Lair Hill to Pill Hill

ohsu tram

The Portland Aerial Tram carries commuters and tourists between the main Oregon Health & Science University campus on Marquam Hill and the city’s South Waterfront district.

When I began my most recent weekly urban hike, I resolved to hold myself in check and not take so many pictures as usual. I took just four. Uh, make that four dozen.

The issue is storage capacity on my iPhone. I’m managing it but it would be easier to not deal with it. That said, it’s difficult to pass up so many interesting visuals on each week’s outing.

Last Thursday, for instance, I got another chance to go places and view things I simply hadn’t done or seen before.

Starting on Corbett Avenue in Southwest Portland’s Lair Hill neighborhood, directly south of downtown, I walked west and steadily upward to the concentration of medical facilities atop Marquam Hill collectively known as Pill Hill.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Along the way and back, I crossed Barbur Boulevard, one of the city’s busiest arterials, four times and discovered lots of gems on dead-end streets and hidden staircases, wooded short-cuts and residential streets I hadn’t been on. Once again, I marveled at the history right before my eyes and the diversity of neighborhood geography within my adopted city.


As I walked along Southwest 2nd Avenue, the aerial tram linking Oregon Health & Science University Hospital to the South Waterfront district passed soundlessly overhead, seemingly skimming nearby rooftops.

A couple of blocks north I came to an intersection where on one side sat a 1910 settlement house called Neighborhood House, originally owned by the National Council for Jewish Women to help European immigrants find community in their new city, according to Portland author Laura O. Foster. Today it’s home to a Waldorf school.

Across the street is a red-brick building constructed in 1918 to house nurses who worked at the county hospital next door, Portland’s first public hospital. A new structure was built on the site and it became the Children’s Museum, which vacated the site in 2001 to move to a larger site in Washington Park.

At the northwest corner of Lair Hill Park, I crossed Barbur and turned onto SW 4th Avenue, a street that’s invisible to cars zipping by but which leads to a tiny stub of Woods Street and a narrow dirt path leading up into the woods. As I took the steps, I could scarcely believe that woods this dense can be found in the heart of the city.

As I ascended, I could look through a maze of branches and see the tallest buildings of South Waterfront and glimpse the midday traffic on the Ross Island Bridge. I could also pick out the outlines of a synagogue on Barbur.

I was blown away when I reached the top of the path. Who knew it provided a shortcut to Terwilliger Boulevard — a lovely street whose bike/pedestrian path I’ve run on dozens of times? Close by was SW Campus Drive, the road that winds through the complex of facilities including the Casey Eye Institute, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, OHSU Hospital, the VA Medical Center and the Mark O. Hatfield Research Center, named for the moderate Republican who served as governor and later represented Oregon in the U.S. Senate.

I followed the road to the top to where it intersects with Sam Jackson Park Road, named for the man who served as editor of the Oregon Journal from 1902 to 1924 in the days when Portland had four daily newspapers.

Foster’s book, “Portland Hill Walks,” directs you to walk into the Hatfield Research Center — and so I did. A walkway leads you to the lobby of OHSU Hospital and an exhibit honoring the late senator’s commitment to health care, a legacy cemented by his securing hundreds of millions of federal funds to help finance many of the buildings on Pill Hill.

“Health practitioners are the peacemakers of a new generation,” Hatfield once said.

How utterly ironic that so many within today’s Republican Party are striving to undercut the gains made in providing affordable health care for all. He would be ashamed, I am sure.

I didn’t know there was an aerial walkway connecting OHSU Hospital with the VA Medical Center. It’s actually on the ninth floor of the hospital and, according to Foster, it is the world’s longest closed, climate-controlled pedestrian walkway. From here, it’s a spectacular view. You can see two tram cars shuttling passengers back and forth. And you can see familiar landmarks, including the Marquam Bridge and the new, gleaming Tilikum Crossing.

 Fun fact: Sarah Graham, the architect who created the tram’s winning design, resides in California and Switzerland but once lived in the Lair Hill neighborhood over which the tram passes.

Walking outside again, I passed by at least a half dozen more buildings, including Multnomah Pavilion, built in 1926, which was the second building constructed on the campus and replaced the first county hospital mentioned earlier.

Leaving the campus, I entered the Homestead neighborhood, which I’d never been in before. Two-thirds of the housing here is occupied by renters, many of them students, Foster says. Indeed, there are lots of duplexes and apartment buildings in this quiet, isolated area. At the corner of one intersection is Gaines Hall, built in 1930 as a dorm for medical students.

The final leg of the route took me down, down, down along Bancroft Street, Terwilliger Boulevard and Hamilton Terrace, a steep stretch with surprisingly few trees. Crossing Barbur one last time, I arrived back at my starting point, roughly two hours after I’d begun the four-mile loop.

Loving these weekly excursions.


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