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.

Pittock Mansion

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.

PhotoAtelier's photo of the marble stairs at the center of Pittock Mansion.

Marble staircase. Photo by PhotoAtelier.

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.

PhotoAtelier's shot of a one of the sitting areas.

Slightly more elegant than my living room. Photo by PhotoAtelier.

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.


Jenny Cestnik's photo of Pittock Mansion.

Another angle…Photo by Jenny Cestnik.

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.

Daniel X. O'Neil's photo of a ceiling in the Pittock Mansion.

Notice the detail. Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil.

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.

I was a little surprised when I learned that there are bumper stickers saying “Keep Austin Weird”.  I had thought that the slogan belonged to Portland.  Turns out that it originated in Austin and Portland usurped it.  But in a way, it really does belong to Portland, because Portland really is weird.

As the popularity of the bumper sticker attests, Portlanders are clearly invested in having/keeping this reputation.  Some people, like the guy dressed as Darth Vader who rides around on a unicycle playing flaming bagpipes, are overtly campaigning.  But if a city is truly weird, that weirdness should permeate everything and be easily observed by a traveler passing through.  So, on a recent trip to the Rose City, I decided to do a casual assessment and see if it lives up to its reputation for weirdness.

It does.

Portlanders Go By Bike

Portland is considered to be one of the most, if not the most, bike-friendly cities in the U.S., which is kind of remarkable when you consider how much it rains.  I’ll leave it to the photo below to explain why that qualifies as weird…

Greg Fischer's photo of naked bikers in Portland.

Portland claims to be the bicycle capital of the US. Photo by Greg Fischer.

Weird Events

To be honest, I didn’t know there was an “urban Iditarod,” but I can’t say I’m that surprised.  I never made it to Trek in the Park, but I always enjoy the Swiftwatch.

Portland's urban iditarod.  Photo by Misserion.

Urban Iditarod. Photo by Misserion.

The Animals Are In On It

Portland pets get in on the action too. A few blocks from Laurelhurst Park, I saw a tree with small plastic containers holding dog biscuits.  A handwritten sign, addressed to the dogs and “signed” by the cat, invited passing canines to have a snack.

And you can always rent a goat to do your yard work.

brx0's photo of an unusual sign.

Huh? Photo by brx0.

Portland Likes Ink

Wandering around people watching, I found myself wondering whether anyone has collected statistics on what is the most tattooed city in the US .  They have.  Portland comes in at number five (just above Austin).

The city is also very literary.  Aside from being home to the largest independent book store in the world, Portland seems to love literature.  I encountered small, birdhouse-like structures near the sidewalk, stuffed full of paperbacks and with a sign instructing passersby to please take or trade a book.

There were also signposts with flyers to take.  They did not contained advertisements, or information sheets of a home for sale, but rather …poems.  The streets are littered (not literally- Portlanders don’t litter) with random acts of poetry.

brx0's photo of a Portland landmark.

Although Portland’s famous Church of Elvis is now closed, you can still see remnants. Photo by brx0.

Other Random Weirdness

Portlanders are ridiculously politically correct.  A tablemate of mine asked the waitress at a restaurant where the meat came from.  She didn’t blink an eye and came back with the name of the farm – a local one, of course.

There’s good humor too.  Older neighborhoods have metal rings embedded in the sidewalks, from the days when you had to tie up your horse.  Apparently wanting to remind us of this history, someone in Northeast Portland tied a small (2 inch) plastic horse to one of the rings.

Photo by Matt Perreault.

Is that why we wash our hands? Photo by Matt Perreault.

To rest my case, I offer a link to a BuzzFeed list of The 30 Most Portland Things That Have Ever Happened in Portland. Okay Austin, show us what you got?

Gabriel Amadeus' photo advertising Portland's future.

We’re on it! Photo by Gabriel Amadeus.