From the Archives: History of the Stone House
Macleay Park Shelter
Balch Creek, Portland (A.K.A. Stone House, Witches Castle)
Designed by Ernest F. Tucker, Architect 1929
Research compiled by Brett Schulz, January 1995
An overview of Macleay Park is provided to illuminate this structure's importance as an element within a landscape. The Macleay Park Shelter (hereafter referred to as the "Stone House") was conceived as a rustic manmade counterpoint to the natural beauty of Balch Creek Canyon. It is a work of landscape architecture as well as a work of architecture.
Macleay Park occupies a deep wooded ravine known as Batch Creek Canyon. The creek takes its name from Danford Balch, an early landowner who gained notoriety for being the first man hanged in Oregon. He hid in the woods surrounding Balch Creek for weeks before his capture. His property was sold after his death.
In 1897 Donald Macleay was the owner of what is now Macleay Park. He deeded the property to the City of Portland for use as a park, to avoid paying taxes on what was considered undevelopable land. It was Macleay's wish that the park be logged prior to "improvement," and that the proceeds be divided equally between Good Samaritan and St. Vincent Hospitals.
The Olmsted Brothers
Through the efforts of two early Municipal Park Commissioners, Rev. Thomas Lamb Eliot and Colonel L. L. Hawkins, a movement emerged to preserve the park in its natural state. This vision was crystallized by the 1903 Report of the Park Board by the Olinsted Brothers, world renowned landscape architects, who were commissioned by the City to study and propose improvements to Portland's Park system.
Regarding Macleay Park, the Olmsteds wrote: "the city is most fortunate in possessing this park containing part of the deep, romantic wooded ravine called Balch Canyon." They suggested that "bridges, scats, steps, handrails at dangerous places, and any other absolutely necessary constructions should be substantial, but extremely simple and countrified. They should be mainly as a woodsman builds at places remote from civilization."
The evolution of the park might have been serene from that point forward were it not for the appearance in 1905 of one Lafe Pence, a real estate speculator from Denver. Pence proposed terracing the hills above Willamette Heights and filling Guilds Lake with earth washed down through Balch Creek, employing water cannons and an elaborate system of canals, flumes and a tunnel. Developed for mining, these methods were used successfully a few years later by Lewis and Wiley to terrace nearby Westover Terraces. However, engineering difficulties and public resentment forced Pence to abandon his project before much earth had been moved. Remnants include a 3/4 mile long ditch along the Wildwood Trail, a hidden tunnel, and footings for flumes.
After Pence, human interventions to the park were generally designed to enhance the landscape rather than conquer it. To accommodate the growing number of nature lovers, trails were widened and benches and bridges of a rustic nature were built. In one location a fallen tree was notched into a rustic staircase, indicating a kind of "visit the giant redwoods" mentality. The Stone House was the most ambitious of these rustic interventions, the center of an informal landscape design composed of trails, bridges and shelters.
The Stone House
The Bureau of Parks in 1929 commissioned architect Ernest F, Tucker to design the Macleay Park Shelter (Stone House). Its functions included men's and women's toilets, picnic shelter, and tool room. Situated at the intersection of the Wildwood and Lower Macleay trails, its location was and is the most remote of any public restroom in the city, over a mile by trail to the nearest street in any direction. Why this location was chosen is not known, but two reasons may be surmised. First, novice hikers of the 1920's may have required more suitable comfort stations at closer intervals than the hardy hikers of today. Second, the site was probably chosen specifically for its remoteness, to emphasize the contrast of man's intervention into the natural setting. This was a common landscape design theme for Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park and uncle of the Olmsted Brothers; small, rustic and romantic structures placed as occasional counterpoints to a natural setting,
Ernest F. Tucker was obviously aware of the Olmsteds and used this site to express their idcals. Tucker was a talented, and later, well-known architect. He had worked with A. E. Doyle and designed the Erb Memorial Union at the University of Oregon, as well as the original plan for the Portland Zoo. At this relatively early stage in his career (age deferring to the prominent Olmsteds by not only adhering to the spirit, but also to the letter of their report. The Olmsted suggestion to build was a woodsman builds at places remote from civilization" inspired Tucker to design the shelter as a rustic and romantic woodsman's cottage.
Steep and tall gable ends of random coursed basalt were enclosed by a wood shingle roof with dormer. The roof flared out over the trail to create a picnic shelter, supported by hand-hewn brackets. The resulting composition had the effect upon a visitor of entering a scene from Little Red Riding Hood.
Engineering and Building
It is uncertain whether construction of the Stone House began in 1929, or whether it was built later under a Depression-era program as many believe. Cloarly it was not conceived as a federal “make-work" project. The building was built as a mirror image of the original drawings, probably to create & larger tool room with less excavation.
Materials were likely skidded down the steep bank from Cornell Road high above the site. The fine quality of the building's basalt stone indicates that it was not quarried in the park. The quantity of concrete imported to the site exceeded that of the stone. Floors are reinforced concrete, and the lower level walls, though faced with stone, are actually concrete retaining walls that are up to 2 1/2 feet thick.
The most unique engineering feature of the Stone House was the water supply system to flush the toilets, Creek water was stored in an underground tank
upstream and piped to the building (tank and some piping still in place). This system was unique among Portland Park restrooms, but was later replaced
by a conventional water line run down from Upper Macleay Park. Effluent was dispersed by a primitive septic system design to accommodate the limited
number of users in the 1930's.
The later water supply was damaged by the Columbus Day Storm of 1964. Rather than upgrade what had surely become a maintenance headache, the Park Bureau chose to dismantle the Stone House down to its stone and concrete structure. It remains in its skeletal form today, structurally intact, yet an architectural ruin. It has become the ad-hoc equivalent of an English garden folly, an architectural remnant in the landscape. This quality has endeared the Stone House to at least two generations of park users.
Summary: Architectural Significance in terms of Style and Rarity
The Stone House is significant for the following reasons:
- Unique plumbing system. - Important element in a broader landscape design.
- Literal translation of the Olmsted Brothers intentions.
- Most important work of architecture within Forest Park.
- First and only significant work by humans in Balch Creek designed to enhance the landscape experience rather than violate it.
Historic Importance / Symbolic Significance
The Stone House has served as a destination and landmark for generations of park users, for 30 years as a functioning comfort station, for 30 years more as a romantic ruin. Children, musicians and lovers are drawn to it. A recent New York Times article described it as an important feature within Forest Park. The Stone House:
- is known by persons throughout the city and the world.
- is an important neighborhood landmark.
- emphasizes the contrast of the natural and man-made worlds.
- Symbolizes the evolution of man's attitude towards the environment.
Historic Resource Inventory, City of Portland 2-888-03026
Report of the Park Board 1903 (Available at Park Bureau reception)
History of Portland's Forest Park, Thornton T. Munger (Not in Print)
One City's Wilderness, Marcy Cottrell Houle
Oregon Historical Society, various photos City Archives, blueprints of original drawings Oregonian files, Tucker obituary