Saturday, January 2, 2021

Help Honor the South Park Blocks

                        (National Register Nomination Form, South Park Blocks)

After 10 months of intense research and writing by a small cadre of volunteers, a nomination aimed at listing the South Park Blocks on the National Register of Historic Places has achieved its first major milestone.

Robert Olguin, Oregon’s state historic preservation officer, has accepted the 100-page nomination from the Downtown Neighborhood Association for consideration by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation in February. 

If supported by the state committee and by the Portland Landmarks Commission, the nomination would be sent to the U.S. Department of Interior for final consideration and probable listing on the National Register.

“This park is such an obvious landmark for Portland, it is long overdue to correct an obvious oversight,” said Story Swett, a Portland architect who played a major role in preparing the nomination form.  “A formal designation may help motivate retention of this valuable public space.”

 Given its lengthy history and beloved green space in Portland's dense urban heart, one would think that approval would be both a slam dunk and a major victory for the preservation community.  Comments from citizens who love the blocks, using addresses listed below, could prove helpful.   

The 12 blocks, extending from S.W. Salmon to Jackson Streets between S.W. Park East and S.W Park Avenue West are among the oldest public spaces in Portland.  They were donated by pioneer entrepreneur Daniel Lownsdale in 1852, and were landscaped in 1877 under the direction of horticulturalist Louis Pfunder.  Pfunder’s basic design, still clearly evident on many of the blocks today, included five parallel rows of deciduous trees – mostly elms – above a carpet of grass and flower beds.

 Although the Portland Bureau of Parks had recommended a national listing for the South Parks Blocks on a few occasions in the past, the bureau for whatever reasons never followed through.  The Downtown Neighborhood Association over a year ago began discussions that led to the nomination effort.

 The detailed nomination form includes extensive discussion about the history of Portland parks, the role of the South Park Blocks in civic life, and the significance of Pfunder’s landscape design.  Swett and Brooke Best, a historic resources consultant, were the primary writers, with research assistance from Roberta Cation and Leslie Hutchinson.  Research was hampered at times by the closure of libraries during the pandemic.

 Citizens have until Jan. 15 to submit comments in advance of the State Advisory Committee’s hearing.  Comments can be submitted by mail to:

 Robert Olguin

Oregon Parks and Recreation Department 

State Historic Preservation Office

725 Summer Street NE, Suite C

Salem, OR 97301

or by email at:

 Comments to the Portland Landmarks Commission can be sent to:

                            (National Register Nomination Form, South Park Blocks)

 Over its many decades, the South Park Blocks have attracted Portland State University, several cultural institutions, churches and high-rise apartments as surrounding neighbors.  One of the park’s primary functions has been to provide quiet green space for contemplation, walking, picnics and small gatherings.

 “The South Park Blocks (as a single park) is defined by its restrained simplicity and simple, direct material palette,” the nomination states.  “Pfunder’s original design intent is visible in the promenade plan and axial planting layout, featuring a unifying canopy of mature, deciduous trees.”

 “Another defining characteristic of the park blocks is the paved plaza areas that provide a place for communal gathering and private contemplation. Public monuments, artwork, plaques and memorials, and bench seating have been added over the years.”

 Several cross streets toward the southern end of the park have been closed to vehicles, making that end of the park a public open space for the PSU campus.  Blocks at both ends of the park are used from time to time for farmers’ markets.

 The nomination notes that many small changes have occurred over the years.  Regardless, “Overall, the South Park Blocks retains its original shape, much of its historic pedestrian circulation pattern, significant public monuments and sculptures, as well as its major character-defining features. The park’s integrity of materials and workmanship have been slightly diminished, due to the addition of non-historic features (including light standards, cruciform walkways, park furniture and public art) on some blocks.”

Here are several reasons why Portlanders love the South Park Blocks.  If you support the National Register Nomination, select some that are important to you to include in your comments. 

· Beauty of the towering arches of mature trees

. Green spaces for quiet in the midst of the big city

. Shade in the summer, more sunlight in the winter; vivid colors in the fall

. A place for meeting friends

· Farmers markets

· Seasonal gardens and flowers

· Appreciation of public art

· Students studying in the grass

· Graduation ceremonies

· Young children playing

· Long promenade walks on separated paths with long views,

· Quiet mid-day lunch spots

You can read the entire nomination form here:


  1. Back in June we learned through this blog that the City's Dept of Parks was considering making changes to the Park Blocks to "enhance it", which would result in the removal of up to 20% of the existing tree cover and the creation of paved plazas and roofed structures (which somehow were not "buildings"). I commented here and also to the City that I thought these "improvements" were a terrible idea:"This is a solution in search of a problem. This plan will look dated in 5-10 years. Keep the Park Blocks as they are now. They will always be classic". I'm wondering where the City is now with these Park Block changes? I am thinking that if the proposed historic listing here shows broad citizen support, then the City will back off their proposed changes. Or am I being naive to expect the City to do the sensible thing?

  2. The gossip I've heard -- and it is purely gossip -- is that Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz did not like the plan. She has left the council and parks now goes to Carmen Rubio. The citizens' advisory committee has been "dark" for some time now. I am curious to learn the results of the internet poll they did about the plan. I suspect that public comment was heavily against making the proposed changes. It might take Rubio awhile to figure things out. Given the trauma the city has been going through, I can't believe that the proposed plan carries much weight as a priority.

  3. The South Park Blocks are a wonderful part of the city, but the Park Block we know and cherish today which extend from Salmon through Portland State were donated by Stephen Coffin not Lownsdale. It is true that the blocks were Lownsdale's vision, but the property initially donated by him extended from Salmon to Stark which we all know is occupied by the Arlington Club and other buildings. In a historical quirk, Lownsdale didn't actually own that tract it was discovered after he died. The property was in his wife's name and her heirs contested and eventually won ownership after she dies. The city having just acquired Washington Park decided not to purchase those blocks from the Lownsdale heirs. That is why we see buildings on that spot today. Lownsdale's vision called for a green strip all the way from the West Hills to the Willamette. He almost achieved it.