The Vista House was designed by Edgar M. Lazarus, a renowned Oregon architect. With its high-grade marble interior and brass fixtures, some Oregonians at the time derided it as the “$100,000 Outhouse” during its construction. The initial funds for the project, allocated by the public, had totaled $3,812.35. According to an itemized list published by the Oregon Historical Society, the building itself eventually cost approximately $70,000, with an additional $9,000 for the accompanying rock wall; $8,000 for paving and gradation; $6,000 to the architect; and $3,000 for further construction costs.
The original idea for an observatory at the site came from Samuel Lancaster, the consulting engineer for the Columbia River Highway. Lancaster proposed “an observatory from which the view both up and down the Columbia could be viewed in silent communion with the infinite.” Construction of the Vista House began December 29, 1916, and was completed in 1918 and dedicated May 5, 1918. The dedication was overseen by Frank Branch Riley of Portland.
Lancaster also suggested the name “Vista House.” The Vista House Association was established in 1974 to raise money for the project, composed of 52 Portland-area leaders. Funding subscriptions failed to raise sufficient money, and most of the cost of construction was paid by Multnomah County. Construction was supervised by John B. Yeon.