The Column is the “crowning monument” in a series of 12 historical markers constructed between St. Paul, Minnesota and Astoria, Oregon. These markers were the pet project of Ralph Budd, who was president of the Great Northern Railroad at the time. Budd and other businessmen and scholars wanted to celebrate Astoria’s early settlers for their role in expanding the United States to the Pacific Coast.
But the initial vision for the actual monument is not what ultimately came to pass. Budd’s original concept, as described in a note written to the Portland Press Club after the Astoria Column was completed, called for the monument to essentially consist of a giant flagpole that would fly a correspondingly enormous American flag. It was not until Budd unveiled his flagpole idea to architect Electus Litchfield that he learned about artist Attilio Pusterla and his famous sgraffito painting technique. It was then that Budd and Litchfield formulated a new plan: to commemorate the historic events that transpired at the mouth of the Columbia River–beginning with its discovery and ending with the arrival of the railroad–in pictures.
Budd, Litchfield and the citizens of Astoria agreed that the 600-foot elevation at Coxcomb Hill provided the perfect backdrop for their monumental histogram. To help fund the project, they enlisted the financial support of New York philanthropist Vincent Astor—the great-grandson of businessman John Jacob Astor, whose Pacific Fur Company settled Astoria in the early 1800s. This would not, however, be the Astor family’s first contribution to the Column project. Gifts from the family during the city’s centennial celebration in 1911 funded the purchase of the land on Coxcomb Hill where the Column stands today.
A. B. Guthrie and Company of Portland won the contract for construction for the Astoria Column. They began work in March 1926, and the Column was ready for exterior decoration just two months later.
Attilio Pusterla, the Italian immigrant artist known for his expertise in sgraffito, was hired to design the artwork for the Column’s exterior. While construction was underway, Pusterla was still working in his New York studio on the sketches and final artwork that would make up the mural scenes depicted on the Column.
With the Column dedication date of July 22, 1926 looming, tensions were high among project leaders concerning whether or not the Column would be ready in time. But the artwork finally was finished, and on July 1, Pusterla and his assistants began transcribing the images onto fresh plaster on the Column’s surface.
Applying the artwork proved to be an arduous process. Workers devised a round wooden structure that encircled the Column and dangled by ropes from the 110-foot high viewing platform, providing a mobile scaffold for the artists. Pusterla took his large completed drawings up on the scaffold, and after laying down a dark base coat, he placed the drawing over the wet plaster. He then blew colored powder into the holes poked in the outline of each figure. Lifting the drawing away from the plaster, he could see the outlines he’d made. Then he added a lighter coat of plaster, and finished the image by incising shadows and outlines.
Pusterla was exacting in his craft, perhaps to an obsessive degree, and was prone to destroy the previous day’s work if he found it didn’t meet his satisfaction when viewing it from the ground.
This tedious process of transcribing the artwork onto the Column’s surface allowed only three bands of images to be completed by dedication day—July 22, 1926. But by all accounts, this did nothing to diminish the three days of festivities planned to mark the dedication. A crowd of 8,000 was on hand to celebrate.
Afterward, Pusterla and his assistants again took up their tools, and artwork on the Column’s exterior was finally completed on October 29, 1926.
Thirty-five years later, in 1961, another Astor descendent–Lord John Jacob–visited Astoria for the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. During his time here, he dedicated a memorial to the Chinook Indians at the Astoria Column site. The memorial consists of a replica of Chief Concomly’s burial canoe, which is elevated and facing west as prescribed by Chinook custom. Concomly has a significant place in the history of the region as an expert navigator and skilled negotiator.
This question–among countless others–has long been a topic of hot local debate. Officially, the name of the monument is the Astoria Column, as it was dedicated in 1926. Ralph Budd, who initiated the project, felt naming the monument the Astor Column would focus too much attention on the contributions of Astor, while diminishing those of Astoria’s early explorers—Captains Robert Gray, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis.