Collecting a Piece of History

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December 10, 2013

There’s a roster of the Minutemen of Plaistow, New Hampshire, from 1775. A poster announcing Abraham Lincoln’s plans to attend Ford’s Theatre on the night he was assassinated and an autograph of John Wilkes Booth on a New York play program. And the typewriter John F. Kennedy used to compose speeches.


These and about 300 other artifacts make up the Mark Family Collection, assembled by Pete Mark over more than a half century. Built with passion by the owner of Melvin Mark Cos., the commercial real-estate giant of Portland, Oregon, the collection highlights moments in history: priceless treasures detailing an eventful and world-changing American past.


Lately, 87-year-old Pete has been able to share it more widely. The Oregon Historical Society in Portland opened its Windows on America exhibit in June that features the Mark Family Collection. The exhibit, sponsored by The Private Client Reserve, was extended by popular demand until early January.


“I enjoy acquiring the materials,” Pete says. “But even more, I enjoy when people see the collection. It brings history alive.”

Pete Mark; photo by William Bragg Photography


A Love of History

Pete’s fascination with U.S. history is grounded in his upbringing in Philadelphia, where he grew up surrounded by Revolutionary War icons such as Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. His college experience at the University of Virginia deepened his love for the study of America’s roots and evolution. Pete began turning this passion into an impactful collection in 1962, after he saw an ad in the New York Times for a letter written by the Marquis de Lafayette. His mother-in-law tried to surprise him and buy it for his birthday, but it was already sold. Instead, she purchased a Theodore Roosevelt missive. That was all the encouragement Pete needed.


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December 10, 2013

One of Pete’s favorite artifacts is a copy of the Atlantic Charter signed by both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He obtained it from a descendant of a young Navy ensign who was on duty in the White House map room when the two leaders came to assess the war’s progress.


Pete also procured several pieces from the Ronald Reagan administration through the late Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon. One is a copy of Reagan’s famous “Tear down this wall!” speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987; another is an autographed photo from Reagan’s starring role in Knute Rockne, All American.


Ted Austin, Portland Market Leader for The Private Client Reserve, has “curated” the bank’s relationship with the Mark family for many years.

Austin recently hosted a private reception and viewing of the collection, where he introduced Peteto attendees. “Pete lights up when he talks about a favorite object or about how he came upon anotherunique piece of history,” he says. “Attendees werejust as excited about the stories behind the stories behind the collection as they were about the collection itself.”

"The kinds of artifacts you can acquire and what you can learn from them will always intrigue me. They're windows into the past."

—Pete Mark


Strong Roots and Local Ties


The Mark family’s ties to U.S. Bank go back to the mid-1940s, when Pete’s father, Melvin Mark Sr., was in the lobby of Portland’s Benson Hotel and took a call from an enterprising U.S. Bank representative. The call led to a meeting with the bank president later that day.


Melvin was in the family shoe business in Philadelphia when the Great Depression hit. He then transitioned into constructing office buildings around the country. The family settled in Portland, developing and commercializing one local landmark after another.

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December 10, 2013

Pete took over the business after his father’s death in 1965. One of his earliest major decisions was to stay in Portland despite opportunities for geographic diversification. That has paid off handsomely, as the city has become an economically diverse and robust capital of the Pacific Northwest. Jim Mark, Pete’s son and now CEO of Melvin Mark Cos., attributes the company’s growth to its business model focused on local ownership. “Where some of our rivals purely chase development, we pursue the traditional model of commercial real estate by often investing equity in the building projects we take on,” he says.


The Constant Curator and Collector

Jim began running the business in 2001 as his father became chairman. The transition freed Pete to work on the collection with his wife, Mary Mark, who died in 2008. Pete always felt the urge to share his collection. For instance, as a kid, Jim found the collection a really cool source of show-and-tell material. “But Dad was careful about letting a 12-year-old take a valuable historical document to school,” he remembers. “He’d usually accompany it.”

Then in 2009, David McCullough, a renowned historian, came to town to speak, and Pete shared his collection with the fellow history buff. “He said, ‘Pete, you ought to show it at the Smithsonian,’” Pete recalls. “I was flabbergasted. Then I thought, ‘Darn it, I’m from Portland. This is where everything has happened for me and my family and my business. And I want to show it here first.’” That opportunity came two years ago when the Oregon Historical Society recruited a new Executive Director, Kerry Tymchuk, who immediately saw the potential in displaying Pete’s collection. Tymchuk quickly pivoted to develop the exhibit.


Ever the curator and collector, Pete plans to help the museum extend the exhibit to include parts of his collection that represent other important eras of U.S. history, from the Lincoln presidency to the time of Kennedy. “The kinds of artifacts you can acquire and what you can learn from them will always intrigue me,” Pete says. “They’re windows into the past.”


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