I rarely use the ATM in the garage entrance to the Portland Main Office of U.S. Bank downtown, preferring instead to step inside the lobby and waste the teller’s time—depositing a check I’m sure they’d prefer I used the machine for—just for the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere in the cavernous old branch.
One weekday morning I took a break from work and walked next door (from the old Wells Fargo Building, built 102 years ago; Portland’s first “skyscraper” and host to the downtown Raptor Cam) to use the teller line at the old U.S. Bank. Afterwards, I approached the guard who stands attentively every day in the lobby and asked if I could take a few pictures; were there any restrictions? I was surprised when he said I was welcome to take all I wanted—except of the tellers at work—and would I like to see the old vault and the carvings on the back door?
James The Guard then treated me to an impromptu and extensive tour of the historic building. He revealed the bronze pocket doors that are locked at night across the front and back glass entrances, beautiful carvings that you can’t see during banking hours. The front gate depicts inspiring scenes of commerce and industry and the back gate illustrates an abbreviated history of Oregon in a series of sculpted panels, reminiscent of the Gates of Paradise. “The top one is Lewis and Clark and their Indian guide Sacagawea," explained James, gesturing over the carvings. “Here they are coming over the Oregon Trail…and then here’s the coming of the steam train. This side is by land,” he said, closing the left panel and opening the right, “and this side is by water.”
Through these panels I learned, as can any fifth grader, about Captain Gray and Captain Scott, the Battleship Oregon, and when and why Portland was first called Stumptown. (“Really,” says I. “I thought it had something to do with protesting poor timber industry practices.” James assured me that the nickname was much older. “No, you see, they cut the trees down that they used to build their homes, and cleared the land where they wanted to build, and just left the stumps. See? This stump here.” Oh. Guess we’re both right.)
Back inside, James escorted me downstairs to visit the safety deposit vault, home to 11,000 locked boxes, half of which are made from the melted metal of 75mm ammunition cases that were supposed to go to France for WWI. (The war ended while they were sitting on the dock, awaiting shipment.) Two bank employees come down twice a day; one to swing the enormous polished manganese steel door open and closed, and the other just to watch in case the other loses their footing in front of it. “This door weighs 13 tons,” explained James. “If you get 13 tons moving, it keeps moving. If you fell and didn’t have help, you’d be crushed.” I edge nervously back as he gently demonstrates the massive door.
The lock is on a timer and secured with two double combinations. No single person knows both. In the vault, James shows me where the tiara worn by the Rose Festival Queen was once stored for safekeeping; a photo of the crown remains by the now-empty glass case. James seems nostalgic about her crown and knows a lot about it. “It surprised me that there’s not a diamond in it,” he said. “It’s sapphires, rubies, and zircon. Real jewels. I understand that now because it’s so old—it was made in 1922, and getting so fragile—that the queen only gets to wear it upon her original crowning and then in photo shoots. And every time they have to take it out and she gets to wear it for awhile, they have to take it in and have it repaired.” Be careful with that, Rachel.
Outside the underground vault at the bottom of a marble staircase is a haunted-looking lobby that’s perfect for a company Halloween party, and, conversely, a creepy place for a wedding reception, though it’s available to rent for any occasion.
I needed to return to work but James was on a roll. He pointed out every architectural detail of the 93 year old building. Back inside the branch lobby, he educated me about the ceiling tiles (“it’s what they call terra cotta; they were put together on the floor, and individually hand painted,”) the marble pillars at the loan officers’ desks (“each hand carved, and there are three marbles from three different countries here,”) and the chandeliers (“still the originals, but rewired by the original electrician who came back to help when he was 90 years old.”)
Because it can pass for Any Big Town USA, the Broadway Street entrance to the old branch is often used for filming, notably, three commercials—including an Apple Jacks spot about New York City—and the TNT series Leverage, which is filmed in a variety of locations downtown. Every office worker in the financial block came out to rubberneck when they exploded this car.