I arrive at the side door of the Pittock Mansion, a historic French Chateau in Portland’s West Hills and knock on the door. Even though this house-turned-museum is currently closed, I am allowed in, which makes me feel special. Once in the door, I take in the grandeur of the surroundings, the gleaming white marble, the bouquets of fresh flowers that another group of volunteers have spread throughout the house in memory of Georgiana Pittock. Then it’s time to get to work. I am here to serve as a tour guide, which is an excellent way to go sight seeing even when you’re at home.
I was seventeen years old, back then. As it happened, my youth and inexperience made me especially well qualified to explain Pittock Mansion’s interesting history.
This Old House is a Triumph of Youth
A bedraggled, 19 year old, Henry Pittock came to Oregon by wagon train in 1853. He found work as a type setter for Thomas Dryer, who ran a newspaper – The Weekly Oregonian. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln asked Dryer to serve in the Sandwich Islands (a.k.a. Hawaii). Dryer owed Pittock back wages and his newspaper was plagued by debts. So he handed the paper over to Pittock.
Pittock figured that there was enough news to warrant a daily paper, there was a war on after all, and expanded the Oregonian to a daily. Thus he made his fortune. He had married another young pioneer, Georgiana Burton and in 1909, they began construction of their dream house.
The house was completed in 1914 (Happy 100th Birthday!). Among it’s special features were a central vacuum system, an elevator (Mrs. Pittock was an invalid by the time they moved in), and both gas and electric lighting because electricity was new and not to be completely trusted. The mansion was perched on a hill with a fantastic view of Portland and the mountains of the Cascade range. The house showcased northwest materials and Pittock hired northwest craftsmen. Having become the owner of a newspaper at the tender age of 26, Henry Pittock believed in hiring young labor.
Georgiana and Henry died in 1918 and 1919 respectively. The house remained in the family until 1958.
On October 12th, 1962, Portland was hit by one of the worst storms in it’s history. Damage to the house was extensive. So much so, that when the city bought the property (with the help of $75,000 raised by the community) a few years later, the house was considered for demolition. (The city was more interested in the property which connected with Forest Park to make one of the largest urban forests in the country.)
Instead of being demolished, the house was rehabilitated. And because Henry Pittock believed in hiring young labor, several of the original craftsmen were able to participate in the restoration.
My seventeen-year-old self loved sharing that tidbit of history with the grey heads that had come off of the Gray Line.
Visiting Pittock Mansion
Pittock Mansion has been functioning as a public museum since 1965. A visit to the mansion is an opportunity to see how people lived in another time (and for most of us, a chance to see how people live in another socio-economic class).
Generally speaking, Pittock Mansion is open daily from 11:00 – 4:00 (10:00 – 5:00 during summer) with the exception of Thanksgiving weekend and Christmas, though it’s a good idea to check the website. Admission is $9.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, $6.50 for youth aged 6-18 and free if you’re under 6.
Henry built his home with a view. On a clear day, there is potential to see five mountains (although three is more likely). If you can manage to time your visit with nice weather, you can also enjoy hiking on the Wildwood Trail.
The house is always decorated with cozy details and fresh flowers, but they go all out at Christmas, making a visit to Pittock Mansion a must for celebrating Christmas in the Rose City.
An Excellent Volunteer Gig
The training for Pittock Mansion tour guides had been held in a conference room on the top floor of the house, an area that’s not open to the public. Even though there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the rooms on the top floor (former servants quarters), I was happy to be seeing them. If you tell me that I get to see 95% of something, it only peaks my curiosity for the other five.
The woman next to me agreed that this was a perk.
“I volunteer at the Japanese Garden too,” she confided. “You find out about all these hidden spots in the garden. Then the workers get to know you and if you’re there when they’re pruning, they’ll give you cuttings.”
I made a mental note to volunteer at the Japanese Garden some day. These are not the kind of tourism-oriented volunteer opportunities that take you to exotic places where you change the lives of people less fortunate than you. But being a volunteer tour guide in your home city is a way to give back to your community while getting out to enjoy one of those local attractions we usually ignore.
After spending a pleasant afternoon giving 45-minute tours, I signed up to work one day the following month and was given one of the bouquets of flowers that decorated the house as a thank you gift. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.