Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, OR

Exterior:  Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, OR

Building History

The Pioneer Courthouse is the oldest extant federal building in the Pacific Northwest. Design began in 1869 during Alfred B. Mullett's (1834-1890) term as the Supervising Architect of the Treasury (1866-1874). Although similar in design to other work by Mullett, two local men, E.B. St. John and John H. Holman, contributed to the building's appearance. Completed in 1875, the Pioneer Courthouse presents a dignified Italianate design following the precedents of civic architecture in both San Francisco and Portland.

In 1869 the Portland City Council authorized Mayor Hamilton Boyd to sell Block 172 to the U.S. Government for $15,000. At the time, the federal government was criticized for locating the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office so far from the center of town. The building cost $396,500 to construct and was officially completed on October 1, 1875. The Pioneer Courthouse was designed to accommodate all necessary offices and services of the Federal Government in Portland. It housed the U.S. Post Office on the first floor and the Federal Court on the second floor. Other offices included U.S. Customs Service and the Assessor and Collection offices of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The third floor contained adjunct offices, while the basement was used for employee facilities and storage.

In 1902 the U.S. Congress approved $200,000 for remodeling and a large addition. The addition by Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor doubled the size of the basement and first floor and created two wings at the second and third floors. The infamous Oregon Land Fraud trials of 1904 were held in the building. Special Federal prosecutor Francis Heney brought 33 criminals to justice, charging Senator John H. Mitchell and Representative John Williamson with plundering Federal lands, state school lands, and the timber resources of the Siletz Indian Reservation.

In 1933 the U.S. Post Office and Federal Court moved to new quarters at SW Broadway and Main Streets. The building was renamed the Pioneer Post Office and re-opened in early 1937 as a branch postal station. In 1973, after a major rehabilitation for use by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the building was dedicated as the Pioneer Courthouse. The Pioneer Courthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.


With its dramatic three-story, classical facade and cupola, the Pioneer Courthouse is the focal point of the Pioneer Square Plaza in downtown Portland. Mullet's original Italianate design for the building consisted of a rectangular plan and symmetrical exterior. The sandstone faced Courthouse is elevated on its site at the center of a full city block. The park-like setting surrounding the Courthouse is landscaped with mature trees, some of which were planted at the time of construction in 1873.

Each elevation has a projecting bay capped with a classical pediment. These bays were centered on the facade before the 1902 expansion. The first story has rusticated pilasters that flank segmental arched openings. A stone stringcourse separates the first floor from the second and third floors. Smooth Doric pilasters resting on the stringcourse span the second and third floors. Fenestration consists of tall, narrow windows capped with cornices supported by brackets on the second floor and small, simple square windows on the third floor. Crowning the hipped roof are eight stone chimneys and an octagonal wood cupola with arched windows.

Pioneer Courthouse is faced with smooth-cut, Bellingham sandstone from the Roth Stone quarryin Chuckanut, Washington, with abase course of rough-faced Tenino sandstone. Original walls are constructed of basalt squares and rectangles in a broken ashlar pattern with a Tenino sandstone cap. Sandstone and basalt were used for the basement walls, which are over four feet thick in places. The structure of the building above the basement is brick, stone, old growth timber, and steel (from the 1905 addition).

During the major expansion and remodeling between 1902 and 1905, wings consistent with the original design were added to the west elevation, and significant first floor interior modifications were undertaken. The original entry hall was extended to the south facade and a side lobby and registry were added. A new terrazzo and marble bordered floor replaced the original black and white "American" tiles. The original plaster cornice, as well as the grand stair at the north end of the lobby, were retained. The project introduced steel I-beams, cast iron columns, and modern electrical, lighting, and heating systems into the building. The volume of the two-story courtroom remained intact, but was richly refurbished. The courtroom is articulated vertically with colossal Doric pilasters grouped in pairs on the east and west sides and singularly on the north and south sides. A massive entablature, complete with dentil course over the triglyph blocks above each pilaster, frames the ornamental ceiling.

In 1973 the U.S. General Services Administration undertook a major interior rehabilitation project to prepare the building for the U.S. Court of Appeals and as a branch station of the U.S. Post Office. A new east-west central corridor and new post office lobby were created in the former workroom. Non-original materials in the main lobby of the post office were replaced with windows, doors, and paneling to match original finishes. The office spaces on the second and third floors were reconfigured to provide additional offices for judges and clerical staff, hearing rooms, and support areas. In 2002 work commenced on another major rehabilitation and restoration of the building. Major objectives of this rehabilitation include the modernization of systems, seismic retrofitting, and the restoration and maintenance of the "boldness and the elegance of the original building design."

Significant Events

1869-1875: The U.S. Government purchases land from Portland for $15,000 and proceeds to build the U.S. Courthouse and Custom House.

1902: The U.S. Congress approves $200,000 plans for renovation and an addition to the west elevation.

1934: The U.S. Courthouse is vacated.

1937: The building reopens as a branch postal station and is renamed the Pioneer Post Office.

1939: The U.S. Congress authorizes the construction of a twenty-story Federal building on the site, but plans never materialize.

1969-1973: The building undergoes a major exterior and interior restoration to house the U.S. Court of Appeals and Post Office branch station.

1973: The building is renamed Pioneer Courthouse and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1977: The Pioneer Courthouse is designated a National Historic Landmark.

2002: A major restoration/rehabilitation project is initiated.

Building Facts

Architects: Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Construction Dates: 1869-1875

Addition 1902-1905

Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 520 Southwest Morrison Street

Architectural Style: Italianate

Primary Materials: Bellingham and Tenino sandstone

Prominent Features: Octagonal wood cupola

Mullett's original design for the Pioneer Courthouse was an Italianate composition with a rectangular plan, with a biaxially symmetrical exterior. In elevation, the center three bays on each side project slightly and are capped with a classical pediment. The first story has rusticated pilasters that terminate in a belt cornice and segmental arch openings, both of which rest on the low building base. The second and third stories are grouped and defined by Roman Doric pilasters and entablatures. The tall, narrow second story wood windows are headed with a projecting cornice supported by consoles. The third floor windows are simplified square openings. The hip and gable roof is crowned by an octagonal wood cupola with arched windows and eight stone chimneys. The sandstone faced courthouse is elevated on its site at the center of a full city block. The site is landscaped with grass and trees, some of which were planted in 1873. Low stone walls with wrought iron fence enclose the property and line the site steps.

The courthouse is faced with smooth cut, fine jointed Bellingham sandstone from the Roth stone quarry in Chuckanut, Washington, with a base course of Tenino sandstone having a rough rock face. Original site walls are constructed of basalt squares and rectangles laid in a broken ashlar pattern with a Tenino sandstone cap. Sandstone and basalt were used for the basement walls which are over four feet thick in places. The structure of the building above the basement is brick, stone, old growth timber and steel (in the 1905 addition) and can be best seen in the basement and the attic. (The origins of the sandstone are not totally clear. Some sources say from Bellingham, others say it was quarried in Toledo, Oregon and cut and finished in Portland. A 1908 book "Stones for building and decoration" notes a quarry in 1879 in Douglas, County had a fine bluegray sandstone. Also noted in a sandstone quarry 14 miles from Portland in Clackamas open in 1866 and the fine-grained sandstone was "used in some prominent structures in Portland.")

The major addition and renovation in 1905 nearly doubled the first floor area to the west and added wings at the second and third floors. The design and construction matched the original exterior in every way, and forms an overall complete composition. The addition altered the first floor interior significantly. The original entry hall was extended to the south facade and a side lobby and registry were added. This public lobby was refinished with new terrazzo and marble bordered floors (replacing the original alternating black "Belgian" and white "American" tiles), wood wainscot and wood pilasters. Original plaster cornice and ceiling trim were retained where possible. The original grand stairway at the north end of the lobby was retained. A large open post office workroom in the addition area totally reconfigured the original office spaces. At the second and third floors, fewer changes were made, aside from those necessitated by the addition of the wings. The two story courtroom remained intact, but was richly refurbished. The current elevator cab dates to this period. The 1905 project introduced steel I beams and cast-iron columns and included a new oil-fired steam heating system, new electrical power and lighting system, and the elevator.

The 1973 rehabilitation to accommodate the U.S. Court of Appeals and Bankruptcy Courts was a major interior project. The post office windows and doors were removed from the main lobby and were replaced with paneling to match existing. A new east-west central corridor and new post office lobby were created in part of the former large post office open workroom. Materials and details for this space closely matched the 1905 work. The second and third floor office spaces were reconfigured to provide necessary judge's offices, hearing rooms, clerical staff and support area. The revisions matched the existing original (1875) details. New toilet rooms, a code-required enclosed second stair and exitway, and elevator shaft wall were constructed. A complete new electrical system was installed, including wiring and lighting fixtures (no original fixtures existed). A new air conditioning and ventilation system was added and a fire sprinkler system started.

The main goal of the 2005 renovation was to provide structural resistance to anticipated earthquake forces. In addition, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems were upgraded; security systems were installed; parking and associated vehicular access was provided in the basement level; and interior finishes were improved. Original color schemes were re-established as part of the interior improvements. The main building entrance at the west elevation on SW 6th Avenue, opposite Pioneer Courthouse Square, was improved, including reconstruction of the exterior stair and ramp, and construction of a new matching ramp, all with historically-appropriate handrails. The entry vestibule was enlarged and improved, with new security metal-detecting equipment and upgraded finishes. The former post office lobby was upgraded to serve as the main building lobby, and the old postal work room was renovated into a law library.

In 2007-2010 further restoration was accomplished including a new roof and skylight, restoration of the cupola and exterior stone conservation. Multiple layers of lead paint were stripped from cupola exposing a sandcoat finish. After minor wood repairs were finished and the cupola vented, several layers of primer and undercoat were applied. On top of this a sandcoat finish completed the historical restoration.

The sandstone was spalling and degrading. Research showed Dekosit covering was applied in 1970. As was PermaBond D. And a final sealer coat of Perma-Morotex waterproofing. State of the art at the time, these sealing layers it is believed hastened deterioration as they didn't permit the stone to breath. After extensive lab tests and consultation with NPS, a methodology of hand and machine honing the building facade would help water absorption to the stone and stop the spalling. Extensive patching and repointing was also finished. The final job was to effect a Dutchman repair of 70 ft of belt course at the NE corner of the first floor. Matching the sandstone proved difficult. Wallace Sandstone from Nova Scotia was deemed the best match.

The Pioneer Courthouse is widely considered the most historically-significant building in the Pacific Northwest. It is the oldest federal building in the region and the second oldest federal courthouse west of the Mississippi River. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places March 20, 1973 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

In the 1860's, Judge Matthew Deady, the first territorial judge, requested that the territorial court be moved from Salem to Portland, thus establishing Portland as the home of the federal court. On February 24, 1869, the Portland City Council authorized the sale of the city block to the United States Government for $15,000, and construction on the building began the same year. The project ultimately cost $611,165 and required six Congressional Acts to finance. The contractor, William Higgins, drew public criticism and an official investigation for requiring almost six years to complete construction at four times the original budget. Construction was finally completed on October 1, 1875.

The building was designed by Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury from 1866 until 1874, during a large building program after the Civil War. Mullett designed the United States Mint in San Francisco at about the same time as Pioneer Courthouse, and was responsible for the north wing of the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.; the State, War and Navy Building (Old Executive Office Building), also in Washington, D.C.; and many other federal structures.

The Italianate style of the Pioneer courthouse is reminiscent of many civic buildings constructed in San Francisco and Portland during the same period, and it set a standard of classical architecture designed to serve the public and instill civic pride. The courthouse building and its surrounding parklike site occupied a full city block in the center of downtown Portland. Trees that were planted in the last years of construction are still standing.

On June 6, 1902, Congress approved a major expansion and interior remodel costing $200,000. The addition nearly doubled the basement and first floor, and created two large new wings at the second and third floors. The design of the addition and improvements continued the style and materials established in the original design. After the renovation, the building's courtroom was the site of the infamous land fraud trials which began in 1904.

The building functioned as a courthouse and post office until Sept. 1933 when both the functions moved to new quarters. The federal government tried to sell the vacant building, but the economic depression failed to produce a buyer. Congress authorized demolition of the building in 1939. In the early 1940's, local merchants sought to buy and raze the building, but the Portland chapter of the American Institute of Architects argued to save the building. A temporary reprieve was achieved between World War II and the Korean War, when the government decided to retain all its resources. In the late 1950's, the federal government again put the building up for sale, but, again, found no buyers. In 1962, Judges John F. Kilkenny and Richard H. Chambers argued to return the circuit court to the building. Their efforts sparked a heated public debate over preservation issues among Portland's architectural community, who considered the building pivotal in efforts to revitalize downtown. Finally, in 1969, GSA authorized restoration of the building, which was extensively renovated in 1973 and again in 2005.

Pioneer Courthouse is one of Portland's most impressive public buildings, occupying a pivotal place in the downtown urban fabric. The main entrance, on the west facade, is directly opposite Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland's main public plaza, where many outdoor public events are planned. Much of the building is open to the public, with many displays of historical events that have taken place within its walls, including visits by Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and William H. Taft. Tourists, students, and citizens visit regularly.

Description Architect
1869 1875 Original Construction Mullett, Alfred B.
1903 1905 Major addition and wings, Interior Rehab James Knox Taylor
1964 Power and Wiring Upgrade
1971 1972 Exterior Restoration Allen McMath Hawkins
1973 1973 Interior Rehabilitation
1975 Cupola and East Entry Restoration
1978 Handicap Access Ramp to Basement
1981 Int Alter; 2nd fl Judge's Chamb, Remove Bankrup Rm
1990 Interior Space Alter for 3rd fl Judge's Chambers GBD Architects
1992 Handicap Access Ramp to Main Level McMath Hawkins Dortignacq
2004 2005 Seismic Retrofit, General Renovations, Basement Parking SERA
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13