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New life around Portland's century-old Park Blocks.

The moment you set foot in the South Park Blocks, you sense Portland's orderly New England heritage. Hundred-year-old elms, leaves bright yellow in autumn, tower above neatly trimmed grass. Cast-iron park benches and heroic bronzes line the walkways bisecting the grounds. Venerable churches and public buildings, handsome structures of basalt, brick, and travertine, face this verdant commons. We think there's no nicer downtown park in any Western city.

But the Park Blocks, donated to the city in 1852 and landscaped in 1877, offer more than architectural remnants of Portland's past; in fact, these days they're filled with youthful vitality. Three new brick apartment buildings blend gracefully with their older neighbors, attracting hundreds of new city dwellers. By day, the blocks fill with residents, museumgoers, and students from adjacent Portland State University.

And no longer is the area-three blocks from central Pioneer Courthouse Square and bordering the downtown shopping and financial districts deserted after 5 o'clock, thanks, primarily, to theater. Live performances are nothing new: a couple of small companies have been based here for several years, and the Schnitzer Concert Hall, at Main Street and Broadway, opened four years ago.

But it was last fall, when the Portland Center for the Performing Arts opened across Main Street, that the area became what it is today: the city's undisputed theater district. And the recent installation of more and brighter period-style lampposts in the Park Blocks themselves has made it even more inviting after dark. The big news this fall is the arrival of Portland Center Stage, an offshoot of the Ashland-based, Tony award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival; it opens its first season in the performing arts center on November 10, producing five plays over the following four months.

And there's more. The rush of concerts and plays has spawned new restaurants on the district's perimeter. Both the art and history museums are undergoing extensive renovation. Park Blocks businesses, churches, and cultural institutions have banded together to create a new walking-tour guide of the area; you'll find it almost anywhere you stop.

Eclectic seasons at four theaters

With accolades still coming in ftom architectural critics around the country, the new performing arts center, which covers most of a city block, could fill its two theaters for weeks simply with admirers of its design. Brass planets and stars on the ceiling add whimsy to the handsome and otherwise traditional concert-hall look of the 916-seat Intermediate Theatre, now home of Portland Center Stage. Red walls and movable chairs give the 370-seat Winningstad Theatre an innovative flair. Patrons 'shaking off umbrellas welcome the lobby fireplace. On Sundays, free 1 -hour tours of the center and adjacent Schnitzer Concert Hall-home to the Oregon Symphony-begin in the lobby every 1/2-hour, 11 to 1.

All but Artists Repertory perform Tuesdays through Sundays, with two shows Sundays. (Artists Rep performs Thursdays through Sundays.)

Artists Repertory Theatre (503/242-2400) performs in a 110-seat theater at the YWCA, 1111 S.W. 10th Avenue. The company's actors tend to choose new works by regional playwrights. Although the company opens with the off-Broadway hit Pump Boys and Dinettes (through October 1), lesser-known works will fill out its six-play season, which runs till next August.

New Rose Theatre (222-2487) is known as Portland's classics company. Home stage is a 119-seat theater at 904 S.W. Main Street; this year, three of eight plays (including one by a guest company) will be staged at the performing arts center. The season opens September 14 with A Touch of the Poet, a nod to Eugene O'Neill's centennial; it runs through October 16.

Portland Center Stage (248-6309), progeny of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (and the only Actors Equity company in the Park Blocks), debuts in the performing arts center with what its producer describes as an "Ashland season" a mix of classic and contemporary dramas and comedies, making the most of the festival's talent for visual spectacle. The opener is Shaw's

Heartbreak House, November 12 through December 3. Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre, ends the five-play season in March.

Storefront Theatre (224-4001), begun 19 years ago as a kind of guerrilla theater, has evolved into one of the city's leading companies. Its season is perhaps the most wide-ranging of these four theaters, from opener Babes on Burnside, an original musical (through October 16), to The Cuchulain Cycle, a series of five plays by poet William Butler Yeats. Storefront now presents its entire five-play season at the performing arts center.

Beyond theater: jazz at the art museum, classics in the concert hall

There's more to the Park Blocks than theater. The performing arts center hosts the West Coast Chamber Orchestra (2287509) and Portland Gay Men's Chorus (248-4496). Riding a wave of critical acclaim following the release of its first recording, the Oregon Symphony (2281353) opens its 1988-89 classical series in the Schnitzer September 25; its season runs through May 2.

The Oregon Historical Center, 1230 S.W. Park Avenue, is finishing work on a threestory addition and a brick plaza out front. In a new permanent exhibit on the second floor, a wealth of artifacts traces the state's history. Admission is free; hours are 10 to 4:45 daily except Sundays.

Across the park, Oregon Art Institute's entry and indoor sculpture court have just been renovated; stop by to browse in the galleries, eat lunch (see below), or listen to jazz Wednesday evenings starting October 19. Hours are 11 to 7 Tuesdays through Fridays (till 9:30 Thursdays), noon to 5 weekends. Admission is $3, $1.50 seniors and students, 50 cents ages 6 to 12, free after 5 on Thursdays.

Making a night of it

At last count, some 16 restaurants and cafes stood within a block of the park; 6 opened in the past year or so. Most stay open late to catch the theater crowd. For dinner, try McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Bar, in the lobby of the performing arts center, or the restaurant in the Heathman Hotel, at Broadway and Salmon Street. From 2 to 4 daily, an elegant afternoon tea is served by the fireplace in the hotel's lobby lounge.

B. Moloch Heathman Bakery & Pub (Salmon and Park Avenue) has an innovative menu and informal atmosphere; it's open all day. The art museum's new cafe, Ron Paul at the Museum, serves during museum hours.

The renovated Heathman is closest to the theaters; four other hotels are within eight blocks of the performing arts center.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Oct 1, 1988
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