1898-1911

An observatory to rival the Eiffel Tower

The Astoria Column, located atop Coxcomb Hill, is a monument to the natural riches of the Pacific Northwest and the people who settled there. Building and maintaining the Column has been an endeavor requiring the efforts and resources of many over the years. It stands today as one of the finest tributes in America to those who built the West.

The original dream in 1898 was to build an electrified tower to rival Gustav Eiffel’s in Paris. Coxcomb Hill, which rises 600 feet above the south bank of the Columbia River, was considered the ideal site with its magnificent, panoramic views of the Astoria countryside. 
Public interest in building a tower grew further in 1911 when Astoria celebrated its centennial. The Astoria Centennial Committee erected an electric sign on Coxcomb Hill reading “1811-1911.”

The committee also hoped to build a road to the top of the hill, but when that didn’t come about, 70-year-old John Friend Chitwood took the initiative to clear a four-foot wide path up the ridge.

Astoria’s Centennial events proved to be a boon to fundraising efforts. One of the donors was John Astor, a descendant of fur-trader John Jacob Astor, for whom Astoria was named.

Top: Astoria Centennial Parade, 1911

Bottom: Astoria Centennial float depicting the departure of the Astor party from New York.

PHOTOS COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1912-1924

Astoria purchases parkland on Coxcomb Hill

Thanks to the abundance of funds collected through Astoria centennial events, the City of Astoria purchased 30 acres of land for a park on Coxcomb Hill in 1914.

The celebration of the new Astor Park drew speakers, singers, and townfolk. The park needed flagpole and John Chitwood hired two men to cut the limbs from a 90-foot tree on the hill. A flag was hoisted in time for the big, July 4 celebration in 1917. Now with a park of their own, Astorians cleared part of the ridge to hold events. While a desire to erect a tower remained, nothing further occurred beyond that short-lived centennial sign and the flagpole tree.

In 1922, downtown Astoria suffered a devastating fire to much of its downtown. The rebuilding effort led to the construction of many enduring landmarks, including Hotel Astoria and the Liberty Theater. There was still interest in a monument, but it was deemed costly to build and maintain. Developing Coxcomb Hill would require a champion with vision and resources.

Top: Commercial Street and 14th Avenue, Astoria, 1923.

Bottom: View of the 1922 fire that destroyed much of downtown Astoria.

PHOTOS COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1925

A new champion emerges, a new concept takes shape

Ralph Budd, president of the Great Northern Railway, was to become the champion the project needed. After the completion of the railroad line across America, Budd wanted to build 12 historical markers between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Astoria, Oregon, to celebrate the region’s early settlers. The Astoria Column was to be the “crowning monument” in this series.

Budd’s initial vision for the monument in Astoria consisted of a giant flagpole with an enormous American flag, an idea he. Budd shared his idea with New York architect Electus Litchfield. and they talked. It was Litchfield who talked about artist Attilio Pusterla and his sgraffito painting technique. It was then that the plan took an entirely new shape: to build a column with a histogram commemorating events in the region’s history, from the discovery of the Columbia River to the arrival of the railroad.

Events moved steadily after December 1925, when Budd announced plans to build the monument on Coxcomb Hill. To help fund the project, they enlisted the financial support of New York philanthropist Vincent Astor—the great-grandson of businessman John Jacob Astor.

Top: Ralph Budd later in his life (circa 1944).
PHOTO COURTESY LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, FSA/OWI COLLECTION, LC-USE613-D-000190.

Bottom: The Great Northern Railway depot in Astoria, circa 1920s.
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

JANUARY 1926

Litchfield gets to work

Electus Litchfield projected a decorated column rising to 100 feet at a cost of $24,000. Ralph Budd later said, “I have been given credit for the idea of the Column, but this was Mr. Litchfield’s idea—the architect.”

Litchfield drew heavily from classical forms for the Astoria Column. He found inspiration from Trajan’s Column in Rome and the Vendome Column in Paris. Inside the 100-foot Trajan Column, a staircase wound upward, culminating at a viewing platform above a forum. He seized upon this concept for the monument on Coxcomb Hill, where visitors would climb the staircase and emerge onto a small viewing platform about 110 feet above the ridge. From there, they would have a panoramic view of the Columbia River and the snow-capped volcanoes in the distance.

The exterior of the Astoria Column would feature artwork depicting the Native Americans, the exploration of Robert Gray, the adventures of Lewis and Clark, the settlements of pioneers, the founding of Astoria, and the arrival of the railroad.

Top: Astoria Railroad depot 1905-1920 (exact date unknown)
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

MARCH—APRIL 1926

A flurry of construction gets underway

After the site was graded and a permanent roadway was built, workers for A.B. Guthrie and Company got to work in March. They built a foundation, built forms and started pouring concrete. Within two months, the Astoria Column was ready for decoration.

The costs were carefully itemized: $15,000 for A.B. Guthrie and Company for construction, $2,875 to Portland Wire and Iron Works for the spiral staircase, $1,000 in architect fees for Electus Litchfield, and $7,500 for artist Attilio Pusteria and his supplies.

Top: Astoria Column under construction in 1926.
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

SPRING—JULY 1926

The artist behind the mural

Attilio Pusterla was the artistic genius behind the 525-foot-long mural that wraps around the Astoria Column. Pusterla was an Italian immigrant known for his expertise in sgraffito, an engraving technique used by potters for centuries. Born in Milan and educated in Italy, Pusterla studied with the Italian painters Cremona and Giovanni Seggantini.

As the dedication date of July 22, 1926, approached, tensions were high over whether the Column would be ready in time. The “temperamental” Pusterla had taken nearly six months to conceive and prepare the sketches and he did not arrive onsite until mid-June. 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 mobile scaffold that encircled the Column and dangled by ropes from the viewing platform. After laying down a dark base coat, Pusterla placed the drawing over the wet plaster. He next 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 a perfectionist and would destroy the previous day’s work if he found it didn’t meet his satisfaction when viewing it from the ground.

Top: Attilio Pusterla.
PHOTO COURTESY THE OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Bottom: Detail from Attilio Pusterla’s sketches for the Column mural showing portraits of Lewis, Clark and Jefferson, as well as the Seaside saltworks used by the Corps of Discovery.
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

JULY—OCTOBER 1926

Dedication day and completion of the artwork

The lengthy 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. However, the unfinished exterior did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the 8,000 celebrants who enjoyed three days of festivities to mark the Column’s dedication. Attendees included loggers performing log-rolling, bathing beauties, a boxing match, five U.S. Navy ships, street dancers, bands, choirs and the “Prunarians” of Vancouver, Washington.

Following the festivities, Pusterla and his assistants got back to work and the artwork on the Column’s exterior was finally completed on October 29, 1926. It was the first use of sgraffito on a monumental column.

Astoria vs. Astor Column: Officially, the name of the monument is the Astoria Column, as it was dedicated in 1926. Ralph Budd believed that 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.

Top: Dedication day, July 22, 1926.

Bottom: Visitors to the Column in late summer or early fall, 1926; Pusterla’s progress on the mural can be seen in the background.

PHOTOS COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1929—1941

The ongoing restoration begins

Within three years of the Column’s completion, the North Oregon Coast’s wind and rain had taken its toll on the sgraffito mural.

However, the Great Depression in October 1929 thwarted fund-raising efforts to raise the $5,000 needed to hire Pusterla to restore the artwork. Coming to the rescue, the Astor family offered $3,000, the Great Northern Railway gave $500, and the City of Astoria budgeted $2,000. Pusterla returned to Astoria in 1936 to repair damage and waterproof the mural. The plan was to treat the mural at five-year intervals.

Pusterla died in 1941. The Astoria Column was one of his most notable works, as evidenced by the nearly 22,000 tourists who visited that year.

Top: The completed Column, exact date unknown.
PHOTOS COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1942—1947

WWII closes the Astoria Column

During World War II, Coxcomb Hill was closed to the public because the U.S. Navy used it as a navigational air facility. The Column reopened to the public in 1947.

Top: WWII 052U “Kingfisher” pilot training over Astoria.
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1947-1970s

Restoration continues

In 1948, the Column’s artwork was treated with tung oil. Tung oil has been used for centuries as a water-resistant finish. City workers treated it again in 1958. The waterproofing created problems by accentuating differences between the 1926 and 1936 sgraffito, darkening the colors, and trapping dirt and lichen.

By 1968, the Column had developed cracks and the murals faded. Workers used white latex paint to revitalize the work, but it ended up diminishing the portraiture in the medallions. To repair cracks, workers injected epoxy, which did not hold. X-rays confirmed that the concrete Column was only being held together by wire mesh.

Therefore, in 1976, the city closed the Column so it could be reinforced with metal rings and steel rods.

In 1974, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Top: Visitors to the Column, exact date unknown.
PHOTO COURTESY THE CLATSOP COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

1961

The Chinook are honored by Astor descendant

In 1961, another Astor descendent—Lord John Jacob—visited Astoria for the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. During his stay, 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.

1980s

The Column gets some caring friends

After decades of weather and wear on the Column, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form Friends of Astoria Column, Inc. This private, nonprofit group, led by Jordan Schnitzer, worked to broaden interest in the Column and to raise money for its restoration. Meanwhile, Fred Lindstrom, head of Astoria’s Parks and Recreation Division, began investigating restoration approaches.

The City of Astoria and its officials, led by Mayor Edith Henningsgaard and Council Member Duncan Law, worked to develop a program, raise funds and begin the restoration of the Column and the park.

In 1989, workers were hired to clean the Column. The surface was scrubbed with toothbrushes, but the murals remained dimmed by the ravages of weather and time. A larger restoration effort would be needed to save the Column.

Top: Jordan Schnitzer at a celebration of the Column in 1995.
PHOTO COURTESY THE FRIENDS OF ASTORIA COLUMN

1995

The Column shines bright once again

The Friends of Astoria Column redoubled their efforts to raise money for a thorough restoration of the Column’s artwork and park grounds. After raising $1 million, Frank Preusser, a world-renown art conservator, was hired to perform the formidable restoration project. Preusser had previously worked on the Sphinx in Egypt and the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, so it was fitting that an artisan of his standing would work on the beloved Astoria Column.

Working under a huge, plastic cocoon, Preusser and his local crew worked to bring new life to Pusterla’s murals. The team used historical photos and the original scratch lines to restore the murals. Only 20 percent of the original art remained when they began the project. When they finished, the Column was treated with water-repellent. Preusser recommended restoring the Column every eight-to-15 years.

The restoration included rebuilding the doors, restoring the cupola and cleaning its windows, and replacing the copper finial that once perched on top of the Column. The City of Astoria replaced the railing on the viewing platform to meet modern building codes.

In November 1995, when the scaffolding came down, Astorians had their monument back, looking as brilliant as it did when Pusterla completed his murals in 1926.

Top: The Column before, during, and after the 1995 restoration.
PHOTO COURTESY THE FRIENDS OF ASTORIA COLUMN

2004—2008

The Column enters a new century

By the 21st century, the number of annual visitors to the Astoria Column had grown from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. It’s fitting that the Astoria Column remains a national beacon of inspiration, honoring the original inhabitants and settlers in the Pacific Northwest.

As part of the 2005 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, the city and the Friends of Astoria Column raised nearly $2 million to improve the grounds around the Column. Seismic upgrades were made and new lighting installations were added. And in 2008, after supporting millions of climbers, the spiral staircase was replaced.

But most importantly, the Friends used the funds to instal a new granite plaza and an ADA-accessible walkway. This infrastructure has made access to the Column possible for many more visitors in recent years.

Top: A new replacement staircase is lowered into the Column in 2008.
PHOTO COURTESY THE FRIENDS OF ASTORIA COLUMN

2015

Keeping ahead of wear and tear

In 2015, a $1 million restoration took place to keep the Column’s artwork beautiful, the grounds cared for and the structure safe.

The Column’s exterior surface was cleaned and the artwork restored, and structural repairs were made to stabilize cracking, delamination and spalling. The work included structural surveys and inspections.

More than half the cost of the project went to repair the Column artwork and structure. The balance was allocated to restore and repair of the plaza that surrounds the base of the Column, make landscape improvements, and install energy-efficient LED lighting.

Top: A member of the conservation team examines the Oregon State Seal at the top of the Column as a part of the learning and restoration effort undertaken in 2015.

Bottom: The conservation team uses a lift to examine the Column in advance of restoration.

PHOTO COURTESY THE FRIENDS OF ASTORIA COLUMN

TODAY

Maintaining a historical legacy

Every night, from almost anywhere in Astoria, you can look atop Coxcomb Hill and see a magnificent light show on the Astoria Column every hour on the hour. Friends of Astoria Column donated thousands to illuminate the tower with a changing palette of colors.

In order to keep the Astoria Column one of the nation’s finest monuments, a maintenance manual and treatment plan was created for future restorations. Another restoration probably will be needed in 20-to-30 years. The Friends of Astoria Column remain committed to working with the city of Astoria to protect this exceptional piece of art for future generations—Astorians, Oregonians, and the thousands of visitors who come to the Column every year.

Top: The Astoria Column in 2019, lit up by energy-efficient LED lights.
PHOTO COURTESY THE FRIENDS OF ASTORIA COLUMN