Monday, June 14, 2010

Vista House

Look through any picture book of Oregon, and you can be sure there will be a photograph of the Vista House, perched on a promontory 733-feet above the Columbia River at Crown Point. With its awe-inspiring view and unparalleled setting, it serves as one of the most recognizable sites along the Columbia Gorge and a true Oregon icon.
The Historic Columbia River Highway was designed in 1913 to connect a series of waterfalls, scenic vistas, and natural wonders along the south side of the Columbia River, east of Portland. It was the first scenic road in America and combined traditional European and modern road-building techniques to create a spectacular highway that blended well with the landscape. Referred to as the “King of Roads,” it was a popular drive for early Portland motorists.
The story goes that Julius Meier, of Meier and Frank, had a summer home in Corbett at the western edge of the Columbia River Highway and one day took a group of ladies for a Sunday drive along the recently completed road. During the outing, it became obvious to him that there was a dire need for a comfort station or rest stop somewhere along the route. He immediately presented the idea to the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners. Samuel Lancaster, the county engineer who had supervised the building of the Columbia River Highway, had already expressed interest in constructing a building at Crown Point. He wanted “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.”
Early plans called for a simple concrete and wood rest stop to serve travelers; a modest structure costing about $17,000. Edgar Lazarus, a Portland architect, designed Vista House in 1915 in the German Art Nouveau style and, thanks to the leadership and inspiration of Portland’s movers and shakers, the indistinct comfort station evolved into the beautiful building of today. The floors, stairs and wainscoting were covered with rare Tokeen Alaskan marble; the interior of the rotunda was lined with creamy, pink Kasota limestone; the inside dome was painted to resemble marble and bronze; gray sandstone was used to face the exterior; green tiles covered the roof; and the upper windows were designed with greenish, opalized glass. Of course, all these improvements and embellishments came with a high price tag, and by the time the building was completed, the costs had soared to over $100,000. County taxpayers who ultimately had to pick up the tab became increasingly disgruntled, leading one local newspaper to refer to the project as “the most expensive comfort station in the world.”
Despite the protests, the building was dedicated on May 5, 1918, amid much hoopla. For years, it served as a rest stop for motorists, a monument to Oregon pioneers, and an architectural treasure on the historic Columbia River Highway. Its location at the highest point along the road also made it vulnerable to the extreme weather conditions of the wind-swept Gorge. Over time, rainwater seeped into the rotunda damaging the marble wainscoting, stained glass windows, and terrazzo floors. Well-intentioned but ill-conceived attempts to weatherproof the structure actually caused more damaged. Vents were covered, windows were replaced with double-pane glass, skylights were covered with concrete. These repairs trapped moisture inside the building and the interior began to deteriorate badly. Crumbling masonry and falling tiles created a danger to visitors and Vista House was closed to the public in 2001.
Fundraising by local public and private agencies including Friends of Vista House and Oregon State Parks Trust helped generate the $4 million needed for repairs. The original daylighting design and natural ventilation systems were restored; a new glazed green tile roof was installed, new energy efficient restrooms and a sanitary system added; stained glass replaced; new interpretive exhibits and security system were added; and the building was made ADA accessible for all to enjoy.

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