Vista Avenue Viaduct



Above the downtown core of Portland and below Washington Park, the topography gets a little tricky, with bluffs and hollows and foothills complicating the incline. Goose Hollow, for instance. Naturally the western hills over the city were the sites for expensive homes since the beginning. In about 1905 a wooden trolley bridge was thrown up over one of these ravines, the Ford Street Bridge. The trolley ride led to a turn-of-the-last-century amusement park situated on the highest point in the city, Council Crest.

In 1925 the city replaced that wooden bridge with this Vista Avenue Viaduct. The engineer was Fred T. Fowler, working for the city. It's steel and poured concrete, and the entire shape of the bridge rests on two dynamic, leaping, but relatively shallow arches. (BTW, what's a "viaduct"? Supposedly a "viaduct" means a bridge with multiple spans, like an aqueduct. This doesn't look like one.)





I'm always happy to see those four-inch concrete striations. In the first few decades of the 20th Century steel-reinforced concrete was new and regarded as a cheap, versatile wonder material, and there was kind of a torrid love affair with poured concrete. All kinds of west coast fantasies -- San Simeon, the Santa Barbara Court House, the Mission Inn, any number of resorts -- were only possible because of poured concrete.

The arching, athletic grace of the arches is one thing, easy to look at from many angles, that frozen tension and those complicated voids underneath. Up on the deck the benches, approaches, and lanterns, all leaf-strewn and moss-covered, are something else. They seem (to me) to belong to a slightly previous era. It doesn't look 80 years old.




You already know that Portlanders love their bridges, or at least love to talk about them and compare them and complain about them. They're extensively covered, if you're interested. To the point of obsession. From the gorgeous green St. Johns Bridge to the north down to the essential and inadequate Sellwood Bridge to the south, there are 11 spans across the Willamette. Some of them "count" and some don't. This one doesn't get much attention.

My preference for this one is improved by its connecting one leafy, lovely, wealthy neighborhood to another one. Stroll out, look east, you get a view of the Portland skyline and Hood on a good day. Look west, a view of a lovely tangle of "functionally obsolete" infrastructure installed into the foot of Washington Park: rock railroad tunnels, a curving avenue, waterworks and a couple of dams. Nothing quite like waterworks. None of this was meant to be beautiful at the time -- the ordinary has just aged into the extraordinary. Is it stylish? Not on purpose, but here, and at the Oregon City Bridge, making a virtue of necessity counts as good architecture. It also gains from being able to walk under it. Underneath, probably the loneliest Benson bubbler in the city.





One last thing. "Suicide Bridge"? Sure, I guess. For instance Chuck Palahniuk's book on Portland puts the Vista Avenue Viaduct in the ghost story category, and does everything but urge his readers to run out and look for dents in the pavement. That's consistent with his description of the city as a parade of horribles -- addicts, weirdos, miscreants. He sees the doomed and the foul everywhere. I guess I don't.






Copyright 2009 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.