Sunday, July 16, 2017

Oregon Caves Chateau - Little D Gets an Upgrade

The Oregon Caves Chateau, owned by the National Park Service and operated by a local non-profit, is one of the “Great” lodges of the Pacific Northwest.  Built in 1934 by private money and purchased by the Feds, it is need of significant upgrades, the funding for which is currently pending at the Congressional level.

The Friends of the Oregon Caves & Chateau, a 501-c3 chartered to support the efforts of the NPS at the Caves, has undertaken a series of projects over the past few years designed to help the Chateau, and NPS, figure out some of the restoration issues.  We’ve written before about the “Nu-Wood” interior wall cladding.

The Friends’ current project is the rehabilitation of Little D, the former staff dining area, located on the 2nd basement level.  Built to feed the original cave guides, college students who worked here during the summer, Little D has never been available to the public and, since the end of the cave guide program, has essentially been unused.  We’re rebuilding the kitchen, upgrading the interior, and transforming Little D into a large group meeting space that will be available for dining, educational programs, and all sorts of other events that currently aren’t possible.  The long term goal is that Little D can operate independently, during the shoulder season, and extend food service and programs at the Caves without having to open the full Chateau.

Little D was painted all white in 1964, following flood damage.  It is clad with Nu-Wood, and the columns have been painted out.  It’s pretty functional.  We’ve come up with a plan to paint and spruce it up to create a more attractive space, with new lighting, and some faux paint treatments (graining the columns, for example) that better capture the original lodge character.  

This includes the recreation of a chair rail element to divide the upper and lower walls.  Built from three pieces of wood, each painted to match the character-defining Monterey Furniture of the chateau, it's not a complex detail, but a time-consuming one.  Since nobody else was available (willing?) to mill and build (and paint!) the chair-rail design, we offered to do it.  It was fun to put the wood shop to good use.

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!