University of Oregon

Historic Preservation Program

2015 Leo Dean Williams

Leo Dean Williams
Leo Dean Williams

Portland planner and longtime Historic Landmarks Commission member Leo Dean Williams is being honored for nearly thirty years of service to the preservation of Portland’s historic and cultural heritage. Williams, an urban design architect, was an essential member of a team of civic leaders who created, expanded, and implemented Portland’s historic preservation program. He is also credited for reinstituting urban rail in Portland. He served as lead staff to the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission, from 1968, soon after the creation of the Commission, until 1996 when he retired from the City of Portland.

Williams arrived in Portland at a propitious time for the city and its future in historic preservation. State and local governments were only beginning to gear up to administer provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The City of Portland, encouraged by American Institute of Architects Portland Chapter member George McMath, had adopted a landmark preservation ordinance in 1968, only the second such municipal ordinance on the west coast after that of Los Angeles, California. He also helped create the Urban Conservation Fund, which assisted in restoring many of Portland’s iconic landmarks such as the New Market Theater.

Attuned to the value of historic buildings and cohesive older neighborhoods, he was at the forefront of the preservation movement with McMath, who chaired the city’s landmarks commission for a decade. Together, they implemented the City’s landmark preservation ordinance and championed the state’s model 1975 property tax abatement program for buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Under his leadership, Williams oversaw the formation of Portland’s first two downtown historic districts (Skidmore/Old Town and Yamhill). He also led neighborhood preservation efforts with the creation of Ladd’s Addition and Lair Hill conservation districts.

1974 view of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which opened in 1928 as the Portland Publix Theater before becoming the Paramount Theatre.
This 1974 view of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, which opened in 1928 as the Portland Publix Theater before becoming the Paramount Theatre. This perspective shows how the New Theater was blended within the historic context of the original theater. This is the last surviving theater building on Broadway in Portland, which was once lined with large theater houses. Photo by Marion Dean Ross. Gift of Wallace K. Huntington from the estate of Marion Dean Ross. Photo courtesy UO Libraries Digital Collections.

Williams is among the “pioneering leaders [who] made Portland the crucible of Oregon’s early preservation movement,” says Elisabeth Walton Potter, a longtime public historian and recipient of the McMath award in 2011.

Williams’ efforts to establish the landmarks commission “was terribly important, especially since there was significant demolition going on at the same time,” notes William J. Hawkins, III, the 2013 McMath Award recipient. “Leo witnessed and pursued the change in the city’s then-­‐extant ‘demolition culture,’ when important buildings were, it seemed, coming down every day, to [ensure] the preservation and incorporation of important works of historic architecture in the city’s growth and development. It was a monumental turn around, and Leo played a significant role,” Hawkins says.

The 1872 New Market Theater restoration
The 1872 New Market Theater restoration was by done by architects SERA, Allen, McMath, and Hawkins with assistance by Leo Williams who was involved in the effort to bring this centerpiece back to life, beautifully restored.

One of Williams’ key skills was “the gentle art of persuasion, meeting with property owners and elected officials to help illuminate them to the value of the landmark whose fate they controlled,” planner John Southgate notes. But Williams didn’t restrict his gentle tutelage to adults. He also became known for a three-screen, multi-image presentation on Portland’s heritage that he presented at various venues, notably to schoolchildren. He created the twenty-minute, four-part presentation, which he called an “image essay,” in 1974. 

Entitled “How Do We Know It is Us Without Our Past?” the show was a mixture of “ ‘tongue in cheek’ seriousness, hokeyness, and humor,” Williams wrote in a flyer describing the presentation. Using three screens was revolutionary at the time, enabling him to show textual information in the middle framed by photographs from the past on one side and current photos of the same landmark on the opposite screen. It employed music that matched the era of the architecture: Jazz for Art Deco, Scott Joplin for early 20th Century, early rock ‘n’ roll for more modern landmarks such as Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building. The show served as a first introduction, to many viewers, of the concept of historic preservation and why it is important.

Williams also played a key role in the evolution of Portland’s transportation planning into the globally recognized model it is today. In the 1970s he was part of “a small group of downtown revivalists” hoping to stem the migration of businesses from downtown Portland to suburban shopping centers. The trolley idea caught Williams’ attention as a city planner, prompting him to form the Trolley Line Steering Committee. “The conversation soon morphed beyond vintage streetcars, shaping a whole new rail vision for the City,” Failing says. “This became the catalyst and momentum-driver to give birth to rail transit as we know it today. Most of us who served on this committee consider this the inception of modern rail transportation in Portland, eventually extending to other urban areas in the country, embracing rail transit to address urban growth issues,” Failing says.

The McMath Award is well-deserved recognition of his many contributions to the field of historic preservation in Oregon.

Selected Citations for work by Leo Dean Williams

  • “How Do We Know It is Us Without our Past? (book and description of multi-media program, (1974).
  • “Uphill Downhill Yamhill: The Evolution of the Yamhill Historic District in Portland, Oregon,” (1977).
  • “Portland’s Chinatown: The History of an Urban Ethnic Neighborhood,” (1978).
  • “Potential Historic Conservation Districts, (1978).
  • “Historic Landmarks & Districts Inventory,” (1982).
  • “A Walking Tour Through Portland’s Yamhill, Skidmore/Old Town, Chinatown,” (1984).
  • “River District Design Guidelines,” (1996).