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Take a Look at the Epic Food Hall Portland Took For Granted

Amid the rapid-fire restaurant openings and steady stream of transplants, it's easy to loose the thread of Portland's culinary history. So as we continue our Classics Week celebration of the city's stalwarts, we decided it's time for a few history lessons. We asked local writer Heather Arndt Anderson, author of the recently published culinary history book "Portland: A Food Biography," to school us on the some of the people and places of the past. Next in the series, the amazing food hall we used to have.

City of Portland Archives

We're all pretty excited about the proposed James Beard Public Market, which has been in the planning stages for at least a decade. But did you know Portland once had an epic food hall that could have put San Francisco's Ferry Plaza to shame?

On December 15, 1933, "Portland's Marvelous New Million-Dollar Market" was opened on "Portland's new $2,000,000 seawall," spanning 620 feet between the Hawthorne and Morrison Bridges. The Oregonian ran a four-page center spread that could scarcely convey the city's excitement. Exclamation points abounded. The opening reception featured "plenty of music and fun!" (thanks in no small part to Slim Taft's 21-piece swing band), "galaxies of lights!" and "entertainment every breathless, surprising hour!"

Portland Public Market, also known as the Sea Wall Market, was touted as America's largest and "History's Greatest Food Market" by author and grocery store enthusiast Max Zimmerman in 1937. Adding to the European appeal of previous markets, the shopping aisles in the new Portland Public Market were given names taken directly from the famous markets of Europe: Rue St. Germain, Covent Gardens Road and Belfre Lane hearkened back to Paris, London and Bruges.

The Market was an astonishing city of food. It boasted twelve bakeries, ten creameries, seven meat markets, six delis, eight seafood stalls, another dozen produce stalls, four pickle shops and seven stalls for treats like candy, popcorn and nuts; stalls from the best stores around town could now all be visited in one convenient location. Within those market walls, Zimmerman effused, one could "discover every conceivable food product. It was theirs to satisfy and enjoy every wish, every caprice and every appetite in food. ... The good things to eat are spread out in a delightful panoply." But Zimmerman's praise did not stop there. He continued in frothing adulation:

"Even Epicurus who wrote with gusto of the delights of the palate as a satisfaction for the soul, never walked into a garden so heavily laden with delicious delicacies as was the great Public Market. Perhaps he dreams of a land like Oregon with this myriad of tasty viands which has found their way to the counters of this modern food edifice."

His alacrity was understandable. The Market was not just a food emporium; it was an entire shopping mall inside a four-story, 220,000-square-feet glittering palace of a building, and a complete game-changer for Portland's housewives. A day at the market was no longer her doldrums. Market day was now, as Zimmerman put it, "a social holiday."

Although it had been the toast of the town from the get-go, the Portland Market seems to have been something of a flash in the pan. It never really took hold as anything but a novelty, and only a few short years later, the Market was already struggling to secure vendors and attract shoppers. One great mistake identified by early critics was that it had launched during the Depression. Another is that it had opened on the west bank of the river when Portland's residential development was largely growing on the east side and its commercial growth was expanding westward instead of along the waterfront. The grand building was rented out to the United States Navy before becoming the new headquarters of the Oregon Journal in 1948. In 1969, following Governor Tom McCall's lead to convert Portland's waterfront into a public park, the building was demolished.

The James Beard Public Market, which began planning and fundraising in 2000, will attempt to harken back to the glory of History's Greatest Market. Here's wishing them all the success at it.