Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

‘KYOO-PŎ-LĂ: n. a small dome on a roof’

The guard looks at you strangely for half a second when you tell him your destination, but then he smiled and explains how to reach it. You walk through a darkly wooded hallway (mahogany? teak? you’re not good with wood), turn left, and press the up button next to the elevator. You ride the ancient yet vaguely modern contraption up three floors, feeling as secure as a nineteenth-century Victorian. You gaze at the fleur-de-lis molded into the border at the top of the car, the arching cage intricately worked with curls and twirls in an effort to comfort. The elevator is fast, and deposits you on the third floor before you can question whether the car is actually old or made to look old. It does not really matter.

You make a quick left out of the elevator and push the double doors marked “301.” Why the doors have a room number when they lead to the stairwell is beyond your ken. The bifurcated stairs twist upward like a caduceus, joining at a small landing above your head and leading triumphantly up to the fourth floor. They are carpeted in what looks to you like an Asian manner, but may not be. You recall the exhibit at the Oregon History Museum chronicling the life of the Atiyeh carpet store. Did they provide the rug for the stairs?

On the fourth floor landing more double doors lead into a medium-sized antechamber with no other apparent function. On the walls are some watercolor paintings and an old photograph or two, and the two closed doors leading out of the room are bolted with menacing-looking locks. The whole space has an eerie, Agatha-Christie-ish feel to it, as if somewhere behind one of those locked doors a very proper murder was occurring that Poirot would solve between sips of wine. You try to remember if Poirot drank wine. You stroll through the open door at the opposite end of the room and ascend the steep staircase. You feel the temperature rise and your heartbeat quicken as you climb — you’re more out of shape than you like, and the steps are not your friends. You swing around and double back to continue upward, and then, suddenly, you’re there, at the top level, inside the cupola.

It’s hot. This is the first thought that goes through your head. You reassess. Very hot. There is no ventilation, and the entire room is exposed to the sun, and the sun is very much a presence. It’s only late May, but Portland has been gripped by an unseasonable heat wave. Sweat breaks out along your hairline. You begin to rethink your pilgrimage, but only briefly. So it’s hot — you’ve been hot before, haven’t you? You walk over to the small marble-topped table against the eastern wall and place the piece of paper the guard gave you about the courthouse in it. Then you sit in the straight-backed leather chair on the table’s left side and take a deep breath. You want to take in the space.

In the center of the room is a narrow wooden staircase far less grand than the one you have just ascended. It leads, you presume, to the cone of the cupola, but it is chained off by one of those totally non-threatening chains that cow by some hidden authority, but without real power. You respect the chain because you’re an American, and Americans respect hidden authority. The room is octagonal, and large windows are set in each wall, dominating the room, inviting in the sunshine. The windows are rectangular capped by rounded arches (transoms?) in what you think is an Italianate style. Architecture has never been your forte.

The silence is impressive. You fear to speak out loud — you’re alone, but aren’t above talking to yourself occasionally — because the space demands quiet. You get up and stroll around the room, noticing the old photographs posted on the walls. They show the view from the cupola, a view of an older Portland, a city not yet comfortable with its urbanity, a city very much like a large town. Houses squat where Meier & Frank now stands, Broadway and Morrison are dirt tracks, and a sense of newness lingers, as if the city had just appeared one morning, like Brigadoon. The photos make you nostalgic for this time, even though the time was seventy years before your birth. Old photos can do that to the most cynical or modern of souls. The auras around the houses and the people, the misty haze in the air, the black-and-white morality of old photographs — these are the touchstones of innocence. You do not kid yourself — these people and those times were no more innocent than you. The sense of it lingers, however. You toll the word daguerreotype across your mind. Words were more real then, too.

You sit again and other words tumble into your mind like coins in a fountain. You have no idea why these words are coming to you.








Ah, that last one is a good word. A receptacle for bones. A bone receptacle. A quotidian ossuary. You suppress a giggle.

You feel the sun on the back of your neck and the sweat on your forehead. The sunlight does not cascade through the windows. There is nothing liquid about the sun. It is a hazy presence in the room, an old ghost, thoughtfully allowing visitors into its parlor. You wonder again why you tramped up here.

It’s all about the destination, isn’t it? It’s not about the journey, as you have so often heard, from low-rent philosophers and self-help gurus. The destination: the top of the Pioneer Courthouse, almost the center of town, the cupola. Capitalize it. The Cupola. A place to be, a destination, above and beyond the city, part of it but not part of it. And here you are. This particular journey is over.

You down at your left hand, devoid of jewelry. You remember your bachelor party, and the talk of your friends. Someone said, Half of marriages end in divorce. And you said, That won’t happen. You wonder what happened. You still feel the ring, like an amputated limb. Your journey has brought you here.

You stand to get away from your memories. You walk over to the western side of the room and look out the window. The Square, the Living Room, as it’s called, Pioneer Courthouse Square, lies before you. There is a bookstore in the southeast corner. There are the Greek columns lining the southern side. There is the statue of the man holding an umbrella, forever helpful, forever extending the bumbershoot. Portland politeness. You wonder.

And there are people down there, too, but they don’t affect you. People don’t touch you anymore. People know; they see. You try to recall the last human contact you had. A year ago? Eighteen months? Not even a handshake. You touch your left arm with your right hand and stroke it gently. You didn’t realize how painful it was. It never felt painful before.

How long have you been in the cupola? You sense that below you, cars are driving through the streets, the light rail is humming along Yamhill and Morrison Streets, carrying the folk of the Rose City to and from downtown, carrying them into the life of the city. People stroll through the square and down the transit mall, get on buses, leave the town, arrive. You run a hand through your hair and try to think of something meaningful about all those people. You fail. All you come up with is, They could all disappear and it would mean nothing to me. That thought disturbs you less than you think it should.

You think it’s probably time you got out of there. The cupola is a confining space, despite its access, through the windows, onto the city. The light hurts your eyes. You do not have sunglasses. You remember the platitudes of friends. She didn’t deserve you, you’re better off without her, she left you, she’s the bad guy. You feel the sun behind your eyes when you close them tightly. You feel the sweat on your scalp tickle your eyebrows.

Along the street below couples walk, and you are not among them. You take one last glance around the cupola and trudge down the stairs, out of the sun-drenched room and back into the cool of the courthouse. You don’t think of it as a descent.


[I read a story in the newspaper when I lived in Portland about visiting the cupola in the courthouse, so of course I checked it out! The door really is marked “301” for some reason, and the guard does explain how to get up there, and the surroundings are pretty much as I described them. I have never been divorced, though, so there’s that. You can read a bit about the cupola here – I assume you can still go up there, although that web page is dated 2012, so who knows what’s been happening the last decade. If you go to that page, you can even see the chain the first picture! What do you know about that!

I don’t love second person, but I thought I’d give it a try. I kept it short so if you don’t love second person it won’t bother you too much, I hope. I won’t do it again, I promise!]

[Also: as you read this, I’m either on a plane or already in Switzerland or Italy, depending on when you get to this. There will still be stories next week and the week after – I did these a few months ago – but if you comment and I don’t respond right away, that’s why! Have a nice day!

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