This is my second week in Portland, and already I am intrigued by the city’s vibrant music culture and its history. While searching to learn more about the city’s central musical sites, I discovered the story of the Marquam Building…
Like many great operas, this story opens with a glorious and stunning entrance and closes with only the most spectacular of tragedies. Set the scene in Portland, Oregon in January 1890. As the glow and sparkle of New Year’s celebrations fade, Portland shifts its attention and anticipation to a new beginning. A crowd gathers on the corner of Morrison Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in the early morning of January 28, “an unusual thing,” reports the Morning Oregonian, “to see a line of staid and sober citizens waiting for a business house to open as early as 6 o’clock in the morning.” Dollars in hand, they steal glances up through the grey fog at the newly-constructed towering brick building. We cue the overture, and the curtain rises.
The Marquam Building, an early Portland skyscraper, is the title character of this operatic story. Fitting, that it also housed Portland’s first opera house, the Marquam Grand Opera (renamed the Orpheum Theater in 1908) from 1890 until 1912. The wealthy judge and lifelong Portland resident Philip A. Marquam oversaw its construction. It stood an impressive eight stories tall at 335 Morrison Street, currently 621 SW Morrison. Considered the finest theater on the West coast, it attracted many musical celebrities, including nationally recognized Emma Juch and her English Opera Company, over the course of its brief 22 years.
The eagerly anticipated opening was delayed due to the late arrival of 1000 chairs, but the throngs that formed outside the Marquam in the early mornings to purchase their $1 or $2 tickets had to wait only a week. The opera finally hosted its premiere show on February 10, 1890: Gounod’s Faust. The show itself could not have upstaged the long-awaited unveiling of the interior of the theater. “The electric lights, 800 in number, will be in full blast,” promised the Morning Oregonian, and “[the audience] will be fully compensated for their first disappointment by the dazzling display of beauty and elegance which will greet their eyes.” Blue and amber drapes adorned the walls, an impressive 1,442 seats filled the floor, and for a hefty $15 or $20, audience members could have the luxury of watching from domed boxes. House rules were strict: visible signage inside the theater prohibited catcalls, whistling, and stomping of feet, and a bouncer enforced these policies. The opera, with its ornate splendor, large audience capacity, professional music, and frequent shows, was to become the core of the new commercial downtown center of the growing city.
The Marquam Grand Opera was certainly the star of this turn-of-the-century show: “It is a handsome nine-story structure, built of modern brick and steel, fireproof throughout and tastefully ornamented with stone.” Handsome, indeed, but this testimony written in 1911 could not predict the catastrophe that was about to (quite literally) fall the following year.
It was an early dawn in November 1912, reminiscent of our opening scene but without the quiet anticipation of an attentive crowd; in fact, no one was expecting the impending disaster. At 4 AM, three lower (and thankfully, empty) floors of the Marquam Building collapsed without warning. The few people in the building quickly evacuated before the second crash at 11 AM, when the remaining floors succumbed to an identical fate. Luckily, there were no injuries, but the imposingly grand Marquam Building now lay across Morrison Street in scattered, irreparable pieces.
There were rumors and contemplations over rebuilding the Marquam Building, but city officials left the plans unfinished and never commenced the reconstruction. The Orpheum company eventually moved the opera to the nearby Bungalow Theater (currently the site of the downtown Nordstrom) to continue their shows in a new building, but the Marquam Grand had delivered its final closing lines. The orchestra sustains, and the curtain falls.
For more information about the Marquam Building, check out the following links:
“Opening Night” and “Wreck of the Marquam Grand” – blog entries by Portland historian Dan Haneckow
“Throngs Gaze As Brick Walls Fall” – article in the Morning Oregonian, November 22, 1912