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Gorge-ous: visiting post-renovation Vista House

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Earlier this week, with family visiting from out of town, I made my first trip to Vista House in the Columbia Gorge since its four-year, $4 million renovation was completed in 2005. And while the view is still the thing at Crown Point, where the octagonal stone 733-foot structure is situated on a cliff overlooking the Columbia, Vista House looks better than it has since your grandparents went there

It was designed by Edgar Lazarus, a Portland architect, in 1915. According to the Friends of Vista House website, the building is an example of German art nouveau architecture. "Native Italian craftsmen built retaining walls and bridges for the Columbia River Highway and laid the rock work surrounding Vista House," they add.

Columbia Gorge with Chris (15A) Besides its shape, the materials are what really make Vista House look enduring and substantial. The floors and stairs in the rotunda and the wainscoting in the lower level are made of Tokeen Alaskan marble. Most of the interior of the rotunda is light cream and pink Kasota limestone (marble), including the hand-carved drinking fountains (which unfortunately are still outfitted with push-button spigots that don't belong there).  The inside of the dome and its supporting ribs were painted to simulate the marble and bronze originally planned for the structure.  The exterior is faced with light gray sandstone. The upper windows and rotunda are made with green opalized glass, in keeping with the original. The roof was originally surfaced with matte-glazed green tiles and covered with a copper crown.  During the exterior restoration, a new glazed green tile roof was installed over a protective dome membrane.

Looking down at the incredible view with an assortment of middle-aged motorcyclists in black leather, young families pouring out of minivans, and senior citizens inching along in their Buicks, it's certainly hard to imagine someday looking down at a casino up the Columbia River a few miles, as has been proposed.

Columbia Gorge with Chris (33A) But instead of dwelling on such sobering thoughts, I found myself basking in our East Coast visitor’s sheer awe at the Columbia Gorge, be it the blueness and vastness of the river itself, or the rocky forested canyons surrounding it. "We ran out of adjectives," she told our neighbor as we returned.

 Later on after Vista House, we naturally continued down the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway with stops at a couple of waterfalls, and then lunch in Hood River at a brewpub overlooking an army of windsurfers and the occasional barge.

And my thighs and calves hurt from all the hiking we've done through Gorge trails, aviation museums, the coast, and central Portland. But it's always nice to be told that the place you live is something akin to a Utopian society. Or at least compared to the Hellertown, Pennsylvania. Still, we may have the progressive lifestyle and gorgeous scenery, but the Keystone State still has the best pierogies.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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