Get Involved
Contact Us

Friends of the Reservoirs


September 22, 2004

Mount Tabor Park Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

On September 22, 2004, Mount Tabor Park was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, following the Reservoirs' Listing in the National Register in January, 2004.

Tradition of Citizen Involvement Carries On Into This Century
Mount Tabor Park got its designation as a public park because of public involvement in the last century and now it gets its deserving place in the National Register of Historic Places thanks to current citizen activism.

The community was inspired to action due to the highly controversial reservoir replacement project that would have assured massive changes for Mount Tabor Park, including a new road to accommodate heavy construction vehicles, removal of the historic nursery to be used as a construction staging area and the demolition of the historic reservoirs. Public outcry and a City appointed panel cancelled the contract for the reservoir project in July, 2004.

Mount Tabor Park, a 196 acre volcanic butte, is noted as an important regional park by the City, but has been prone to adverse effects by zoning changes in the past. In the mid 1990's, the park lost about 5 acres on the southwest corner when the City sold that area to a private developer.

Current citizen activists commend those from the last century who lobbied hard to get Mount Tabor, and other land, allocated and developed into public parks. Without citizen involvement, Portland would not have the distinction of being a city of parks.

Listing Does Not Guarantee Protection - Current Historic Resources Code Review Underway
Unfortunately, although a listing in the National Register of Historic Places is the highest designation given in the City, it does not afford Mount Tabor Park, or any other historic resource, protection from demolition. This listing will provide the park with the City's Type III land use review that requires public process before certain changes can be undertaken.

Currently the City is engaged in a review of the Historic Resources Code and City Council could vote to give itself authorization to deny demolition permits for resources listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

City Hall Stalls Listing
In order for the nation to keep a record and, hopefully, to preserve its history, the National Register of Historic Places is designed to allow any citizen or agency to submit a nomination. Using a formalized process, a nomination goes through a rigorous review process starting with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) who helps to guide the organization of the nomination. It is sent to the State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (SACHP), appointed by the Governor, for their review, and then that committee votes on whether to forward the nomination on to the National Parks Service who will also review it and either deny or approve it for the National Register listing.

The nomination for Mount Tabor Park was forwarded to SHPO in December, 2003. Voting on the nomination by the SACHP was bumped from February to May, 2004 due to an objection by City Commissioner Jim Francesconi. As Commissioner in charge of Portland Parks and Recreation, he wrote to the State Historic Preservation Office complaining that the City was short-changed three of its 60 days to review the nomination. At their May meeting, members of the SACHP unanimously voted to forward the nomination on to the National Parks Service administered by the Secretary of the Interior. (The reservoir nominations also received an unanimous vote of approval from the SACHP last year.)

Brief Historical Review Of Mount Tabor Park And Portland Park Development
In 1903, the Mount Tabor butte was identified as prime park land by John Charles Olmsted, son of the esteemed Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of NYC's Central Park and many of the most famous American landscapes. The Olmsted firm was instrumental in establishing the profession of landscape design at Harvard University. Due to citizen activism, Olmsted had been retained to plan the site for the Lewis and Clark Worlds Columbian Exposition that Portland hosted in 1905. He also toured the City's less developed regions to help develop a park plan. Many of Olmsted's recommendations have come to fruition which has helped Portland achieve recognition as a city of parks.

Mount Tabor Park is eligible for inclusion to the National Register of Historic Places because it is one of Portland's first parks and its history dovetails into the national story of park development. In the early 1900's, citizen activists, in the form of what were known as "push clubs," clamored for the 643 foot Mount Tabor butte to become an official park. The citizen-led efforts, coupled with the siting of four of the City's drinking water reservoirs, prompted much of the Mount Tabor park land, that was later identified as a volcano, to be purchased by the City in 1909.

The design of the scenic driveway system and other park amenities are attributed to Emanuel T. Mische, a premier landscape designer, horticulturist and former employee of the Olmsted firm in Massachusetts. He established the nursery, still an important resource, on the southern flank of Mount Tabor to serve all of Portland's parks and public landscapes when he became park superintendent in 1907. Mische's assistant, Charles Keyser, served as park superintendent for over 40 years and helped to keep Mount Tabor's forested, rural feel as called for in the initial design. As Olmsted predicted, Mount Tabor Park has become a very important resource - a well-used and highly visible historic landmark in the City of Portland that provides scenic vistas, protected in the City's Scenic Resource Protection Plan.

Though Portland has a park-friendly reputation, documents reveal a more complicated picture. By far, citizen activism was a driving force to keep city government on the task of providing public parks. At the turn of the 20th century, Portland lagged behind many other cities in the nation in park acquisition though the region was experiencing burgeoning growth. Many in the business and political arena felt that Portland didn't need extensive park land since it was surrounded by a huge "forest park." Difficult economic times and voter attitudes defeated early park levies. It took the vision and the efforts of citizens to get John Charles Olmsted to the City in the first place. His visit was justified by the political and business community to help design the 1905 exposition grounds at Guild's Lake in what became the land-filled industrial area northwest of downtown. Park Board members made sure to take him touring and to get his input on potential park land and his Report to the Park Board in 1903 has continued to be one of the most important city documents for park development. Interestingly, it was not until 1947, after many years of citizen clamor, that the City finally approved Forest Park and boosted the City's park acreage into an area of national distinction. It was failed development of the land, due to rough economics and rough geography, that saved what we now call Forest Park, one of the largest city parks in the world.

More About Portland's Current Historic Resource Design Review in Progress
A debate is raging over whether or not the City Council should have the authority to deny demolition of resources listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Presently, even if a building or other resource is listed on the National Register, only review is insured, not protection. Other cities around the globe provide protection for their most important historic resources. It is difficult to imagine a visit to Washington, D.C., London or Venice without their famous landmarks. Some influential developers do not want to see anyone be able to deny demolition. Preservationists note that within the City of Portland, demolitions of historic buildings have increased by over 30% since 1996. Nine buildings on the National Register have been destroyed between 1996 and 2002. The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions found that nationwide at least 274 jurisdictions, such as Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Jacksonville, Oregon, can deny demolition permits for historic resources;195 can delay the permit and 76 can do both.

The Historic Resources Code review is currently in progress at City Hall. On October 6, many people testified in favor of the City Council having the ability to deny demolition and some, including developers, subcontractors of developers along with some property owners, argued that demolition denial was to restricting. Testimony pointed out that over 300 jurisdictions in the nation are able to deny demolition. Although called demolition denial, the fine print says that owners can plead for demolition if denying demolition will deprive them of income from the property, so in essence, risk still exists for historic resources even if the historic resource code amendment package passes into ordinance. An interesting piece of the dialog includes the creation of a new Type IV landuse review. For more information or to read the actual code go to: Portland Bureau of Planning or contact Nicholas Starin, 503-823-5837, nstarin@ci.portland.or.us.