THE VISTA HOUSE

History at the Vista House

Edgar M. Lazarus, Portland architect and member of the Vista House Association, was selected to design Vista House in 1915.
Vista House is an example of German “Art Nouveau” architecture. Native Italian craftsmen built retaining walls and bridges for the Columbia River Highway and laid the rockwork surrounding Vista House.

Vista House is approximately 44 feet in diameter and 55 feet high. The floors and stairs in the rotunda and the wainscoting in the lower level are Tokeen Alaskan marble. Most of the interior of the rotunda is light cream and pink Kasota limestone (marble), including the hand-carved drinking fountains. 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 Vista House Story

Samuel Lancaster, Assistant Highway Engineer for Multnomah County in 1913, supervised the Columbia River Highway project. Lancaster’s proposal to construct a building on the summit of Crown Point was another reflection of his desire to inspire the traveler along the highway and to make the wonders of the gorge accessible.

As Lancaster described it, the Crown Point promontory was the ideal site for “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” Such an observatory would also be a fitting memorial to “the trials and hardships of those who had come into the Oregon country.” And it could “serve as a comfort station for the tourist and the travelers of America’s greatest highway.” He suggested it be known as the Vista House.

Majestic! It’s the only word to describe Crown Point capped by its venerable Vista House.

Since 1918, this regal sight has enthralled millions of travelers. From its surrounding vantage point 733 feet above the Columbia River and overlooking the busy I-84, countless sightseers and photographers have enjoyed a step back in time and one of Oregon’s most inspiring views.

Origins of Vista House

Few places combine nature’s wonders and human architectural brilliance so majestically. Once called “Thor’s Heights,” Crown Point is a basalt promontory shaped by the same volcanic lava flows, floods and winds that created the Columbia River Gorge. Cited for its “exceptional value in illustrating the natural history of the U.S.,” it was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1971. It is protected as a state park property known as the Crown Point State Scenic Corridor.

The Vista House was built as a rest stop observatory for travelers on the old Columbia River Gorge Highway and as a fitting memorial honoring Oregon’s pioneers—particularly those who made their way down the Columbia River. Described by its architect, Edgar M. Lazarus, as “a temple to the natural beauty of the Gorge,” Vista House has long been recognized for its historic significance and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Building the Crown Jewel

The construction of the Vista House was inspired by the builders of the old gorge thoroughfare who were also the most prominent and wealthy of Portland’s citizenry. Upon its completion, the highway was hailed as a “tremendous feat in highway construction,” reflecting the visions of its builders to reconcile nature and civilization and the vision for Vista House was born. The highway was dedicated on June 6, 1916, atop Crown Point. The construction of the Vista House began there December 29 the same year to serve, in the words of the highway’s chief engineer Samuel Lancaster, as an “Isle of Safety to all the visitors who wish to look on that matchless scene.” It was Lancaster who first suggested that it be called the Vista House.

Financing the building of Vista House was challenging. No state dollars were available, leaving the project dependent on funds provided by Multnomah County and donations from private parties. When the efforts to raise funds from the general public did not develop as hoped, the bulk of the construction costs were paid by Multnomah County with only around $4,000 coming from private sources, including school children.

Edgar Lazarus designed Vista House as an example of modern German architecture, or the German equivalent of Art Nouveau. Native Italian craftsmen who built retaining walls and bridges for the Columbia River Highway laid its foundation.

Built under the direction of a Multnomah County road master, John B. Yeon, the structure is 44 feet in diameter and 55 feet high. The exterior is gray sandstone. The roof, which for almost 50 years was capped with a copper roof, now has its crown restored to the original matte-glazed green tiles.

Inside, Tokeen Alaskan Marble was used to surface the floors and stairs in the rotunda and as wainscoting on the basement walls. The inside of the dome and its supporting ribs were painted to simulate the marble and bronze. Attached to the wall just below the dome, eight busts of four unidentified Native Americans are aligned so that each mirrors its own likeness. Lancaster furnished plans for other interior decorations that were never realized.

Vista House Architectural History

The upper windows are greenish opalized glass, like the original. The rotunda windows are also greenish opalized glass with clear glass in the viewing areas.

The roof was originally surfaced with matte-glazed green tiles. The roof was covered with a copper crown for more than 50 years. During the 2002 exterior restoration, a new glazed green tile roof was installed over a protective dome membrane.

Important Dates and Facts about Vista House

Location

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Crown Point (“Thor’s Heights”) State Scenic Corridor
40700 E. Historic Columbia River Highway
Corbett, OR 97019
Dedicated: May 5, 1918
Restoration (2001-2006)
Rededication: May 5, 2006
Handicap accessible

Statistics

Exterior Diameter at base: 44’ (octagonal)
Lower Level Diameter: 64’
Height: 55‘
Interior Area: 3,318 square feet
Elevation: 733’ above the Columbia River
Observation Deck: 360o
Visitors/year: Approximately 1 million

Designations

Crown Point Natural Landmark (1971)
National Register of Historic Places (1974)
National Historic Landmark (2000)

Architecture

Gothic-Jugendstil (“Art Nouveau”)
Architect: Edgar M. Lazarus (1868-1939)
Construction Supervisor: John B. Yeon
Owned by: State of Oregon (1938)
Managed by: Oregon Parks & Recreation Dept.
Volunteer Support Organization:
Friends of Vista House (est. 1982)

Structure

Exterior: Sandstone
Interior: Alaskan Tokeen Marble, Kasota Limestone
Roof: Terra Cotta Green/Gold Glazed Tiles
Windows: Steel Frame with Opalescent Art Glass

Poems on the Vista House Pillars Located in the Rotunda

“We call upon the mountains,
the Cascades and the Olympics,
the high green valleys
and meadows filled with wildflowers,
the snows that never melt,
the summits of intense silence,
and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the forests,
the great trees reaching
strongly to the sky
with earth in their roots
and the heaven in their branches,
the fir and the pine and the cedar,
and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.”

-Chinook Invocation – Quoted in Edward Goldsmith, The Way, 1992

“So prodigal has nature
been with us;

so lavishly
has she spread her feasts
at our banquet table.

We have been apt to feel
that these glories
would be never ending.”

Governor Olcott’s 1921 message to the legislature

“Discovery is an adventure.

There is an eagerness,
touched at times
with tenderness as one moves
into the unknown.

Walking the wilderness is
indeed like living.

The horizon drops away,
bringing new sights, sounds
and smells from the earth.”

William O. Douglas (1898-1980)

“We live within
a heritage
beyond our computation.

Will we tilt the cup
until it runs dry
or build for
a day
beyond our day?”

Samuel Boardman Quote from Chester H. Armstrong’s 1965 book History of the Oregon State Parks

Vista House Movie

The Vista House in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge. Located on the Columbia River Historic Highway.

Vista House