the space being used for book sales or outdoor classes.  Since eating and drinking are not allowed in the building, the terraces could be pleasant places for coffee or snacks in nice weather.  The illustration also shows the low retaining wall that eventually will be covered from view by vegetation.

 The planting scheme calls for low-lying plants that should not provide hiding spaces for campers or for disposal of trash.  No current trees will be removed from the library grounds.


(Henneberry-Eddy Architecture)

 Seating will be less optimal in the south terrace, above, because it must allow room for the accessibility entrance. 

"It's a beautiful addition to a beautiful building," Landmarks Commissioner Maya Foty said the the plan.  

 “I’m really glad to see this package come through,” said Landmarks Chair Kristen Minor. "I think it will create options that weren’t there before.”  If so, that will be an additional plus for what clearly is one of the best public buildings in Portland.

 If the discussion here provokes a reader’s interest in A.E. Doyle and his abundant contributions to Portland’s architecture, “Beauty of the City” by Philip Niles is an excellent biography.  Multiple copies are available at the Multnomah County Library, of course.



  1. This looks nice and open. Outdoor seating is a plus. Low-lying plants is good thinking; it's easier maintenance. Will the south side, Taylor Street, also have lower plantings so there's more light through the windows?

  2. I think so. The plan shows "future landscaping improvements" on the Taylor Street side. I believe there will be low-lying plantings there, as well.