A unique landmark
Vista House is a unique landmark sitting high above the Columbia River about a half hour east of Portland, Oregon. Perched atop Crown Point, 733 feet above the Columbia River, this site serves as a rest stop and observatory for people traveling the Historic Columbia River Highway.
Assistant Highway Engineer Samuel Lancaster was the supervisor of the Columbia River Highway project in 1913. It was his idea to offer a place that would make the natural wonders of the Columbia River Gorge more accessible to visitors. Lancaster thought Crown Point would be an ideal site for “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.”
Architect Edgar M. Lazarus designed the structure in a modern German style that incorporated aspects of Art Nouveau. Multnomah County road master John B. Yeon supervised Vista House’s construction. Construction started in 1916 and was completed in 1918.
State funds were not available for its construction, so it was funded by Multnomah County and from private sources. Local schoolchildren were among the contributors. Because of its high costs, the public dubbed it the “million dollar outhouse.” It was original budgeted at $12,000 but ultimate costs were closer to $100,000, nearly $2 million in today’s dollars.
The exterior of the eight-sided building is constructed from gray sandstone. Vista House is 55 feet high and 44 feet in diameter. Inside, light cream and pink Kasota limestone covers most of the interior. They used Tokeen Alaskan marble in the rotunda’s floors and stairs. It was also used in the wainscotting in the basement. Original plans for Vista House called for the dome ceiling to be constructed of marble supported by ribs of bronze. Costs were high, so they painted the ceiling to simulate the look of marble and bronze. The upper windows have greenish opalized glass. The tall rotunda windows are green at the tops and clear below, allowing visitors to take in the 360-degree view. Green tiles covered the original roof.
There are poems posted on the pillars within the rotunda. Here is my favorite one:
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
More to see
In the basement, you’ll find a small museum and gift shop. There are also several interpretive displays in the hallways. A million visitors visit this site each year.
Vista House went through extensive renovations in 2000-2005. A copper roof, installed over the tiles for 50 years, was removed and they installed green roof tiles similar to the originals. Upgrades included installing an energy efficient geothermal heat pump system.
Here’s a photo sphere view of the inside. Drag the image around to get the full picture. Vista House 360-degree view.
Crown Point was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971 and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
This Oregon State Parks brochure includes a map that shows Vista House and many other scenic treasures worth visiting along the Historic Columbia River Highway.