AKA: Pioneer Post Office, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, OR; Pioneer Courthouse, Post Office and Customs House #1, Pioneer Courthouse Square, Portland, OR

Structure Type: built works - public buildings - courthouses; built works - public buildings - post offices

Designers: Allen, McMath, Hawkins and Associates, Architects (firm); Higgins, William L., Building Contractor (firm); United States Government, Department of the Treasury, Office of the Supervising Architect, Mullett, Alfred B. (firm); United States Government, Department of the Treasury, Office of the Supervising Architect, Taylor, James Knox (firm); Frank Croft Allen (architect); William J. Hawkins ; William L. Higgins ; John H. Holman ; George A. McMath (architect); Alfred Bult Mullett (architect); E. B. St. John (architect); James Knox Taylor (architect)

Dates: constructed 1869-1875

3 stories

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555 SW Yamhill Street
SW Portland, Portland, OR 97204-1336

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Other addresses have been used for the Pioneer Courthouse including 700 SW 6th Avenue, Portland, OR.


The Pioneer Courthouse remains the oldest United States Government office in the Pacific Northwest. After the US Civil War, the Federal Government began to expand significantly, triggering a construction boom for Federal office buildings across the country. When built, the three-floor, load-bearing masonry courthouse accommodated six Federal Government entities, including the Post Office, Customs Service and United States District Court for the District of Oregon. Originally, its location was remote from Portland's central business district, which was located much closer to the Willamette River, but commercial buildings soon surrounded the courthouse by 1890. Officials enlarged the courthouse in 1903-1905, in time for Portland's Lewis and Clark Exposition in the latter year, and renovations have occurred in 1971-1973, c. 2002-2009 and c. 2017. Due to its longevity and great importance as a governmental center, the building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977.

Building History

In 1869, the Portland City Council passed legislation to enable Mayor Hamilton Boyd (born c. 1831-died either 03/26/1883 or 1886) to sell to the Federal Government Block 172 within the city's grid for use as a combined courthouse, post office and custom's house. (Originally, Daniel Lownsdale (1803–1862), who bought the land from Portland's founders, Francis Pettygrove [1812-1887] and Asa Lovejoy [1808-1882] in 1848, donated the land to the city for the purpose of established a public market here. The city gained title over the property after litigation disputed its ownership following Lowndale's death in 1862.)

Designed by the Supering Architect of the US Treasury, Alfred B. Mullett (1834-1890), this $396,500 building served the Federal Government's Post Office, Internal Revenue Department, Surveyor General, US Marshall's Office, and the United States District Court for the District of Oregon and its Clerk. Mullett worked with two on-site architects, John H. Holman and E.B. St. John, while the building contractor was William L. Higgins. Construction began in 1869 and was completed about six years later by 10/01/1875. Plentiful local supplies of ash and oak supplied framing, flooring and panelling of the interior. Presumably, though, laboriously numbering and shipping individual building stones from quarries in the Chuckanut, WA, and Tenino, WA, took extensive amounts of time.

Mullett developed a bi-laterally symmetrical, rectangular plan, with entrances on the middles of three sides. One half of the first floor was taken up with space for the post office, an office for the postmaster, and an office for the collector of internal revenue, while the other half accommodated two private offices for the internal revenue collector, an assessor's private office, a general business office of the assessor of internal revenue and a customs room. The second floor contained the 9th District's Courtroom as well as offices for the US Marshall and court clerk.

What offices the third floor accommodated In 1875 is unclear. The 1977 National Register of Historic Places nomination form stated: "In 1875, the third floor did not have permanent tenants." (See Carolyn Pitts, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the US Courthouse, Custom House and Post Office, [Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1977], Item 8, p. 2. An article in the first issue of the publication,West Shore Magazine, said of the third floor: "Passing on to the third story, through various offices and rooms, we again ascend another flight of steps, and find ourselves in a spacious cupola, affording a beautiful bird's-eye view of our young and thriving city.” As noted in this account, "various offices and rooms" occupied this floor, but their inhabitants were not identified. (See Pioneer Courthouse Historical Society, "The Pioneer Courthouse Building," accessed 06/04/2018.) The basement held "...employee facilities and storage." (See General Services Administration, "Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, OR," accessed 06/04/2018.)

A Congressional appropriations bill of 06/06/1902 allocated $200,000 for the construction of two wings on the building's west side. The style of the wings was matched to the Neo-classicism of the original. The General Services Administration stated of this expansion: "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." President Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, Post Master General and Secretary of the Interior signed authorizations to spend this money for construction on 12/17/1902, with construction beginning the next year.

The US Post Office occupied space in the building from 1875 until 1933. It returned to occupy the building as a branch post office from 1937 until 2005. The United States District Court for the District of Oregon utilized space here from 1875 until 1933. In the midst of the Depression, the Federal Government hoped to sell the property to private buyers, but due to the severity of economic slowdown, no one came forward. The US Congress agreed to raze the courthouse in 1939; local business leaders hoped to replace it with a parking garage to serve nearby department stores. World War II and the Korean War distracted offiicials from deciding on the demolition question. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects led efforts to preserve the courthouse, working with such sympathetic legislators as Congresswoman Edith Green (1910-1987) and Senator Mark Hatfield (1922-2011), jurists, such as John Kilkenny (1901-1995) and Richard H. Chambers (1906-1994), and the head of the Oregon Histroical Society, Thomas J.G. Vaughan (1924-2013). In 1969, they succeeded in obtaining Federal funding to renovate the courthouse for use by the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Since 1973, the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has maintained its courtroom and chambers of justices in the building.

Building Notes

The Historic American Buildings Survey reviewed the courthouse in both 1954 and 1964. The first prepared a document entitled, Historic American Buildings Survey Inventory Sheet prepared by Oregon Chapter, American Institute of Architecture, July 10, 1954. The second was titled, Historic American Buildings Survey Photograph-Data Book Report (ORE-52), prepared by Joseph A. Baird, Jr., June 1964.

Since 1875, the same octagonal, wooden cupola has topped the courthouse.


A West Wing was added in 1903-1905 designed by the Architect of the Treasury, James Knox Taylor (1857-1929). The building's stone walls were massive, and the addition of 1903-1905 included the addition of steel I-beams into the mix. The GSA has described the structural system: "Pioneer Courthouse is faced with smooth-cut, Bellingham sandstone from the Roth Stone quarryin Chuckanut, Washington, with a base 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)."

This GSA web site also provided detail about the extent of changes made during 1903-1905: "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." (See General Services Administration, "Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, OR," accessed 06/04/2018.)

The GSA pursued extensive alterations and remodeling the courthouse's interior and exterior between 1971 and 1973. According to the GSA, this work included: "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." (See General Services Administration, "Pioneer Courthouse, Portland, OR," accessed 06/04/2018.) The Portland architectural firm of Allen, McMath, Hawkins and Associates,Architects, supervised the 1971-1973 renovation, with George A. McMath (1931-2007) servings a partner-in-charge.

The significance of the Pioneer Courthouse's renovation cannot be overstated in the history of historic preservation in Oregon. The University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Environment has written of McMath's contribution on this project: "In 1970, he was responsible for the restoration and adaptive reuse of Portland’s precedent-setting Pioneer Courthouse. The courthouse, originally completed in 1875, was the first restoration project by the U.S. government in the Northwest, and the positive response to its restoration led to preservation of other historic properties in downtown Portland." (See University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Environment, "George McMath 1959, Bachelor of Architecture '59, The Father of Preservation in Oregon," accessed 08/24/2018.)

Work on the exterior of the Pioneer Courthouse took place in 06/2009. The General Services Adminiistration also undertook exterior renovations and improvements in 08/2017.

National Register of Historic Places: 73001582 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

National Historic Landmark: ID n/a

PCAD id: 13777