Monday, June 13, 2016

Building codes, vs. Building Communities

Long time readers of this blog or our PreserveOregon page on Facebook know that we are often frustrated by building code and code officials.  Not that there is anything wrong with efforts to assure that new (or restored) buildings are safe but there is an unfortunate lack of flexibility in the application code and a forest-for-the-trees approach the government and legal system bring to enforcement that is based on liability, not logic.  Code officials, and because of them, the public, often believe that “doesn’t meet code” is the same thing as “dangerous.”  That is rarely the case.  The building you are in right now, unless it was built yesterday, doesn’t “meet code.”

Certainly there are historic buildings that have structural or systems issues that should be corrected.  But as code officials are prone to remind you, because “somebody died for every line of building code,” code is based on the concept that every building should be absolutely no ifs ands or buts as safe as technology can make it.  Building code reminds me of TSA…because one stupid guy tried to blow up an airplane with a shoe bomb, every single airplane passenger has to remove their shoes.  I’m not sure that is really necessary.

A major problem with all that code-driven safety is that it costs lots of money.  Sometimes the burden for existing buildings is so high that owners won’t upgrade at all, because doing so triggers a requirement for full code compliance.  That can leave buildings, un-reinforced masonry buildings for example, completely under-structured even when financially viable upgrades could be easily done but a full code compliant upgrade isn't possible or feasible.  I have long said that you can upgrade most anything to 90% of current code for $X, but the last 10% will cost you $100x more.  I’m not mathematician, but I'm pretty sure that 90% is better than nothing.  I think allowing major improvement, even if not full code compliance, is a good thing for many reasons, preservation being just one of them.  And, of course, the reality is that building code, because of lawsuits, has a huge CYA component that drives costs through the roof and provides little additional benefit.  That too, even for new construction, has huge implications.

In Oregon the cost of housing is skyrocketing and homelessness is an increasing problem.  Cities, for entirely valid reasons, have limits on building from both code and zoning, that make the threshold for new housing steep.  That can be building code, each line saving a life, or it can be zoning, with minimum lot sizes and setbacks and off-street parking and whatever.  All of those things are designed to protect lives or property values (keeping your neighbor from building a “hovel” and impacting your house).  Again, this is all fine and valid, but it surely has the result of making housing more costly, meaning less people can be housed.  It keepd the costs of existing land and buildings high, in a time of declining real income and growing population, almost guaranteeing a housing crisis.

Other countries have housing that we might consider substandard (and it assuredly is) but it seems to house people pretty well most of the time.  Maybe if the US re-thought building code there would be some method to make reasonably safe, high-value, housing available to more people?
Zoning code too causes some weird issue.  In the 1950s cities determined that uses should be divided by type; housing in one area, commercial and industrial in others, because nobody wants to live next to a slaughterhouse or a junk yard.  But the way that reasonable idea has been implemented has made it almost impossible to have a neighborhood store or a corner bar or coffee shop within walking distance of housing, especially in newer parts of town.  I’m not sure that’s good.  Small neighborhood stores are really convenient, they build community and, well, they support small, locally-owned, business.  Instead much of America has to drive somewhere to buy a carton of milk.  Not the most environmentally wise thing, nor all that good for the waistline either.

A city councilor is a successful city once told me that if you want to reduce the cost of housing, reduce the minimum lot size.  If current lots are 5000 s.f. minimum and you reduce it to 4000 s.f. the cost of a house (or at least the land) would theoretically drop 20% (just like that).  If cities reduce concerns about building and planning code (allowing more reasonable code, or taller buildings, or increased lot coverage, or whatever) the cost of construction would drop too.  This is, in part, the concept behind “Tiny Houses,” but tiny houses are only rarely legal in most American cities.

All this relates to historic preservation because the cost of code upgrades to historic buildings and the difficulties in meeting code can be a major obstacle (if only for bank funding) to reusing existing building stock.  It shouldn’t be.  While a 100 year old building may not meet current code, there is no dispute that it has been standing, functioning, and housing human activity for 100 years.  Even the newest, built-to-the-nines, code compliant structure can’t say that.  Nor is there any guarantee that such a new building will survive for 100 years into the future.  Even if it does, it too would probably be treated as if it were dangerously out of code by that time too. 

It seems to me that cities would do well to rethink the overall goals of both building and zoning codes.  There are lots of good ideas there, but perhaps some of them have been so over-generalized that they actually inhibit other community goals.  I wish I could say I held out much hope positive change that reduces regulations could happen, but I don’t.  To paraphrase the famous quote from the movie Back to the Future, “first we would have to kill all the lawyers.” 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Liberty Theatre, North Bend, OR, Phase 1 and counting.....

The Liberty Theatre, in North Bend, was designed by Tourtellotte & Hummel, of Boise and Portland, and opened on Easter Sunday 1924.  It cost $50,000, and was just one of the fine concrete, fireproof, structures built in that city during North Bend boom of the early 1920s.  The Liberty showed movies through WWII but was closed when the newer, wide-screen, Port opened.  It sat vacant for a time before its owners leased the building to Little Theater on the Bay (LTOB), a Coos County-based community theater group.  LIBERTY  LTOB purchased the building in the 1970s, paid off the mortgage in 1996 and even bought the lot next door. 

Coos County, so isolated for so many years before the coastal bridges and highway was completed, developed a rather amazing tradition of high quality local theater.  In those early years there just wasn’t much entertainment there and people, talented people, learned to entertain themselves.  LTOB is now the second oldest continuously operated theater group in Oregon, and has put on productions for more than six decades.  Their alumni include people who went on to Hollywood fame (Roy Scheider), people who perform at OSF, and yes, just as likely the local teacher, the guy that works at the mill, or youngsters from area schools.  It’s community at its best.  The quality is rather astounding.

Focusing on theater, LTOB lucked out with the Liberty Theatre but it was never exactly their primary focus.  As long as the roof didn’t leak, the power worked, and the acoustics were good (they are great) the theatre was just a building.  There has been an on-off interest in new digs, maybe restoring the Liberty or maybe replacing it, but nothing much happened.  Perhaps inspired by the work on the Egyptian Theatre, just down the road in Coos Bay, the LTOB Board asked us to come out and take a look.

I had driven by the Liberty for years and never really noticed it.  The rather monochromatic, (I called it Taupe-on-Taupe) faded, paint scheme didn’t exactly draw the eye and, located at a curve on Sherman Street at the south part of downtown North Bend, the natural inclination is to look away, toward the road.  Certainly I'd not been inside and, frankly, when the chance finally arrived this Spring, I didn’t expect to find much.  I was wrong.

The interior has much of its original design…the lighting and even the seats are all still there, probably not much different from what they were in 1924.  There has been some change and loss (the painted murals are hidden) and there’s stage lighting and sound from the conversion to live theater, but there's lots to work with.

The building is in good shape, mostly with deferred maintenance outdated systems, but nothing major.  LTOB continues to put on plays and the magic on stage buys a lot of forgiveness for the limited services, lack of indoor ADA restrooms and small lobby and concession stand, but certainly the Liberty, a phenomenal Moorish design, could be so much more than it is.  I couldn't see any reason not to rehab it and make it what it should be.

LTOB decided to launch a fund-raising effort.  The City of North Bend’s Urban Renewal Agency very generously stepped up to the table with a major (like 6-figures major) matching gift and over the next few years, in a series of phases, the Liberty Theatre will get the attention that its needs.  We’ll bring the “show to the sidewalk,” and give LTOB the venue that their tradition of quality productions deserve.  

Phase 1 was painting the exterior and having people notice the building and boy, do they ever!  We did some testing to determine the color history of the exterior and came up with a historically-based design to support the Moorish style T&H chose in 1924.  Next up, new restrooms and some lobby areas on the lot to the south, getting rid of the oh-so-lovely Sani-Can and then later a new marquee, some storage and rehearsal spaces, new systems, and more.  Stay tuned!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Artifacts Repatriated-The Holly Gets its Niche(s) Back!

Medford’s Holly Theatre HollyTheatre has had an interesting history from the start.  Construction began in Fall 1929, just before the Black Tuesday, not a day of post-Turkey sales, but rather the collapse of the stock market and the beginning of what is still America’s worst financial crisis.  The local owners soldiered on, and the theater opened in August 1930.  With 1200 seats, it was by far the largest theatre in southern Oregon.  For the next five-plus decades, with varying success, the Holly was one of the leading movie venues in Medford.  With its huge single rake of seating, there wasn’t a bad seat to be had.  You went to the Holly for what today would be termed “Blockbusters.”  Among the latter movies shown there, which I actually saw there, was The Return of the Jedi.

I have written here before about the circuitous path the Holly has taken since it was closed as a theatre in 1986 and needn't beat that horse again.  Two Theatres Let me just say that I hope that Spokane or wherever former SOU president Mary Cullinan heads next isn’t in need of a visionary.  (cite). 

JeffersonLive is moving forward with its plans for the Holly’s rehabilitation as a performing arts center.  That took a major step forward this week with the repatriation of a truckload of original decorative material that was, um, “salvaged” from the theatre in the mid-1990s and has been in storage since.  Essentially a previous owner of the building has the crazy idea of gutting the auditorium and turning it into some sort of atrium-based office complex.  (Really, I’m not making this up).  As that process unfolded, a number of decorative items were offered for sale and many, including all or parts of most of the cool wall niches, were removed from the building.  Naturally the office idea fell through, that owner (thankfully) sold out, and the building sat for 20 years with little change.  Remaining niches were still there, with gaping wounds where the others had been removed.

As early as 2011 negotiations to repurchase many of the removed items were underway (that's part of a pipe niche, above, in the storage building.  You can see the remaining original in the upper photo).  Unfortunately that process stalled, despite our best efforts.  The owner had parts or all of the missing pipe niche, from right next to the proscenium, all of one of the window niches (including the 3D spiral columns), the wrought iron screen from a balcony niche, the missing cast shell from a shell niche and even the fourth (and last) small chandelier from the auditorium.  

Earlier this month JeffersonLive got one of those great phones calls out of the blue.  An auctioneer, Wayne Liska, of Grants Pass, had been charged with disposing of items for the owner and thankfully realized they were from the Holly, belonged back at the Holly, and was more than fair in making sure that we were able to acquire them.  They were delivered last week, to great relief.  We’re hoping that there will be other pieces as Mr. Liska continues to work through the storage building where this stuff was kept.  Either way, with few exceptions, the Holly has now been reunited with one example of most of the major decorative elements that were part of its 1930s interior design.  While we’d be thrilled to have all the original elements, having one of a design makes it a whole lot easier to recreate the rest.  I think I heard the building sigh a little in relief when all this material was being delivered last Tuesday.  I know that I certainly did.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Camp Low Echo's Next Chapter

In the waning days of WWII, the Rogue Valley Girl Scouts Council decided that renting time at the Boy Scouts campground in southern Oregon wasn’t going to be a permanent solution.  In 1946 they negotiated a lease with what is now the Fremont-Winema National Forest for acreage at the southeastern tip of Lake of the Woods, in Klamath County, and set about planning to build what would become Camp Low Echo.  John Boyle, the famed hydroelectric engineer of the California Oregon Power Company (and father of two girls) laid out the campground and designed the main lodge.  The following year two groups of fathers set to work, one group set about dissembling a few buildings at Camp White, a US Army Cantonment, and the other using those salvaged materials (even the windows) to build a 40x100’ foot building facing the lake.  They got some other neat stuff from Camp White too, but more about that later.  The main lodge was later dedicated as “Beaver Lodge,” after the camp name of a scout leader.

For the next seven decades 1000s of girls spent their summers at Camp Low Echo, learning crafts, swimming in the lake, canoeing and spending time in the woods among friends.  It was a popular spot.  The Girl Scouts (aided by Kiwanis and Lions) built more buildings, cabins, fire-rings, and sleeping platforms, that allowed multiple groups to use the camp’s 30 acres.  None of these buildings, not even Beaver Lodge, were architectural wonders and most were built of donated materials, but they did what was needed, and for the summers, kept the bugs out and provided shelter.  When the snow fell, the uninsulated buildings were vacant, but their green metal roofs kept them dry until the next summer.

Scouting, for both boys and girls, is somewhat on the wane, as these traditional activities compete with sports, video games, and other things.  A few years ago the southern Oregon Girl Scouts Council, along with several other councils, were merged into a single statewide council based in Portland.  One of the first things that new body decided was that they had too much property.  Sadly, one of the facilities to be jettisoned was Camp Low Echo, ending any formal association between the scouts and the camp  In September of this year, after a deliberate process, the Forest Service lease for Camp Low Echo was transferred to a non-profit organization, which also purchased the Girl Scouts’ buildings with an eye toward a mixture of restoration, removal and new construction that will continue Camp Low Echo’s essential focus, while making improvements to allow the facility to operate year-round.

One thing that I expect to remain will be the luggage carts… a series of wooden boxes (now painted red) with 48” diameter steel rimmed wheels.  The scouts used them to lug sleeping bags and duffle bags from the parking area to the far reaches of the grounds (where cars can’t go).  What may not have been remembered is that these carts are also surplus from Camp White, where they began life as the garbage wagons.  I am thinking that Beaver and the other early leaders did some heavy cleaning before they were re-purposed!

The exact nature of the upcoming changes hasn’t been decided yet and for the moment exploration is on-going to evaluate the existing buildings and see how, and if, they can be upgraded to serve a year-round purpose.  Many were built of salvaged materials, often by well-meaning if not entirely skilled volunteer labor.  There are settlement and rot issues, and the accumulated impact of six decades of exposure with minimal maintenance.  And, of course, the expectations of Girl Scouts in July isn't the same as what you or I might expect in January.  What is clear is that Camp Low Echo has a distinctive style and a character that is formed by its buildings, but that character is also just as dependent on the layout and setting.  The use of materials and even the colors of the structures just scream “Camp.”  Whatever happens, I am pretty confident Camp Low Echo in 2014 is going to be easily recognizable as an evolution in what the Girls Scouts started six decades ago.  At least that’s the plan.