Magazine article Sunset

New Life around Portland's Century-Old Park Blocks

Magazine article Sunset

New Life around Portland's Century-Old Park Blocks

Article excerpt

The moment you set foot in the South Park Blocks, you sense Portland's orderly New England heritage. Hundred-year-old elms, leaves bright yellow in autumn, tower above neatly trimmed grass. Cast-iron park benches and heroic bronzes line the walkways bisecting the grounds. Venerable churches and public buildings, handsome structures of basalt, brick, and travertine, face this verdant commons. We think there's no nicer downtown park in any Western city.

But the Park Blocks, donated to the city in 1852 and landscaped in 1877, offer more than architectural remnants of Portland's past; in fact, these days they're filled with youthful vitality. Three new brick apartment buildings blend gracefully with their older neighbors, attracting hundreds of new city dwellers. By day, the blocks fill with residents, museumgoers, and students from adjacent Portland State University.

And no longer is the area-three blocks from central Pioneer Courthouse Square and bordering the downtown shopping and financial districts deserted after 5 o'clock, thanks, primarily, to theater. Live performances are nothing new: a couple of small companies have been based here for several years, and the Schnitzer Concert Hall, at Main Street and Broadway, opened four years ago.

But it was last fall, when the Portland Center for the Performing Arts opened across Main Street, that the area became what it is today: the city's undisputed theater district. And the recent installation of more and brighter period-style lampposts in the Park Blocks themselves has made it even more inviting after dark. The big news this fall is the arrival of Portland Center Stage, an offshoot of the Ashland-based, Tony award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it opens its first season in the performing arts center on November 10, producing five plays over the following four months.

And there's more. The rush of concerts and plays has spawned new restaurants on the district's perimeter. Both the art and history museums are undergoing extensive renovation. Park Blocks businesses, churches, and cultural institutions have banded together to create a new walking-tour guide of the area; you'll find it almost anywhere you stop.

Eclectic seasons at four theaters

With accolades still coming in ftom architectural critics around the country, the new performing arts center, which covers most of a city block, could fill its two theaters for weeks simply with admirers of its design. Brass planets and stars on the ceiling add whimsy to the handsome and otherwise traditional concert-hall look of the 916-seat Intermediate Theatre, now home of Portland Center Stage. Red walls and movable chairs give the 370-seat Winningstad Theatre an innovative flair. Patrons 'shaking off umbrellas welcome the lobby fireplace. On Sundays, free 1 -hour tours of the center and adjacent Schnitzer Concert Hall-home to the Oregon Symphony-begin in the lobby every 1/2-hour, 11 to 1.

All but Artists Repertory perform Tuesdays through Sundays, with two shows Sundays. (Artists Rep performs Thursdays through Sundays.)

Artists Repertory Theatre (503/242-2400) performs in a 110-seat theater at the YWCA, 1111 S.W. 10th Avenue. The company's actors tend to choose new works by regional playwrights. Although the company opens with the off-Broadway hit Pump Boys and Dinettes (through October 1), lesser-known works will fill out its six-play season, which runs till next August. …

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