Portland decades: the 1950s

Midway through the 20th century, modernization arrived for better and for worse.

downtown portland 1953 Meier & Frank.png

Downtown Portland in 1953 was full of Chevrolet Bel Airs, suits, and bouffants.

Photo via Portland City Archives

Portland’s growth boom cooled in the 1950s as other large US cities passed policies driving post-war industrialization. The city grappled with organized crime, welcomed the era of broadcast television, saw one of its longest-serving mayors, and launched urban renewal projects that would inflict lasting damage on marginalized communities.

Population: 373,628

Mayors: Dorothy McCullough Lee (1949-1952), Fred L. Peterson (1953-1956), Terrence Doyle “Terry” Schrunk (1957-1972)

old concil crest streetcar.png

Two of the early streetcars were preserved by the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society and the city of Portland.

Photo via Portland City Archives

1950 — The last early streetcar lines (the Council Crest, Willamette Heights and 23rd Avenue lines) cease operations as buses rise in popularity and the nation fully embraces the era of automobiles.

1951 — A contentious Rose Festival queen campaign ends in the crowning of Hollywood hopeful Gloria Krieger. Life magazine throws everyone for a loop when it scraps plans to publish Krieger’s face on its Aug. 6 cover, instead spotlighting runner-up Carol Braun.

1952 — KPTV broadcasts three shows between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 20 over the UHF frequency band from its Council Crest tower, becoming Portland’s (and Oregon’s) first television station.

1953 — Portland’s first television station operating on the VHF band — CBS affiliate KOIN — hits the airwaves on Oct. 15 with Art Kirkham as its first anchor.

1954 — Matthew Abram Groening is born on Feb. 15 in Portland to parents Margaret and Homer; his animated series “The Simpsons” debuts 35 years later featuring characters named after family members living in a fictional town resembling Portland in many ways.

1955 — An extortion plot reaches an explosive climax and captures nationwide attention when dynamite is ignited in the third floor restroom of downtown Portland’s Meier & Frank department store on April 15.

Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center portland oregon.png

The Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center housed microfilm files of 100 years’ worth of Portland historical data.

Photo via Portland City Archives

1956 — Portland becomes the first city in the US to build an underground city hall. With 26-inch reinforced concrete walls buried up to 30 ft below ground, the Civil Defense Emergency Operation Center at Kelly Butte was designed to withstand nuclear fallout and shelter 250 emergency workers for up to two weeks.

1957 — The Metropolitan Planning Commission is formed to receive and use federal funds intended for regional planning. Its four-member board represented the city of Portland and its three surrounding counties and laid the foundation for present-day Metro.

1958 — Voters approve an urban renewal plan that would lead to the demolition of the Old South Portland neighborhood, which was home to both Jewish and Eastern European residents and institutions. The third (and current) iteration of the Morrison Bridge opens.

paul bunyan statue portland pdx.png

A vestige of the Oregon Centennial Exposition and International Trade Fair still stands watch over North Denver Avenue.

Photo by Visitor7

1959 — Over the course of three months starting in June, 1.5 million people visit the Oregon Centennial Exposition and International Trade Fair in North Portland to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oregon’s statehood. Portland establishes its first international sister city relationship with Sapporo, Japan.