NOTE: This information was originally written and compiled in 2002 for submission to the National Register of Historic Places. We acknowledge the biases present in this narrative, and are committed to promoting a new, more historically accurate narrative that better reflects marginalized peoples.
Just after 1900, Simon Benson, a successful logger and civic philanthropist, built a grand Queen Anne style house on the corner of SW 11th and Clay in downtown Portland. The interior of the house featured rich detail and decoration, and each room was paneled in a different kind of wood. The Simon Benson House remained there for nearly 100 years. Once on the national historic register, the home fell into disrepair and was condemned by the City of Portland in 1991.
With financial support from more than 1,000 individuals and businesses, and spearheaded by the Friends of Simon Benson House, the house was moved to its new location on the Portland State University campus on January 16, 2000. The renovation of the house took nearly a year, with P & C Construction supervising and some 30 subcontractors participating. SERA Architects of Portland donated their services for the renovation project.
Now located at 1803 SW Park, the Simon Benson House is the home of the PSU Alumni Association and welcomes visitors during the weekdays.
Simon Benson was born in Norway in 1851, one of seven children in the Berger Iversen family. His eldest brother, Jon, immigrated to the United States in 1861, followed by his sister Mathea in 1865. In 1867, his parents and the rest of the family also followed, landing first in New York City and then traveling to Black River Falls, Wisconsin, to join the oldest son and daughter.
After arriving in the United States, the family took out naturalization papers, simplified their family name to Benson, and proceeded to become US citizens.
Simon Iversen, later known as Simon Benson, was 16 when he arrived in the United States. He first went to work as a farm hand and later worked in logging camps and sawmills. At the age of 24, he opened a general store which did quite well until it was destroyed by fire three years later, in 1878. Then 27, he was completely broke and now had a wife and child to care for.
Having heard about all the timber there was in the Northwest and with his experience working in the woods of Wisconsin, he scraped together all the money he could and moved his family to Portland, Oregon around 1880. Benson went into the business of logging in several locations in Washington and Oregon, buying up tracts of timber wherever he could. He introduced a number of changes to Northwest logging, including the donkey steam engine which replaced the oxen that had previously been used to haul logs. He later built the famous Benson sea-going rafts which could carry up to six million board feet of timber, cutting the cost of transporting logs to markets in California.
In 1898, he moved his family and his business headquarters to Portland. The family lived in a rented house for two years until he decided to build a new home at the corner of SW 11th and Clay. This became the home known as the Simon Benson House.
Now a wealthy man, Benson's interests expanded beyond the timber industry. In 1912, he began building a fine hotel because he felt it was needed in Portland to attract tourists and more commerce to the city. It was modeled on the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, a brick structure with the same type of French mansard roof. It opened in 1913 and was known as the Oregon Hotel. For sixteen months it lost money and finally Benson took over management, at which time it became known as the Benson Hotel, just as it is today.
Benson later built the Columbia Gorge Hotel near Hood River in 1921. He brought in Henry Thiele, later owner of his own famous restaurants in Portland, to be its head chef. Benson was also an enthusiastic supporter of good roads and among a group of businessmen who encouraged the building of the Columbia River Highway. When citizens of Hood River County voted a $75,000 bond levy to construct the portion of the highway that would run from the Multnomah County line to Hood River, Benson purchased the entire bond issue within a month because the bonds were not selling.
Benson is remembered for his philanthropy. He has been quoted as saying, "No one has the right to die and not leave something to the public and for the public good." Simon Benson carried out that philosophy with purpose and generosity.
He purchased a 400-acre tract of land in the Columbia River Gorge, which included Wahkeena Falls and Multnomah Falls, and deeded it to the City of Portland for a public park. Subsequently, the land was divided to become the Wahkeena Falls Recreation Area, Benson State Park, and Multnomah Falls Recreation Area. Benson also paid for the masonry footbridge across Wahkeena Falls and the reinforced concrete arch pedestrian bridge over the lower Multnomah Falls.
Benson, who had little schooling himself, believed in the importance of education. In 1916, he gave the Portland School District $100,000 to help fund the building of a polytechnic school. Finished in 1918, the school was first used for the training of soldiers for World War I. It was re-opened to high school students in January 1919 and re-named Benson Polytechnic.
Benson also gave the City of Portland $10,000 for the installation of twenty bronze drinking fountains. These handsome fountains, fondly known as Benson Bubblers, are still in use in downtown Portland today. One of the original Benson Bubblers was installed at the corner of SW Park and Montgomery, in front of the Benson House, to commemorate this gift.
In recognition of all that Simon Benson had done for the City of Portland and the State of Oregon, he was chosen to represent Oregon at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 as the state's "First Citizen."
In the early 1920s, Benson moved to southern California to retire, but gradually became active in business again, buying and developing land and managing business properties. He died in Los Angeles in August 1942, a month short of his ninety-first birthday.
Simon Benson is buried in Riverview Cemetery in Portland, where a simple headstone bears this inscription:
1851 - 1942