As you climb the grand staircase of the Pittock Mansion, you can almost picture the family members of a previous century descending in their finery. With a rustle of taffeta and a last-minute straightening of a tie, they might have been on their way to the first-floor music room for a family wedding reception or holiday celebration. As soft music wafted down the hallway, they would make their entrance.
It’s all part of the charm of this 1914 sandstone mansion, with its red clay tile roof, set on a 1,000-foot hill overlooking the city of Portland, Oregon. Despite its grandeur, there is a sense of family here. From the modest size of many rooms to the gardens and cozy hidden nooks, you can visualize real people enjoying this estate.
The original owners, Henry and Georgiana Pittock, were in their 70s when they built the home. Although they died just a few years following completion, family members continued to live here until 1958, according to the Mansion website. The Pittocks had five children.
Today, the home is owned by Portland’s Bureau of Parks and Recreation and operated by the Pittock Mansion Society as a “historic house museum,” said Jennifer Gritt, associate director for the Mansion. Both self-guided and guided tours are available, allowing a look at three floors of this French Renaissance-style, 16,000-square-foot home with its 46 rooms.
One of the most remarkable features of the Pittock Mansion is its architectural design. The home features an oval center with wings coming out at a 45-degree angle, Gritt explained. This maximizes views of Portland, the Willamette River and the Cascade Mountains. There are also interesting rounded rooms, such as a cozy sitting room and a smoking room. A picturesque breakfast nook sits in a 45-degree angled wing.
It appears that Henry Pittock spared no expense in building his mansion on the hill. With a fortune amassed from ownership of The Oregonian newspaper, plus interests in paper mills, banks, transportation, the lumber industry and real estate, it was possible to add many features. There are marble floors, oak-paneled cabinets, lovely cornices and coved ceilings.
The home was forward-thinking in many ways, boasting an elevator, a dumbwaiter, intercom system, recessed lighting and central vacuum system. Since 1974, it has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some Pittock family furniture, including Eastlake secretaries and beds, Thomas Hill paintings, and a grand piano still grace the rooms. From what staff members can learn, however, many of the original furnishings were not very elaborate, Gritt said. Renovation efforts were completed with donated and purchased furnishings representing styles ranging from Federal to Eastlake and French Revival.
Like other grand homes of its era, the Pittock Mansion fell on hard times. It was left abandoned, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after a grandson and his father who had lived in the house moved out and tried to sell it, according to the mansion website. Then, in 1962, a storm caused considerable damage. Purchase by the city of Portland in 1964 saved the home from demolition. After extensive renovation, the it was opened to the public in 1965.
Restoration of the gardens included the planting of multiple varieties of rose bushes, rhododendrons, magnolia trees, camellias and other regional flowers that add beauty to this 46-acre site, Gritt said. In part, this is a tribute to Georgiana, who loved gardening and helped found the Portland Rose Society.
There are rumors that the spirits of the Pittocks still haunt the premises, according to an article by Aimee Lamoureux on the website All That’s Interesting. She relates episodes of visitors “seeing windows shutting and latching on their own, the sounds of heavy footsteps, and a portrait of Henry Pittock moving around the house.” However, Lamoureux said “reports seem to indicate the ghosts are far from malicious.” Indeed, she suggests that “the Pittocks’ spirits still remain in their home, welcoming guests and enjoying the beautiful views.”
Gritt has a different perspective. “In the years of operating as a museum, no staff member has reported experiencing anything,” she said. “Our understanding is that a staff member was moving Henry’s picture as a prank.”
Through the years, the Pittock Mansion has been featured in movies ranging from 1977’s “First Love” with Susan Dey to 1993’s “Body of Evidence” with Madonna and Willem Dafoe. It was also chosen as the finish line for the 2008 season of the TV game show, “The Amazing Race.”
Now, more than 100,000 visitors tour the mansion each year, Gritt said. In addition to daily tours, numerous special events are scheduled. There are architectural tours with a focus on building materials for the mansion and the skill of architect Edward Foulkes. There are also “behind-the-scenes” tours which include a look at areas such as the third-floor servants’ quarters, Henry Pittock’s private den and basement passages. Seasonal decorations deck the halls during “A Pittock Mansion Christmas,” an annual holiday celebration which features live music, scheduled this year for Nov. 25 through Jan. 5.
In keeping with an earlier time, people still love to dress up for special occasions such as member previews for exhibits and other annual events, Gritt said.
“We have groups of people who really love this era and they will come up in period costume,” she observed. For example, at an annual Antique Autos on the Lawn car show, participants “will be in Victorian-style dress, or jazz age/flapper style,” perhaps, “based on the year of their car.”
So, what would Henry and Georgiana Pittock think of the continuing saga of their beloved home?
“They would appreciate that we keep the story going,” Gritt said. As active participants in Portland’s civic life, “I think they would have appreciated that now their home has become a part of Portland community engagement.”