Date planted: Around 1890
Circumference: Approximately 19 ft
Height: Approximately 84 ft
Crown spread: Approximately 84 ft
When you walk down the campus of Portland State University (PSU), it’s hard not to notice the lone beech tree surrounded by the sides of the Millar Library. This tree has witnessed a lot of life in its 100+ year life span. The PSU Copper Beech was planted in the early 1890s at the home of industrialist and banker, Joseph Franklin Watson. Mr. Watson’s ties to industry and finance significantly shaped the economy of Oregon – as a creditor to statewide extractive industries and financier of iron production, shipbuilding, and maritime transport. It’s hard to imagine standing in downtown Portland, that this tree used to be part of a suburban home, but Portland has changed and grown, a lot. Portland’s South Park Blocks of the 1860-1890s was a prestigious residential neighborhood with many Italianate mansions and thus it was not unusual to see exotic foliage in any given yard. Despite standing out from its surroundings today, the PSU Copper Beech does not appear to have become a remarkable feature of the area until the early 1970s, as it would have been surrounded by elms of a similar age. Instead, the Watson house was noted for its impressive landscaping generally with an “abundance of shrubs and flowers of all kinds” which the University sought to preserve even as it cleared the house to make way for the first phase of its Library building in 1965. After Frank Weston’s death the home was converted into a temporary site for the Portland Fruit and Flower Mission, a day nursery for working mothers, until the completion of their building. The home continued to be run as a boarding house until 1943. That the house was repurposed as a multifamily residential structure in an increasingly changing neighborhood was not uncommon for the period, but it proved fortuitous to the Beech.
PSU began as the Vanport Extension Center in 1946, located in the city of Vanport just north of Portland. After the devastating Vanport Floods of 1948 and the enormous popularity of the college, the extension center moved to the old Lincoln high school in downtown Portland and became the Portland State Extension Center in 1952. In 1955 the campus grew in both student body and as a campus becoming Portland State College. University officials purchased and demolished the former Weston home to make space for the library in 1965. However, the home’s-maintained landscaping, combined with a combative landlord in the Queen Louise apartment building next door, was partially why the initial phase of the library was sunk into the western half of the block rather than abutting the Park Blocks as did the rest of PSU’s then-current structures. The decisions born of necessity during the initial library construction proved vital to preserving the beech.
In 1988, funding for a new $11 million expansion of the library again threatened the tree. If you were to go on a campus tour today, you may very likely hear a story of how students and faculty protestors chained themselves around the tree, thereby preventing its imminent destruction and forcing the designers to build around it instead. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that such a demonstration ever occurred, and the reality is the decision to build around the tree was made almost two years prior to breaking ground. The Park Blocks and their trees have witnessed many different protests and demonstrations. In July 1969, 500 students held a rally to support ‘Papa John’ in keeping his business from being turned into the campus parking lot, many antiwar protests in the 1970s, and the protest to save an ancient oak on SW Corbett. This could have led to the mythological story of the student protest to save the beech.
This tree offers a long chronological connection back through Oregon’s history. The tree has become a focal point for Portland State’s identity and increasingly, a mainstay of tours exploring local and regional history, the South Park Blocks, and the city’s commitment to maintaining and accommodating greenspace. As David-Paul Hedberg states in From Stumptown to Tree Town regarding the PSU Copper Beech, “although this is an impressive tree botanically, the history of this tree is a fine example of how trees are some of our best long-term architectural investments.”