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A Short History of the Stadium’s Footprint and East Side Expansions

Civic Stadium in 1969

Looks like Providence Park is getting a facelift. Whenever it’s done, in either 2019 or 2020, depending on how frustrating City Council chooses to be, the completed east side addition will mark the third major update to the erstwhile Multnomah Stadium this century. What’s interesting, though, is that despite all the recent changes, and indeed with all the significant changes to the stadium over its life, the footprint has remained unchanged. Yes, the new and intimidating verticality of the east side will radically transform the feel of the ground, inside and out. But the space available for a playing surface and grandstands has been the same since 1912.

Backing up even earlier, the Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club (now just known as the MAC) first leased the grounds to the south of the Portland Industrial Exposition building in May 1893. That 1887 Expo building was the forerunner of today’s North Portland Expo Center and stood where the North End of Providence Park is now. A 3000-capacity grandstand went up on the west side of the field that summer and sports have been played there ever since.

Multnomah Field in the 1900s with Exposition building at left and MAAC Chapman Street clubhouse at center

Having rented space downtown for its first few years of existence, the MAAC opened its first independent clubhouse on Chapman Street (SW 18th Avenue) in the summer of 1900. The playing field available stretched from the Expo building to the north to a row of poplar trees to the south, with the last remaining Chinese vegetable farmers still occupying the space between the poplars and Salmon Street. In 1909 the MAAC purchased those final four acres and created the space with which we are today familiar.

A massive fire destroyed the Expo building, the Chapman Street clubhouse, the grandstand and a number of other buildings in July 1910. The MAAC’s new clubhouse, with its cornerstone laid by Teddy Roosevelt, stood on Salmon Street to the south of the field and opened in 1912. With the Expo building gone, the northern end of the field was extended and a new, 10,000-seat grandstand arose on the west side. Tennis courts adorned the east side of the field, below the ridge dropping down from 18th Avenue.

Multnomah Field in 1923 with east side tennis courts in the foreground

Finally, in 1926, the MAC constructed our current stadium. At the cost of $500,000, the J-shaped facility put a ring around the traditional playing field and with 35,000 seats more than tripled the official capacity of the version preceding it.

From time-to-time the MAC added or took away tennis courts and fences on the east side of the field in the early days of the stadium. The first major change came in 1933 when the state of Oregon legalized pari-mutuel betting, allowing for greyhound racing at the stadium. A track was installed that spring beginning a 23-year tenancy on the part of the Multnomah Kennel Club. The space between the west side of the stadium and 18th Avenue was so great that bounding the playing surface with a track did not reduce the size of available field.

Multnomah Stadium after installation of greyhound racing track

Nothing much changed for more than twenty years, as the stadium hummed along as the site of numerous Oregon and Oregon State football games, high school athletics and track meets, and of course, dog racing.

The stadium’s baseball origin myths begin with the 1956 relocation of the Portland Beavers to Multnomah Stadium from dilapidated and condemned Vaughn Street Park in Northwest Portland. For the first time, permanent east side seating was constructed, as well as a large section in dead centerfield in the southeast corner of the stadium. All the east side seats were above the newly built outfield wall, while box seats were added in the northwest corner behind home plate. While of course it remained a multipurpose facility, for the first time, Multnomah Stadium had been reconfigured with one particular sport in mind.

Multnomah Stadium transformed for the 1956 Portland Beavers baseball season.

Over the years, the seats changed colors and the Jantzen lady appeared in left field. But other than installation of astroturf in 1969 and the city’s purchase of the stadium two years prior, not much changed until a November 1980 ballot measure provided the city with much-needed $9.5 million to improve the foundation, concourse and replace the roof. By 1982 those changes were complete, but other than those whose close-in seats were now covered by the extended roofline, the stadium’s look and feel remained the same. The MAC, in the meantime, had replaced its 1912 clubhouse with a series of new buildings between 1964 and the completion of the new clubhouse in 1973.

Only in 2000, when Portland’s City Council approved a $38.5 million project, did the stadium take on significant renovations for the first time since 1956. The huge expenditure provided for the removal of the outfield seats along 18th Avenue, constructed new luxury suites behind home plate, removed the old box seats, built a new outfield scoreboard and installed new seats in the aging stadium. The renovations were meant to highlight the return of minor league baseball and usher in a new era of professional soccer. Though the overall shape of the stadium remained the same, the new feel reinvigorated life at newly-renamed PGE Park.

PGE Park in the late 2000s

The more recent changes are much more well known to this audience, so briefly, in summer 2009 City Council again approved more than $30 million for renovation on the stadium, this time to make it a rectangular-specific stadium. The new stand on the east side eliminated baseball and brought permanent seats below street level on 18th Avenue for the first time in the stadium’s history.

Providence Park in the early MLS era

This week’s renderings show the addition of verticality for the first time since the MAC added seats above the outfield wall in 1956. Clearly the enormity of the new plans dwarf the previous iterations on the east side.

New renderings of the latest Providence Park expansion

So we come back to the footprint and the ever-changing east side of the stadium. There are five clearly defined eras for the east side space: Multnomah Field’s empty hillside and tennis courts (1893-1925), Multnomah Stadium before the Beavers relocation (1925-1955), Multnomah/Civic Stadium with outfield seats in the baseball era (1956-2000), PGE Park without outfield seats (2001-2010), and the current MLS era Jeld-Wen Field/Providence Park with seats below street level and the coming vertical growth (2011-present). All this change while the westside and north end have remained mostly unaltered in structure since 1926.

Where will the next expansion come? If Merritt Paulson and the Timbers can convince City Council to approve something close to the renderings of the new east side stand, it would seem that space would not be the location for the next round of growth. And yet, the east side has always been the area most used to experiment with changing the shape and purpose of the enclosed space.