Front Avenue, 1939

In 1941, the Oregon Art Project of the Works Project Administration wrote Portland’s Commissioner of Public Works and proposed that this photo of Portland’s Front Avenue be the basis of a painting for his office. The photo was taken two years earlier by Minor White (1908-1976), then employed as “creative photographer” for Oregon’s Federal Art Project, looking south from the Burnside Bridge. The painting apparently was not made before the WPA closed down, so White’s photograph preserved a view that was soon lost when the buildings were demolished and Harbor Drive opened. White went on to a distinguished career in photography, teaching, and writing. He and others included this iconic view in later retrospectives of his work, but its presence at PARC reminds us of its New Deal origins.


Our guest contributor, Dr. Kenneth Hawkins, compiled the first archival inventory of Minor White’s WPA negatives at the Oregon Historical Society in 1979, before moving (as did White) from Portland to Rochester, New York, to pursue photography and studies. He joined the National Archives in 1993. Recently he has updated the inventory and mapped it to White materials in other repositories, now including PARC.


City of Portland Archives, Oregon, A2001-008.202

City of Portland Archives, Oregon, A2001-008.202


View this image in Efiles by clicking here.

22 thoughts on “Front Avenue, 1939

  1. I love this picture. It has a strange, eerie feeling to it. Almost could be a back street scene of London; it conjures up thoughts of Dickens.

  2. Beautiful photo! With all respect, I’m not so sure it’s accurate to blame Roosevelt’s New Deal on the destruction of these buildings. The seeds for the destruction of this district began in the 1920’s. A combination of the new Burnside bridge, the new seawall and the general decline in this area as a business district had more to do with the loss of these buildings. The city wanted Harbor drive widened. Federal funds were used to get the job done, but the planning and implementation were local. Regardless, I’m sure we all agree it’s a tragic loss.

  3. Thank you for sharing this photo. I think the picture makes more sense if, as the photo title suggests, this is the view NORTH from the Burnside bridge, rather than South.

  4. It was great to find this print at PARC and confirm its provenance from the WPA to the city. Thanks to the staff there for scanning it and letting me write a guest post about it.

    This appears to be one of only two contemporaneous prints of this exact photo (the other is at White’s archive at Princeton University Art Museum and there are several close variants of it). The location of the original negative is still to be determined.

  5. This is a phenomenal photo, and I am proud to say its

    To add more on the destruction of these buildings, I agree with Mike Slama, the destruction of these was really brought forth from many factors: Expanding urbanization and economic land use affects; the movement for ‘Modernism’ (and the automobile) in the 20th century; the fact that these 50-60 year-old buildings had in some part served their purpose and were in need of expensive repairs and construction code upgrades.

    Thankfully some have been preserved when the trends and economic affects made it feasible to save the ones that are left, though often in vastly different use configurations.

    The preservation issue is a fairly complex, and we are fortunate that is recognized today, and hopefully more comprehensive actions can be made to integrate sound practices into our cities.

  6. I would submit that this photo is facing south, as Front St. follows the natural course of the river. Were the image facing north, the curve would be to the left, not the right, and the Steel Bridge would likely be in view.

  7. The building on the far left side of the street, partly hidden by utility poles, is the New Market Theater, which extended east-west between Front and First (and still does, minus its north and south wings). In the photo, the street curvature along the face of the Theater identifies the street/avenue as First, not Front.

  8. There are some similarities, but that is incorrect, Mr. Hard.

    The buildings are as follows:
    Left side:

    Johnson Building

    *Ankeny Street*

    Dodd Block
    Cooks’ Building
    Ankeny & Watson Building
    Central Block

    *Ash Street*

    Oregon Steam Navigation Co. Block

    *Pine Street*

    Starr Block (aka Dolph & Thompson Block)

    Right side:

    Dekum & Reed Block

    *Ankeny street*

    Former site of Bank of British Columbia (demolished 1928) Now Ankeny Plaza/Square

    *Vine Street*

    Former site of adjoined Ankeny and Lewis & Flanders Blocks (demolished around 1935-36).

  9. Ken, you might check with the Multnomah County Library regarding other Minor White prints of old Portland. They had an exhibit in the third floor lobby several years ago.

  10. Thanks, I’ve checked the library holdings in the Wilson Room: it is the earliest intact print portfolio of White’s Portland photographs, deposited there in June 1939. It includes a variant of this photo looking south along Front from the Burnside Bridge (the original PARC description says looking north but is in error). As you noted, all of these buildings are accurately identified by Hawkins (no relation) and others, and Bruce identified the other telling indicator which is the curve of the street.

    Also, if it was looking north, the sun would have been coming from the northeast, judging by the telltale shadows on the cobblestones. It’s looking south on a late February afternoon, with the sun streaming through an otherwise overcast cloud bank.

  11. I would say the seeds destruction were planted with the seawall. Front Ave was now landlocked and the entire reason for the buildings was water commerce and once that was gone they had lost their purpose. The other factors mentioned in the above posts also factor in. I love old buildings and and it heartbreaking that they were destroyed in the name “progress”. At least have the pictures to savor..

  12. OK, I yield to Jim on the building ID and on the street being Front. Thank you for setting the record straight.

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