Architect for a Golden Age
How A.E. Doyle transformed the face of Portland
In 1910, the trustees of the Reed Institute organized a committee to conduct a search for a key position: an architect to design the fledgling college.
For Reed, the choice would have momentous consequences. The architect would not only design the buildings in which students and professors would work and live, but also determine the tone of the campus, and, to some degree, the character of the college itself. For local architects, the Reed College job promised to be one of the most significant projects of the early 20th century. It was to be the first nonsectarian, private college in Oregon and only the second college in Portland. The architect would enjoy a generous budget and have the opportunity to design an entire campus.
In the hope of winning the contract, one ambitious Portland architect, Ellis Lawrence, convinced a friend of a friend in Maine to write a letter of recommendation to Reed’s new president, William T. Foster, a former Bowdoin College professor. Despite this stellar recommendation, however, Lawrence and four other prominent Portland architects lost out to a 33-year-old prodigy named Albert Ernest Doyle.
In many ways, Doyle was an unlikely candidate. The son of an alcoholic carpenter who lurched from one job site to the next, Doyle grew up in a working-class Portland neighborhood and left school after eighth grade. Nonetheless, he would eventually leave an indelible stamp on the city’s landscape—a fascinating story recounted by Philip Niles ’63 in Beauty of the City: A.E. Doyle, Portland’s Architect (Oregon University Press, 2008).
Ever since his first days at Reed, Niles had admired Doyle’s buildings (he lived in Westport his freshman year). As a boy in Oak Grove, just south of Portland, he had also admired many other local buildings: the Central Library, the Meier & Frank building, a convent at Marylhurst; but it was not until he began work on his book that he learned something that astonished him. “I discovered that all these things were Doyle’s,” he says.
Indeed, one of the biggest surprises of the book is the sheer number of architectural gems Doyle created in his short 21-year career. The National Register of Historical Places currently recognizes 37 of Doyle’s buildings. Doyle designed three of Portland’s four department stores, the Central Library, and the U.S. National Bank building. He designed the cast for Portland’s iconic bronze “Benson Bubblers,” four-pronged drinking fountains meant to promote temperance. He was also responsible for the Multnomah Falls Lodge, and for four coastal cabins in Neahkahnie, Oregon, that were a major influence on the development of the Northwest Regional style. In Portland, Doyle single-handedly popularized the use of white-glazed terra cotta and the tripartite style, in which buildings were visually divided into three parts—the base, staff, and cap. “The caps made Portland look like Rome on the hills,” Niles says. Indeed, Doyle was largely responsible for the transformation of Portland from rough-hewn pioneer town to sophisticated, gleaming metropolis.
In Beauty of the City, Niles compares Portland’s development as a city with Doyle’s coming of age as an architect, for Doyle’s career coincided almost perfectly with Portland’s “golden age,” a period of economic and cultural development that lasted from 1905, the date of the great Lewis and Clark Exposition, until the Great Depression.