Portland Union Station is a charmer. The graceful Richardson Romanesque tower that soars overhead, with its still functioning 1890s Seth Thomas clock, and 1940s vintage “Go By Train” neon sign, is unmatched by any of the great united terminals with which the station shares its name. Others are grander, a few are older. But rare is it to find such a spectacular, photogenic survivor of the gaslight era.
“The station has been in continuous use since 1896, but it’s seen only cosmetic improvements in that time,” says Tom Dethloff, an employee of the City of Portland’s general services division, and the building’s superintendent. The station is built primarily of brick and masonry, and its largest alteration was its interior remodel in the 1930s. Undertaken by noted architect Pietro Belluschi—whose last work, the 1983 U.S. Bancorp tower, towers over the station as the tallest building in the city—the remodel provided a more open floor plan for the lobby and public spaces, in part by removing columns, and simplified the interior architecture with generous use of smooth, art-deco marble.
Later improvements made by the Portland Development Commission, which purchased the station for the City of Portland in the late 1980s, have focused on exterior surface improvements such as repointing the bricks, providing nighttime illumination, and landscaping the property.
Many of the roof tiles—actually stamped metal forms and not terra-cotta—have enough holes in them that sunlight shines through. Result? The attic is filled with buckets, a perfect accompaniment to the charring and soot of unremembered fires, and miles upon miles of spider-web electrical and phone cables. Yet, there’s more. What of the crumbling limestone sills? The unstable bricks, just a good earthquake away from fatally cracking? The windowsills?
“They’re rotting; they crumble in your hand. And you can only paint rotten wood so many times,” says Dethloff. When new awnings were recently installed, workers had to remill moldings around a number of the windows in order to provide something substantial upon which to mount them.
Then there’s the wiring. “We were having short circuits and problems all the time. Finally, an electrical engineer suggested arc-fault breakers.” Such breakers would detect when two wires had lost enough insulation to short circuit via an arc. “As soon as we installed them, two or three of them tripped off, and we couldn’t find out why. So those circuits simply got cut out.” There could be any number of causes. It’s quite possible that 90 percent of all the wires that have been installed over the century-plus of the building’s existence are still in place, and some still active. Pre-1960s wiring runs throughout the walls and under the floor in the basement, which station regulars call “the tunnel.” It’s hot and humid from the steam heat piping, and potentially deadly from residue left from a Portland Development Commission effort to remove asbestos insulation. Additional wiring installed later runs through attic spaces, and through surface-and exterior-mounted conduit.
Nobody knows for certain what goes where, as there are no significant wiring diagrams or plans for the structure. This can play real havoc when an outlet burns out: A recent light failure took Dethloff three days to trace back to a small breaker box hidden in an obscure corner of the attic level.
Wiring is one of the factors that limits the marketability of office space on the station’s second and third floors. Because its electrical infrastructure was installed at a time when most offices needed only enough current to power desk lamps, today’s businesses, with computers, faxes, copiers, and other electronic gear, sometimes experience brownouts from overloading the system.
Communications wiring is a similar problem. While many of the phones in the building were wired in the 1970s or since, a handful of lines might date to the primarily abandoned 1940s-era phone junction boxes the Southern Pacific installed in its offices. With so much wiring winding through the building, nobody knows for sure which wires belong to what until a failure occurs and requires a wire trace—and nobody would dare cut out any of the old systems without knowing for certain what the consequences would be. The building did enter the digital era with an upgrade to most of the phone lines to accommodate DSL Internet services, but there is no cable Internet access. “We tried to interest AT&T, but they refused to serve the building,” says Dethloff. “They didn’t want to deal with it.”