By David-Paul B. Hedberg
Portland State University Graduate Editorial Fellow
Pacific Historical Review
This impressive European copper beech (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea) now stands as the centerpiece to the Portland State University Library. The tree itself is much older than the building around it, dating back to the 1890s when the Watson family made an investment by planting it in front of their house.
Joseph Franklin Watson came to Portland in 1871 and became a partner in Smith & Watson Iron Works, which produced many of the city’s cast iron storefronts and fire hydrants that are still in use today. PSU acquired the Watson home in 1965, and by 1968, had demolished the house to build the campus library. For unknown reason the beach tree was saved and the tree and grassy area in front of the library became feature of student life.
By the 1970s, the growth of PSU signaled a need for a larger library. The expansion of the library incorporated the tree its design. Architects made a choice to build around it, further highlighting trees as architectural features.
While a lot has changed over 120 years, the Watson’s beech tree has remained a prominent feature of the park blocks. Today the tree is the library’s defining feature and it is our only existing link back to the first period of development on this block. Like many trees, it’s a fine architectural investment that took generations to mature. In 1995, it became a Portland Heritage Tree, ensuring that this investment will benefit generations to come.
Above left: PSU Copper Beach tree in 1975. Image from: Campus pictures; crowd on lawn in front of Library, copper beech tree, 6/75, University Archives, Portland State University Library. Above right: 1890s Copper Beach Tree as it looks today. Author’s Personal Photo, Aug. 2014.
David-Paul B. Hedberg will be speaking about Heritage Trees' link to Portland's past on Wednesday, October 1 from 12-12:30 pm in Room C of the Portland Building (1120 SW 5th Avenue, second floor)