Architect for a Golden Age
At the turn of the 20th century, Portland enjoyed great prosperity from the timber industry. What had once been a local market had become a national one, and demand for lumber was putting Portland on the map. In an attempt to distinguish their city from other West Coast contenders such as Seattle, Tacoma, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Portland’s leaders held the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition. Despite the fair’s success, it called attention to the shabbiness of some of Portland’s institutions. The city had only two first-class hotels, one department store, and no skyscrapers. The Art Museum, which had opened only a few months before, held no original works of art in its collection—only plaster copies of famous sculptures. If Portland were to become a true metropolis, it had to overcome its humble frontier origins and emulate New York, Chicago, and the great cities of Europe.
Doyle’s career coincided with this civic hunger for ambitious architecture. As a teenager, Doyle had begun work as an apprentice in the prominent architectural firm Whidden & Lewis. In 1900, his parents divorced, and Doyle lived with his mother and three siblings; he and his two brothers used their earnings to support the family. By this time, Doyle had risen through the ranks at Whidden & Lewis to become a valuable draftsman.
Doyle designed Portland’s iconic drinking fountains, known as “Benson bubblers,” at the behest of abstemious lumber baron Simon Benson, who hoped they would promote temperance.
During the early 20th century, architects like Doyle learned their craft on the job. Professional credentials such as degrees or certificates were largely irrelevant; experience was everything. With his friend Harry Wentz, Doyle cofounded the Portland Sketch Club for those interested in improving their drawing skills. In 1901, Doyle took a leave of absence from Whidden & Lewis to work in New York City with architect Henry Bacon, a mentor whose friendship and interest in classical forms left an indelible mark on the young Doyle. He also audited some classes at Columbia University, but that was the extent of his formal training.
Returning to Portland, Doyle continued to work as a draftsman. In order to make the leap to architect, he embarked on a six-month tour of Europe in 1906—a trip meant to expose him to great art, culture, and architecture. Doyle had learned how to draw through experience, but in Europe he hoped to gain insight and inspiration. “He thought knowing more art would make him a better artist,” Niles says. “Doyle was not well educated, but very learned.” Doyle was more impressed by the traditional than by the contemporary. He hated most of the newer architecture in London but was charmed by the thatched-roof cottages of the English countryside. He loved the simplicity of ancient Greek architecture, but rejected Paris as “too modern.”
It was in Florence where Doyle struck up a conversation with a fellow tourist who turned out to be one of Portland’s most prominent citizens, Unitarian minister Thomas Lamb Eliot. This accidental encounter would have far-reaching consequences for Doyle’s career. Eliot was so impressed with the young man that he gave Doyle his first real assignment: to design a small commercial building in Hood River, Oregon.
Back in Portland, Doyle established his own firm, Doyle & Patterson, with engineer William B. Patterson. His first big break occurred in 1909, when Sigmund Frank, co-owner of the Meier & Frank department store, hired him to design an annex next to the original store. Frank asked Doyle to adorn the exterior with glazed terra cotta, a sturdy and relatively inexpensive ceramic, which is ideal for molding into fine, ornamental detail. Frank wanted to echo the style of New York’s and Chicago’s latest department stores, some of which used glazed terra cotta. Doyle took the suggestion and ran with it, creating a distinct style, incorporating classical themes and the tripartite motif.