Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Strange Tale of the Gipsy Smith Auditorium

     It's clear that Portland historian Barney Blalock has been bitten by the Weird Portland bug and I, for one, am extremely grateful.  Barney's book Portland's Lost Waterfront has been out for a while now and mine, Murder and Mayhem in Portland, Oregon will be out very soon. In the meantime enjoy this odd tale from Portland's history. Over to you Barney...

Most evangelists on what was called the "sawdust trail" were happy with a big tent. However, in 1911, when Portland didn't have an auditorium large enough for the world famous, golden-throated, "Gipsy" Smith, the city built one especially for him. 

Rodney "Gipsy" (also spelled "Gypsy") Smith was born in 1860 in a tent in Epping Forest, on the outskirts of London, into a family of Roma.  At the age of 16 he experienced Christian conversion and began to rise up through the ranks of the Salvation Army. He was brilliant and talented, with no formal education he was able to teach himself to read and write, and to preach the gospel. He was also gifted with a remarkable baritone voice that aided in his ministry and at one point landed him a contract with the RCA gramophone company. Virtually forgotten these days, "Gipsy" Smith was the most popular draw of the period. He travelled the world filling the largest halls in the U.S. and Canada. In 1911 Portland was on the verge of becoming a major city, but there was no venue large enough for the crowds Smith could draw.
When laying out the itinerary for a North American campaign, Smith had sadly declared that he would have to bypass the Rose City. The crowds that he drew called for a venue that could seat, at the very minimum, 3,000 souls. Knowing full well that Portland was long overdue for a spiritual revival, the Protestants of Portland united behind this cause. Large sums were pledged by some of the downtown churches, and the city council was brought on board. Portland could not be second bested by Seattle, and even Spokane, cities already on the itinerary; so the gears went into motion to see that such a building would be there in time for the advent of the famous preacher. 

Seemingly overnight plans were made, and an architect was found. Eventually an empty lot in an area that would become the Civic Stadium (now Jeld Wen field) was obtained for the purpose. There was some protest from the nearby Multnomah Club due to worries about fire, but providence prevailed allowing the "Gipsy" troupe to roll into town on the agreed date.

Friday, November 10, 1911 was first night of the Portland campaign—a spiritual marathon lasting 17 prayer-filled days. Thousands of citizens came by streetcar, carriage, or automobile through the rainy streets to the new, brightly lit tabernacle on the corner of Taylor and Chapman (Chapman was later named S.W. 18th Avenue). Governor Oswald West (a devout Protestant) opened the ceremonies and "Gipsy" Smith preached, and sang, and invited sinners to repent. Those who came forward to find the path to repentance were ushered into private rooms to meet with local pastors.
A portion of the offerings taken during this visit went to defray part, if not all of the cost of the structure, which was designed to be temporary. For the next several years it was used as an auditorium while the City Council argued over building a permanent building for the purpose. In the meantime everyone from suffragettes to William Jennings Bryant filled the hall with attendees. A particularly interesting event was in March 1912 when R.S.S. Baden-Powell, the father of the Boy Scouts movement, came to the tabernacle to speak. For reasons too obscure for me to discover the I.W.W. (otherwise known as Wobblies) showed up to protest and heckle. They carried signs suggesting that Baden-Powell was himself a pervert, and child molester. They hooted him down in such a way that the evening was a loss. From the minute British vice consul to Portland, James Laidlaw, stepped on the stage to introduce his famous fellow country man the cat calls and jeers took over. The event was marked up as a victory by the Wobblies and as an outrage to decency and a black-eye for Portland by everyone else.

Even after all this the odor of "Gipsy" Smith's sanctity must have remained in the structure, perfuming the rafters. During the summer of that same year a boxing promoter rented the hall for the purpose of a prizefight between Abe "the little Hebrew" Attell and the British, ex-bricklayer, Jack Bennett. The promoter was met with a blast of opposition from the downtown preachers whose association controlled the site. The manager hired by the association to handle the venue was unhappy as well, having already contracted with the promoter. 

"I do not consider the tabernacle any more sacred than my garage." the manager quipped to the Oregonian. "It is Portland's temporary auditorium and should be leased out for dog shows, cat shows, boxing and wrestling, and other clean affairs."

In September 1912 Teddy Roosevelt showed up to stump for the Progressive Party. Not long after leaving the auditorium he discovered that someone had lifted one of his favorite books (a gift from his wife) from his room at the Oregon Hotel. He left Portland in the kind of a huff that only a Teddy Roosevelt could pull off. Following this the venue was graced by a harvest festival and a poultry show featuring 1,100 chickens.
President Theodore Roosevelt did not like Portland very much.

By December 1913 the auditorium entered into a period in which it was used as a shelter for many of the homeless, unemployed men who walked the streets of Portland. The homeless men housed there were soon "organized" by the I.W.W. who took over the operations of the shelter, much to the dismay of non-members. The Wobblies were accused of having a hierarchy of privilege ruled by cooks and cooks "flunkeys" who gorged themselves on food and starved everyone else. Only 200 of the reported 600 to 1,200 men being housed were actual members of the I.W.W. Conditions were such that within a month the place was closed temporarily to be fumigated. All this activity by men referred to as "the idle," "riff-raff," or "loafers" must have been utterly vexing to the "hoity toity" at the Multnomah Club nearly next door. 
This saga continued until April 1, 1914 when the men were ushered out into the cold and the auditorium (no longer with the lingering odor of sanctity) was once again used for its original purpose for a short period. Its last big event was in May of that year, a rally of prohibitionists, but in July the city commissioners signed the tabernacle's death warrant and the building was sold off as scrap lumber and cord wood. 

This ends the short, but lively tale of Portland's "Gipsy" Smith Auditorium. I have been collecting postcards of Portland for awhile now, and I noticed this building in several photographs taken from City Park (now Washington Park). I was quite surprised to discover the identity of the structure. My father was a Baptist missionary, who had attended school in Portland, and I have lived here most of my life, yet I had never heard of "Gipsy" Smith or his auditorium on Taylor Street at Chapman.


  1. Hey, if you build me a big enough tabernacle, I'll come and speak in Portland. Heck, I'd come just to see the 1,100 chickens!

  2. I greatly enjoyed your blog entry as I have come across various references to Gipsy Smith Auditorium but I've found little other information about it. I am still puzzled about the exact location of the Auditorium. In Tracy Prince's book, PORTLAND'S GOOSE HOLLOW, there are a couple of 1912 photos of the 18th and Salmon/Taylor area. The Auditorium, however, doesn't seem to be where your map indicates it should be.

    1. Hi, Mark,

      Thank you for the nice comment!

      For the location I am going by Oregonian reports. For instance, when governor Oswald West spoke at the opening ceremony, November 10, 1911, the Oregonian reported the location as "the tabernacle at Chapman and Taylor." Chapman was later renamed 18th Street, and Taylor remained the same, so it seems like the location is obvious. Of course there may be some mysterious fact that I am missing. Since the building was only up for a few years confusion is bound to set in. But I would place a good bet on what is now SW 18th and Taylor.