Pioneer Courthouse Square


Pioneer Courthouse Square:
The Living Room for The City of Roses

Noon in downtown Portland, and one of the quirkiest daily traditions gets underway with trumpeted fanfare and blasts of mist. During a two-minute ceremony, three metal effigies rise in succession from the steel sphere at the summit of Weather Machine, a 30-foot-tall landmark of Pioneer Courthouse Square. One of them—a great blue heron, a dragon, or the Sun (Helia)—ultimately assumes position atop the beacon, symbolically declaring the following day’s forecast.

Pioneer Courthouse Square

The midday pomp and circumstance of Weather Machine is only part of the routine energy at Pioneer Courthouse Square, the heart of downtown. Gathering place for office workers, buskers, tourists, and everybody in between, the plaza isn’t called “Portland’s living room” for nothing. Ranked (by the Project for Public Spaces) among the very best public squares in the world, it sees 26,000 tread its signature bricks every day.

Hauling your lunch to the amphitheater-style steps at Pioneer Courthouse Square, you can give thanks to the city fathers who saw fit to rescue this auspicious plot of real estate from its previous incarnation as a grim parking lot.

Actually, the central site occupied by the square has had a number of guises over a long history. In the mid-1800s, a schoolhouse stood here—a stone’s throw from the Pioneer Courthouse itself, an 1860 building still standing. By 1890, the spot had turned into one the architectural highlights of the entire city: The Portland Hotel filled the whole block with its Queen Anne-style grandeur. That regal landmark turned to dust in 1951, when new property owners Meier & Frank replaced it with—yup, a parking lot.

Pioneer Courthouse Square’s story begins around 1970, when the city—eager to revitalize downtown and unenthused by Meier & Frank’s notion of installing a multilevel parking garage on the site—began scheming up the idea for a public plaza. Portland-based architect Willard Martin’s team prevailed in the design contest, and the Friends of Pioneer Square helped raise enough money for the project to earn matching dollars from the federal government. The square officially opened in April 1984.

Creative Commons  Cacophony  via

Creative Commons Cacophony via


Art Features

Many who helped pony up for the square’s establishment are memorialized in the red bricks paving the plaza—and new donor names continue to be inscribed. (You’ll also see some instantly recognizable sobriquets scattered about the 72,000-plus labeled bricks: from Jimi Hendrix and JFK to Sherlock Holmes and God.)

Scratching your head over Weather Machine’s meteorological symbology? We’ve got you covered: Helia forecasts sunshine (unsurprisingly), the heron gray drizzle, and the dragon the rain and wind of an all-out storm. Sure, you can get the same information from your go-to weather app, but the contraption (created by Omen Design Group) is a hell of a lot more fun to check, isn't it?

Speaking of rain, you’d also do well to tip your hat to another Pioneer Courthouse Square fixture: Allow Me, the bronze of an umbrella-wielding (and yielding) businessman. The Mile Post Sign, meanwhile, helpfully informs you the distance to near-and-far destinations from the Portland waterfront (seven blocks) to Timbuktu (a mere 6,726 miles). If you’re feeling declamatory, step right up to the center of the Echo Chamber’s amphitheater alcove and throw that voice of yours around.


Activities & Events

An everyday focal point, Pioneer Courthouse Square also makes one of Portland’s busiest venues: More than 300 events—most of them free—go down here every year, from Festa Italiana and India Festival to the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree (a cloud-splitting Douglas-fir, of course). Certain Friday evenings in July and August, “Flicks on the Bricks” turns the place into the biggest outdoor movie theater in the city.

And there’s no shortage of spontaneous happenings, either: from performance art to passionate demonstrations. After all, the full breadth of Portland—young and old, rich and poor, bookworm and exhibitionist—goes on display at Pioneer Courthouse Square, 365 days a year.