It was a plum gig for an upstart photographer: in 1938, a 30-year-old named Minor White was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to document the architecture of downtown Portland. White, originally from Minnesota, had arrived in Portland less than a year before, and now he was photographing some of the city’s more historic buildings—many of which would be demolished in the coming years.
Now, a new exhibit at the Architectural Heritage Center brings together White’s photography—35 prints in total—and physical artifacts from some of the buildings he documented. The show, running March 3–December 23, is a rare chance to see objects, such as cast-iron ornamentation or pieces of hand-carved wood, both in photos and in the flesh.
“I think it’s one of the more fascinating exhibits we’ve ever done,” says AHC curator Val Ballestrem.
White spent his first few years in Portland living at the YMCA and photographing downtown’s commercial buildings, largely along Front Avenue (what’s now Naito Parkway). Most of these buildings no longer exist, Ballestrem says, and several were already being demolished as White shot them. “There’s one at 3rd and Oak where there’s now a parking lot,” he says. “The building, which was torn down in the 1950s, is absolutely gorgeous. It’s hard to fathom that they really thought the parking lot was more valuable.”
The photos also reveal the effects of the Great Depression—many of the buildings are run-down, a state that would hasten decisions to raze them. And a few images capture the effect of the economic downturn on the people of Portland, such as one photo of men huddled outside a junk shop, hoping to make a sale.
But White didn't only photograph downtown’s bedraggled condition. In the early ‘40s, he was hired by the Portland Art Museum to document two of the city’s most opulent mansions: the Jacobs-Dolph House on the Park Blocks and the Knapp House in Northwest. (The former was torn down mere days after White photographed it; the latter stood for less than a decade.) The AHC will display several of these images as well, alongside more artifacts—including a massive reconstructed fireplace from one of the houses.
“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 out the photos. By the time the Art Museum printed out the photos that summer, Minor White was in the South Pacific.”
Parting Shots: Minor White’s Images of Portland, 1938-1942 runs March 3–December 23 at the Architectural Heritage Society. The opening reception is 6–8 p.m. Thursday, March 16.