The Lost World

How a Legendary Photographer Captured (Really, Really) Old Portland

Imagine a time before parking lots.

By Rebecca Jacobson September 21, 2017 Published in the Design Annual: Fall 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Arches of the Dodd Building (SW Front Ave and Ankeny St), 1938

Talk about a plum gig: in 1938, the Works Progress Administration hired 30-year-old Minor White to photograph the architecture of downtown Portland. White, originally from Minnesota and destined for a decades-long international career, had arrived in the city a little over a year before. Now he was shooting some of its most historic buildings—many soon to be demolished.

Today, an exhibit at the Architectural Heritage Center unites 36 White reprints with artifacts from buildings he documented: a rare chance to see cast-iron ornamentation or hand-carved wood both in photos and in the flesh.

White spent his first few years in Portland photographing downtown commercial buildings, largely along Front Avenue (now Naito Parkway). Most of these buildings no longer exist, says AHC historian Val Ballestrem. “One at Third and Oak is now a parking lot,” Ballestrem notes. “The building, torn down in the 1950s, is absolutely gorgeous. It’s hard to fathom that they thought a lot was more valuable.” 

The photos also reveal the Great Depression. Many buildings look run-down. In one photo, men huddle outside a junk shop, hoping to make a sale.  

In the early ’40s, the Portland Art Museum hired White to document two of the city’s most opulent mansions: the Jacobs-Dolph House on the South Park Blocks and the Knapp House in Northwest. (The former was torn down mere weeks after White photographed it; the latter stood for less than a decade.) “They’re amazing interior photos,” says Ballestrem, adding that you can see White’s aesthetic mature over his time in Portland. “Then he was drafted into the army—he was gone before he even printed the photos. By that summer, Minor White was in the South Pacific.”

The exhibit Parting Shots: Minor White’s Images of Portland, 1938–1942 runs through December 23 at the Architectural Heritage Center.

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