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Portland architecture: The cast-iron ghosts of the 19th century

Remnants of the once-popular architectural style can still be found in downtown and Old Town.

cast iron portland pdx pearne poppleton buildings

The 1865 Pearne (left) and 1867 Poppleton buildings on Southwest First between Yamhill and Taylor.

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Table of Contents

Portland is still a relatively young city compared to other metropolitan areas in the world, but you might not know it based on its eclectic mix of architectural styles.

Some of the most interesting buildings in the City of Roses are those with cast iron facades. You’ve likely noticed them in downtown and Old Town — they often feature grand, arched doorways and windows bordered by ornate Corinthian columns.

Read on and the next time you pass one by, you’ll know a thing or two about how these historic structures fit into the Portland puzzle.

PDX Portland cast iron building historic

A cast-iron building on Southwest Front Avenue with a one-horse-for-hire rig parked in front, circa 1910. |
Photo via City of Portland Archives

Photo via City of Portland Archives

How it started

Cast iron, as a substance, was in use long before the United States was established, but a mill built in 1796 in England is thought to be the first example of an iron-framed building. It still stands today as a testament to the material’s longevity.

The United States’ infatuation with cast iron exploded several decades later in the mid-to-late 1800s — that’s when Portland architects (starting with Absalom B. Hallock) discovered the benefits of prefabricated iron pieces. They were cheaper than masonry, allowed more natural light to enter building interiors, and the casting technique opened up all kinds of decorative opportunities.

pdx portland poppleton building cast iron

Look closely and you’ll notice intricate details on many cast-iron structures, like the Poppleton Building. |
Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

Photo by Cambrie Juarez, PDXtoday

How it’s going

A fire destroyed nearly all of the city’s cast iron buildings in 1873 and, though some were rebuilt and opulent new editions were added along Northwest First and Couch Streets, the style would soon be out of fashion. The 1889 Glisan’s Building, which now houses Kells Irish Restaurant and Pub, was the last of its kind built in Portland.

Many of the city’s cast iron structures — like the 1868 Ladd and Tilton Bank building at Southwest First and Stark — were torn down after World War II to make way for new construction. Still, Portland retains its place as the second-largest representation of cast iron architecture in the US, second only to New York City’s SoHo neighborhood.

You can learn more about Portland’s historic buildings by visiting the Architectural Heritage Center at 701 SE Grande Ave. You can take a walking tour, see exhibitions, and become a voice in the community for architectural preservation.

Read other articles in our Portland architecture series.

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