Want to learn more about Portland and its neighborhoods in good company? Architectural historian, Eric Wheeler, leads Meetup walking tours of the city along all compass points. With a long career in historic preservation and heritage tourism, he relocated from the Midwest about 6 years ago after falling for – in his words – “this unique, world-class city.”
Q: What makes Portland unique and world-class in your view?
A. Simply, the natural and human landscape. It’s a West Coast city not bound by the traditions or “shoulds” that prevail in the East and Midwest. And in recent years, Portland’s inventive spirit has attracted cultural creatives in the fine and performing arts, architectural design and urban livability.
Q: What’s your favorite building or architectural style in the city?
A: I love the residential, commercial and public buildings influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century. In America we call this the Craftsman Style and it had a major impact on architectural design here from the 1890s to the 1930s, the period when Portland experienced a building and population boom.
Q: How did you get into the walking tour business?
A: I’ve spent much of my career as an architectural historian researching and writing reports, surveys and National Register nominations. But I’ve found even more satisfaction in leading walking tours. They give people an immediate and personal connection with the built environment. It makes my day when people say something like “Oh, so that’s what an American Foursquare looks like! Now I’ll notice that style every time I walk in my neighborhood.”
Q: How many different tours have you created and how do you go about it?
A: I just reorganized my file cabinet the other day and realized that I have over 50 different local walking tours I can pull “off the shelf.” Most are in downtown and the historic inner eastside and westside neighborhoods, but they range from Forest Grove to Gresham and Vancouver to Oregon City. I often say that every neighborhood and town has some buildings of historic and architectural interest.
As a relative newcomer to the area, I usually start with my own curiosity about a neighborhood. I find a centrally located spot and go from there. I take my camera and shoot photos of buildings and sites I want to include on the tour. I make some notes in the field and then go back home to my computer. Though I like old-fashioned archival research, so much is available online nowadays.
Q: It’s easy to see why newcomers and visitors to Portland sign up for walking tours. What brings long-time residents out?
A: Some of my most faithful customers are natives or near-natives who enjoy seeing their hometown from the perspective of a trained architectural historian and recovering Midwesterner. Often they say that tours help them to see the city with “new eyes” – a huge compliment! And, of course, neighborhoods are changing in this early 21st-century Portland boom.
Q: Do you have a top touring memory?
A: I would have to call them “serendipitous” moments – the homeowner who invites us in for an impromptu tour, or the participant who shares that their grandfather built the landmark we’re standing in front of. So it’s the personal connections between people and places that make this work fascinating and memorable.
To learn more about Eric’s walking tours, visit Positively Portland.