Daniel House




Passages of the Pittock: Arriving as One Does Today, at the Back Door.

In 1914, Henry and Georgiana Pittock moved into their new house atop a hill, overlooking the growing city of Portland, Oregon and the beautiful mountains rising in the east. Both had been pioneers who traversed the untamed geography of our huge country before arriving on the west coast. Henry built a great fortune as the leader of The Oregonian, the city's preeminent newspaper. Their house was a reflection of their good fortune; it looked like a drawing any small child would make of the castle she dreamed of in a far away land. From its turrets and steeply pitched clay tiled roof, to its columns carved of Bellingham sandstone, the elements of the house were perfectly composed to tell the romantic, far off story that seems possible only in a state of dream. Sadly, the Pittocks didn't enjoy their home for very long before they passed and in the 1960's, as was so often the case with these American Castles, there was talk of demolition.

Happily, the city of Portland purchased the Pittock and restored it for guests to enjoy year round. Unhappily, in renovating the site to accommodate those arriving by car, its story has become a bit conflated. On its completion in 1914, visitors would ascend the hill, drive (or more likely be driven) past the gatehouse and continue on a roadway that navigated through the property , taking in views of the city below before turning and experiencing the front of the house in its full expanse. As they pulled nearer, they'd have the option to disembark at the front door, or at the side under the protection of the substantial porte-cochere (fancy for car-port). Either way, upon passing through the house's doors, the guest would have gone through a series of impressive spaces before reaching or understanding the heart of the structure, its truly massive and impressively crafted stairwell. Today, this is our first experience of the place....


Fig. 2  Pittock Mansion - Rear Facade, entry to stair hall, image by author

While this is a beautiful facade, it's not the beginning of the story the architect, Edward T. Foulkes, and his clients were interested in crafting. Now we pause for a minute to introduce the FIVE ORDERS of classical architecture in so we may begin to understand what we are looking at here. Lots of people know their names -- Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. Many could pick out columns of a certain order and their related entablatures (horizontal bands surmounting columns including cornice, frieze and architrave). Some can even draw these elements and employ them in new works of architecture, but few understand them as artisans and draftsman of an earlier time did. The architects of this house understood the orders as a continuum, allowing a range of possible expression, from the most geometric (Tuscan), to the most sculptural (Composite). They understood it was not just columns and entablatures that expressed an order, but scrollwork, brackets and patterns as well. I can say this with certainty, because if one looks closely, he can see elements of every order have been called to action to tell the story here.

There are countless discussions on how the orders are related to gender; the Doric, thick and strong is male in character, the Ionic and Corinthian, more thin and fragile are female. There is also much written, particularly on the Doric, about how the elements we see today in stone are merely indications of how earlier structures were constructed out of wood. This notion gained support especially after a man named Marc-Anton Laugier published his ideas on the origins of architecture in the mid-18th century. Laugier said that architecture as we knew it was rooted in what he called "the primitive hut" (Fig. 3)(an illustration borrowed from the much earlier Vitruvius). He believed all man really needed were the pieces of a building required to make it stand up and protect him from the elements; all subsequent ornamentation was mere frosting on the cake. 

    Fig 3. Laugier's Primitive Hut,   Essai sur l'Architecture ,  frontispiece by  Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen


Fig 3. Laugier's Primitive Hut,  Essai sur l'Architecturefrontispieceby Charles-Dominique-Joseph Eisen

But people are not satisfied by these base needs alone. Recall the picture of the castle drawn by the child I mentioned earlier. People have dreams; they can see images of things they have never experienced before, even when they are very young. There is something deep inside humans that goes beyond the elemental, or is, perhaps, the most elemental.

So we stand, in the year 2015 at the back door of the Pittock mansion (Fig. 4). We look up. And in the middle, right above the second story window, what do we see? It's a carving of some kind. It splays upward and has three vertical segments, each with a dot above. This piece is known as a keystone. In traditionally constructed arched openings, the splayed shape of the keystone would be essential to its structural success. But the window openings at the Pittock are rectilinear -- in fact, the weight of a keystone in the center of these openings is of no structural benefit at all. But there is more to this story than structural integrity alone, because we have these three vertical carved members within the keystone and they indicate something very important. This is our most clear indication the Doric order is in play. 


Fig. 4 Entrance to Stair Hall, image by author

Okay, so...what is the Doric order and how do I know these three vertical lines indicate its presence? And, why is its presence cause for excitement? There is an excellent book by Mark Wilson Jones of the University of Bath in England that will provide a much more thorough explanation, but foremost, the Doric order is one of celebration. Its presence in architecture is most clearly demonstrated through the triglyph, a three pronged stone carving which repeats along the frieze (horizontal band above the columns) of a building. Beneath the three prongs, one might find little conical elements, called "guttae," meaning "drops."

If one were to think as Laugier, he would say, "the prongs indicate the ends of beams sticking out of the building's frame, supporting the roof members. The "drops" allow the the rainwater a place to gather and fall away from the building." He would have a nice idea, but he'd be hard-pressed to find much supporting evidence at an archeological dig, and his structural logic would break down quickly. Further, his notion really wouldn't go very far to satisfy the needs of his soul. Would he, given the option, replicate in stone what he would build in wood? In Jones' book, we find a ton of fascinating images, but two help us directly understand the bit of iconography we are looking at here at the Pittock. 


Fig. 5 Mark Wilson Jones. Origins of Architecture. http://arheo.ffzg.unizg.hr/ska/tekstovi/tripods_triglyphs.PDF 

    Fig. 6 Mark Wilson Jones.  Origins of Architecture  .  http://arheo.ffzg.unizg.hr/ska/tekstovi/tripods_triglyphs.PDF


Fig. 6 Mark Wilson Jones. Origins of Architecturehttp://arheo.ffzg.unizg.hr/ska/tekstovi/tripods_triglyphs.PDF

The first is a series of different methods of representing tripods on Greek pottery (Fig 5). All of them have three prongs, or legs, all have circles at the top of those prongs, and several have feet. The second is sculptural fragment showing repeating tripods in a frieze (Fig 6). There is no question that the object carved here is a tripod -- none at all. And what is a tripod? Is is to hold a camera? Yes, but in ancient Greece, it was something much more central to culture. It was a place to make a sacrificial offering to the gods. A place for spilled blood. Little drops of blood may have even fallen to the feet of the tripod. It was the key piece marking celebration of a deity. 

So, at the back door of the Pittock, we already have impetus for celebration. Perhaps the icon was not as clear in the early 20th century as it had been millennia earlier, but its ability to set a tone was grasped. That's the back door, that's the cursory introduction to the spirit of the Doric order. I said the Pittock has all the orders in action in some way or another. I didn't  mention it has five points of entry with distinct character. Next time, lets enter through the front door as its architect intended, and meet the Ionic order.

Until Then,


Peter Spalding

P.S. I do not claim to be an historian. If anyone feels I have presented incorrect information, please leave comments. 


Jones, Mark Wilson. Origins of Architecture. New Haven and London. Yale University Press. 2014.     Print.

Hawkins, William J. and William F. Willingham. Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon: 1850-1950. Portland. Timber Press. 1999. Print

Djordjevitch, Michael. Personal Interview. 20 Oct 2011