Friday, December 31, 2010

Gold Ray - DONE

Earlier this week, in the snow, I went out to the Gold Ray Hydroelectric site to review the progress on the interpretative center that Jackson County, Oregon SHPO and NMFS installed as part of the mitigation for the removal of that historic property.  As I have written earlier, we elected to salvage an entire power generation system, from turbine to switch panel, that would explain how this very early power system in southern Oregon worked.  Interpretative panels, with historic photos as well as some of the HAER images taken prior to demolition, were installed on the former site of the Clubhouse, upslope from the river, and the mammoth generators, pulleys and other elements were moved there so that public could appreciate, and understand, what they are.

I was quite pleased with the way everything worked out (you never know, sitting in front of your computer, how something is going to play in 3D).  I think this one played out pretty well and everyone involved seems pleased.  The County has some minor security/vandalism protection to install, so the “public” doesn’t run off with any of the artifacts, but other than that, the project is complete.

If you live in southern Oregon, or are passing through, and want to see a very unusual example of an early power generation system, tour a spot on the Rogue River that hasn’t been generally accessible for more than a century, or just appreciate a great view of a river restoration project and the Table Rocks, you should check the Gold Ray site out.  Jackson County hopes to have something available for the public by mid-2011.

On a more personal note, 2011 is looking to be an interesting year.  January should have me at the Oregon Coast, documenting what is purported to be one of the largest swing bridges in the United States, among other things.  I’m sure I will find something to write about.  Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Prismatic Glass

In the late 19th and early 20th century, before reliable sources of electric light were available, commercial storefronts almost always included high ceilings and transom panels.  While this had positive aesthetic benefit it was, like most “traditional” design, firmly rooted in the practical.  Transoms allowed more light into the dark interiors of narrow, deep, storefronts.  Merchants could better display their wares, customers could better see them, and it made for a better shopping experience.

We tend to think that “high tech” is a new concept, and that it was the folks behind LEED who suddenly discovered passive energy improvements (We also tend to act as though Duany Plyter-Zyberk invented the front porch, but that’s a different rant).  Of course, early storefront designers, without electricity to save, still employed technology to improve building design.  One of my favorite examples of science in the support of better buildings is what is called “prismatic glass.”  Simply put, prismatic glass was designed with a series of angled ribs on one face that were cast based upon a strict calculation of latitude to increase their dispersal, broadcasting more light into the interior than would be the case through plate glass.  The illustration below, from a 1923 Pittsburgh Glass catalog depicts the “Scientific Explanation of the Prism” as used by that company’s 3-Way Luxfer Pressed Prism Tiles.

Nobody makes prismatic glass anymore and salvaged, often purpled, tiles (usually 6x6” or less) seem to mostly show up in antique stores where they are sold as trivets.  For restoration work I have had success having more typical ribbed glass cut into small squares, installed in zinc channel in alternating directions, and coming pretty close to replicating the traditional “Look” of prismatic glass if not its function. This is a small sample of the idea, prepared for a project in The Dalles.  The idea might get dusted off for a White Elephant in Medford, if the numbers are right.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

White Elephant No More?

In most cities of any size there are a few historic buildings that for whatever reason seem to defy the odds.  They are too cool, or interesting, or locally beloved to tear down, but nobody ever seems to be able to come up with a productive use for them either.  They sit, and everyone in the preservation field wonders when and if something good will happen to them.  I, and I am not alone, call such projects “White Elephants.”  Over the years I have had the good fortune to work on several, most notably what is now the Ashland Springs Hotel (formerly the Lithia Springs Hotel), and the Hot Lake Sanatorium, outside of LaGrande, Oregon.

Medford has several white elephants…the Holly Theater has been the subject of several blogs already and good things are in store for it.  Next week I will start work on what should a nifty rehab of another…the Sparta Building, at the corner of Main & Riverside, just as you enter downtown.  Designed by Frank Clark in 1910-11, the Sparta started out rough, with no use until C. E. “Pop” Gates opened Gates Ford on the first floor.  Eventually a series of auto dealers and parts suppliers were located here, right on the corner of Main Street, on the Pacific Highway, in the core of Medford’s famed “Auto Row.”

The upper floor became the home of Medford’s first successful radio station, KMED, with elaborate studios occupying much of the building, below twin, giant, wooden towers that helped broadcast the signal.  The “arts” theme was carried out by an entire host of musical renters, teaching everything from Hawaiian Guitar, to voice and piano.  During WWII the sounds of music gave way to business, as CMC, the contractors that built Medford’s US Army cantonment, Camp George A. White, had their offices there.  Downstairs, after the car dealers moved out, became more office space and a restaurant, the Cozy Nook.  Upstairs became apartments.  In the 1970s and 1980s there was a series of popular nightclubs on the ground floor and some point a fire destroyed the upper units.  Nobody even bothered to rebuild.

And there, with its fine (if much remodeled) glazed brick façade, the Sparta Building sat.  After a change in owners the building was listed on the National Register at some point, there were various plans to renovate the façade, to re-expose the graceful corner entry, rebuild the transom panels and generally clean it up but nothing much ever came of it.  One owner replaced all the windows (except the curved corner) and the next owner started to rebuild the apartments upstairs.

Now, another new owner has taken possession, with great plans to finally return the Sparta Building to its full glory.  Next week we’ll start to poke around a little and see how much of what was once there is still, buried under plaster, and paint, and at least two levels of dropped ceiling.  I will post pictures if I can.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Talent, Oregon

The City of Talent, Oregon, located just north of Ashland, has a long tradition of working hard to retain its character while still supporting change.  Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working on several projects in Talent, starting with the city’s first comprehensive survey of historic resources, and continuing through helping with the development of the city’s landmark protection code.  Talent, with just 6,000 or so residents, has done a fine job of identifying what it values and then making sure it has the tools in place to to keep its history playing a role in its future.  One example is their complete reconstruction of the Talent Railroad Depot.  The original depot, actually built in Medford in the 1880s, was moved to Talent in 1900 and then was razed in the 1930s.  The city, using grant funding, rebuilt it with careful detail and it once again sits next to the tracks, right in the heart of town.

Talent's many volunteers, and staff, have made historic preservation and good design a recognized value in the city, a fact that means the actual designation of historic resources has lagged behind many other southern Oregon towns, even as Talent' s buildings are protected and often restored.  Some years ago I was honored to to be involved in the restoration of Hanscom Hall, the first, and still the only, building in Talent to actually be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Recently, with funding from the Robertson Collins Fund, the City has hired us to prepare a National Register nomination for the Talent Community Center, built at the Talent Elementary School in 1899.  Talent is finally going to have a second NR-listed building.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holly Theater Opposition-An Unfortunate Development

The public discussion in Medford over the possibility for the restoration of the Holly Theater by the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation has taken an odd and somewhat disappointing turn.  While most downtown advocates have for years worried about the future of this key landmark and hoped for the best, the actual possibility that it might now be restored seems to have struck fear in the heart of a small but vocal and well-connected segment of the population.  There are those who, apparently, are unable to see a restored Holly as anything other than a direct threat to the Craterian, Medford’s existing performing arts center.  You can read more here:

The Ginger Rogers Craterian Performing Arts Center, is housed in a structure that is loosely based on the historic Craterian Theater, a 1924-era building that was essentially demolished and then rebuilt in the mid-1990s.  Many of the Crate’s supporters  have decided, with little actual information, that the only way a restored Holly will succeed is by stealing its audience and most of its funding from the Craterian, a theater that has struggled financially in recent years.  The concept that restored Holly might draw a different audience (it would) and increase downtown activity or Medford's reputation as an arts center, is not even considered.  This despite the fact that nobody involved with the Holly expects to put on musical theater or the other fare that serve as Craterian staples, or that the Holly's sister-theater, the Cascade, is largely self-supporting on ticket and rental sales, avoiding the need for the major underwriting that backfills the bulk of the Craterian's expenses.  A not-so terribly subtle campaign, including all the nasty-web/reader response comments we can expect in the Internet age, has essentially accused JPR of interloping on the Crate’s turf and put reasonable people on either side of this issue, all of which complicates, and perhaps entirely undermines, the likelihood that the Holly Project will actually go forward.

It is truly unfortunate that an incredible opportunity to return a long-vacant landmark to glory may fail, not due to lack of will, or lack of vision, or even at the moment lack of funding, but instead from misinformation, fear, and what is hard to see as anything other than mild paranoia.  Many communities that are Medford’s size or smaller, boast more than one successful entertainment venue.  This is especially valid given the fact that downtown Medford’s market by all rights includes other communities throughout southern Oregon and northern California, rather coincidentally the very multi-county market that JPR serves with its radio network and its already restored Cascade Theatre, in Redding, California. 

In Medford the Craterian and a restored Holly could easily work together, even sharing some some functions like booking that would reduce expenses for each.  Two theaters could enhance Medford's entertainment reputation and build a new and larger audience for both.  Doing so would, of course, also bolster every other aspect of downtown Medford and could bring new people by the 100s into the city's restaurants and retail outlets.

That is if the Holly ever gets a chance.  Stay tuned.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Restored Holly in the Offing

Last week, after months of behind the scenes thought and negotiations, the Jefferson Public Radio Foundation, JPR, announced its plans to purchase the Holly theater in downtown Medford and completely restore it for use as a performing arts venue.  JPR has prior experience in this process, having successfully transformed the long defunct Cascade Theater ( in Redding, California.  The Cascade is now the heart of surging downtown revitalization and a source of pride and vision for that community.  That's the restored facade and marquee of the Cascade in the sidebar to the right. (I have this thing about neon.)

The Holly, opened in 1930, was Medford’s first “talkie” theater and a huge boon to that city in the early days of the Great Depression.  By the late-1970s, like most single-screen theaters, the Holly fell on hard times.  After it was closed it suffered the typical indignities of such a building, most notably a poorly conceived effort to transform its 1200-seat auditorium into an office complex.  For the past 15 years the Holly was controlled by an entity with great vision, but few resources, and fell increasingly into disrepair, tilting toward condemnation.

There are hurdles for the Holly…most involving questions surrounding the City of Medford’s willingness to step up and make it happen in partnership with JPR.  The Foundation has until 1-March to complete the purchase of the building and has stated that if the City is willing to provide funding toward that goal, it will then raise the $3-4 million necessary to transform the Holly into a state-of-the-art venue.  And, of course, there are other issues, from building code, to restoration decisions, to feared competition for other performance spaces in downtown Medford.  None of those are insurmountable and the potential benefits of the Holly restored are so obvious that I am hopeful Medford’s leaders will rise to the occasion.  

As I wrote earlier, Medford has long chased the “big fix" in securing the revitalization of its downtown core.  Few portions of the city need attention as badly as does the area that surrounds the Holly, almost entirely vacant, or given over to government users that spark little pedestrian traffic or interest.  The draw of the Holly, like the draw of the Cascade in Redding, or any other successfully restored movie palace, is enough of a magnet to turn this part of downtown around.  With a vibrant Holly, and JPR’s track record of running centers such as this, success may well spread out toward Main Street and Medford may have finally found the fix it has been searching for.

(By way of full disclosure, I should state that I worked with JPR on the Cascade, expect to work with JPR on the Holly, and continue to work with the City of Medford on its various downtown revitalization efforts.  I can think of nothing that would please me more in Medford than to have these two entities successfully come together to create great things for both)

Friday, October 22, 2010


The Forest House, outside of Yreka, was built c1852 as the centerpiece of an agricultural development that is considered to be one of the first commercial orchards in northern California.  As I continue to study this site, and work towards its listing on the National Register, we’ve decided to expand the nomination to include the three outbuildings, all 19th century, that surround the main dwelling.

Barns are interesting things, in that they are essentially machines, used to reduce the workload of constantly over-worked ranchers and farmers.  Built stout, to carry heavy loads and take heavy abuse, the old barns at the Forest House are of massive post and beam construction, with mortise and tenoned joinery, each connected with wooden pegs.  These later are formally called “trunnels,” one of my favorite bits of architectural jargon (another is wythe, meaning a layer of brick in wall, but that’s another blogpost).

Barns, their structure, and the wonderful quality of light that their hardly impervious walls admit, make for great photography.  Here are a few views of the Stable and Carriage Barn, built about 1860, and the Dairy Barn next door, built in 1865.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Renewing Downtown (Again)

In Medford, one of the cities that I work in frequently, downtown “revitalization” has become an issue of sorts in the local council races this cycle.  It is encouraging that none of the candidates are opposed to spending money to support Medford’s historic downtown, they merely differ in what approach is most deserving of the city’s investment.

For many years Medford has approached downtown from what might be thought of as a big fix model.  First it was investing millions of dollars into municipal parking structures, the theory being that improved parking would encourage shoppers to visit the area.  There was an effort, in partnership with a local group, to develop an entertainment venue. Then there was another multi-million dollar parking structure and a half-dozen surface lots.  There was the multi-million dollar venture to build first a new public library and then, in partnership with two local colleges, the Higher Ed Center.  And now, in partnership with Lithia Motors, there is the Commons, a multi-million dollar office complex that will keep one of southern Oregon’s major businesses where it is, in downtown, in a new building, with new infrastructure and two new blocks of city parks.  Sure, MURA has done other things, new sidewalks, railroad crossings and the Façade Improvement Grants (for which I am both thankful and the city’s designer) but the vast majority of its public funding has gone, and apparently will continue to go, to big ticket, big fix, projects.  I am not at all sure that is best approach.

I have argued for over a decade that Medford would be better off investing $100,000 in ten places in downtown that actually encouraged visitors (and raised property values, but that’s another story), rather than investing $1 million in one location.  Investing $14 million in the Commons (as they currently propose) is sort of epically out scale with what downtown probably needs, particularly given the fact that it is located in a distant corner of the area, largely surrounded by immovable historic buildings (the Elks Club, the Penney’s building), massive public works (the Bartlett St. Parking Structure), and a major road way, Riverside.   IF the Commons is half as successful as its promoters contend, it can not help but suck the life out of the rest of downtown, an area that the City has been investing in and attempting to revitalize for nearly two decades. 
Bartlett Street, most of which will be removed to create "The Commons."  If it looks vacant, that's only because MURA bought most of the buildings and kicked out the tenants in anticipation of tearing them down.

But not to worry… Lithia needs to remain in downtown and putting some gov’t funding into the project makes sense.  But they won’t be building much to attract  any other new investment or street activity any time soon.  Lithia's own workforce is (thankfully) pretty stable, and  so, while Lithia building themselves a new corporate HQ in downtown Medford is great news, it's highly unlikely to be the massive kick-start sto downtown success that Lithia and the City seem to think.  The "Commons" is just the latest, and biggest, big ticket effort and, once again, will fail to revitalize Medford.  The reasons are obvious.  The Commons doesnt' create any new reason to go to downtown for anyone that doesn't already have to be there.  Pretty simple, really, when you think about it, isn't it? Basically the Commons, as currently planned, fails the "feet on the street" test.  Miserably.

Maybe next time I will write about what else, better, things MURA might do were it to invest less in the Commons. Here's a includes creating demand and putting more "feet on the street."  But whatever happens, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, politics plays into downtown's future.  At least downtown revitalization is on everyone's radar and that, for certain, is a positive trend.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hidden in the Past

Most of the time, it’s about buildings and buildings are, generally, pretty easy.  They are there, their pieces are either intact or missing, or sometimes hidden, but you can look at them.  And poke around, and if you know what you are looking for, you can usually figure out what you need to know.

But sometimes, before you get to the poking around part you have to understand the history of the thing, too.  History isn’t quite as obvious as four walls and roof and sometimes, when you least expect it, it's dang near hair-pullingly obscure.

I am currently trying to unravel what the heck Horace Knight (or Knights), Marshall Short and Ferdinand Grisez were doing in Siskiyou County between, 1850 and 1852.  And more specifically whether any of it involved building.  Somewhere during that time period these three guys showed up, like so many others, looking for gold.  Short, born in Ohio, came over the Isthmus of Panama.  I don’t now what brought Mr. Knight here from his ancestral home in Vermont and know even less about Grisez.  

One way or the other the three of them, or at least Knights, ended up at a property SW of Yreka that is still known as the Forest House, the gem I wrote about a month or so ago.   By 1853 Knight had leased a sawmill from a millwright named D. P. Sanborn, the guy who has been credited with operating the “first” sawmill in Siskiyou County, and milling the lumber for the Forest House.  The thing is, I don't know if the "Forest House" was standing when Knight and Sanborn signed the lease.

Knight, and Marshall didn't actually get their patents on the land claims until 1881 and 1882.  On the other hand the Forest House was certainly in place by 1853, when the County dedicated the road between Yreka and Fort Jones, by way of the Forest House Road…And Knight was soon hosting "gala" dances at a fine dwelling with a large auditorium, clearly the building that is still on the property.

I am just stymied that what was obviously an early and important structure receives such scant reference in most of the early histories.  I am currently operating under the assumption that Harry L. Wells, who wrote the 1881 “History of Siskiyou County” had, um "issues" with Knight and Short or vice versa.  Best take care when tangling with a historian. Whatever the reason, if there is one, Wells, and others, report pretty much nothing to clarify what Knight, Short and Grisez were actually doing in the early 1850s.  There's a nice piece in the local paper, published in 1901, and then, after the current owner's family purchased the property in 1909, a host of stories, all from the same source, that are generally consistent in character but vary somewhat in the early particulars.

Some have claimed that the Forest House was built as early as 1850, which seems unlikely to me, but it could have been.  And the current structure could have been built as late as 1865 on the site of an earlier on at the same location, and of the same name.  There is no evidence of that, by the way, but then there’s not much direct evidence of the house that is there now having being built earlier either.  At least not yet.

Back to the microfilms.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Gold Ray Dam update

There isn’t much left of the Gold Ray Dam, on the Rogue River, near Tolo, downstream from Gold Hill, Oregon.  The 1941 concrete dam has been entirely removed, along with the 1904 log crib dam that had been buried underwater, just upstream.  Turns out, unbeknownst to anybody involved with the project, that sometime after November 1941 (when they tried to burn the old dam) they went ahead and covered the face of it with about 12” of concrete or gunite.  This made removal much harder and, unfortunately, meant that we couldn’t save a small section of the log dam for the proposed interpretative displays.

The powerhouse, along with its early 1905-era equipment, is also being removed.  Jackson County, which owns the property, and Slayden Construction, which is contracted to remove the in-stream features (I am under contract to Slayden), have done an incredible job of developing the interpretative kiosk that is to be located up the hill, overlooking the dam site, as part of our Section 106 mitigation plan.    

One entire generation unit, the turbines, the wicket gate controls, the lower and upper pulleys (those that were rope driven), plus the 750kW General Electric generator and the exciter will be removed from the powerhouse and relocated to the old Clubhouse pad. (That's one of the 42" diameter turbines, above, freed of the muck for the first time in four decades).  Interpretative panels will explain what these features are, how they worked, and the history of the Gold Ray site. Should be a pretty effective display.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Bridges of Multnomah County

Back to working on Portland bridges again. There are lots of bridges there, across the Willamette, in downtown and after having drafted a context statement, a Multiple Property Submittal that covers ten of them, I am now nibbling away at the formal nomination of four spans owned by Multnomah County; the Hawthorne, Broadway, Burnside and Morrison.

Writing about these spans it is a struggle to avoid the use of superlatives. It’s an amazing collection Portland has put together, including works by some of America’s most renowned bridge engineers such as Gustav Lindenthal, Ralph Modjeski, David Steinman, Waddell and Harrington and Joseph Strauss. In Portland, between the upstream Sellwood and the downstream Fremont bridges one can find the oldest vertical lift span bridge in the United States (the Hawthorne), the ONLY double-vertical lift span in the world (the Steel Bridge), and the largest Rall Bascule bridge ever built (the Broadway). The St. Johns Bridge was the longest suspension span in the world when it was completed and, until very recently, the Fremont Bridge was the longest orthotropic tied-arch span in the world too. Each one of these bridges, aside from the incredible functional value that they bring to Portland, is in its own way something of a masterpiece, an amazing piece of engineering whether it’s the longest, oldest, first, or whatever other superlative that can be layered atop the simple fact that this is a great set of bridges. The fact that you can stand on one and, in most cases, see almost all the others, is just stunning.

We preservationists can be fairly cutting when the mood strikes. Efforts to save historic structures by relocating them in packs to safer, less pressured ground, are almost universally dismissed as “preservation round-ups.” In Portland, over the period of 1910 to 1973, the City, the County and the State of Oregon have effectively created what amounts to a “Bridge Round-Up.” And it’s a pretty spectacular assemblage.

Monday, August 23, 2010

An Unexpected Gem

When people call me about the possibility of getting their house on the National Register I am frequently uninterested. Not that they aren't nice people, or nice houses, but usually it's a fully restored "Victorian" or a bungalow in some older part of town. While such places are lovely, they only rarely have the qualities to make them more than a contributing property in a historic district, one that the community hasn't gotten around to pursuing as it should. So, when the party on the other end of the phone has a different tale, it gets my attention.

Last week I was in northern California, looking at a house that has been owned by the current family for over a century.  In 1909 the family had purchased it from the people that had built it in 1851-52. Two owners, essentially, in 158 years gets my attention. So did the property, the Forest House, built on what became the Shasta-Scott Valley Turnpike, a toll road west of Yreka, that became Highway 3. The toll road was built by (wait for it) Horace Knight and Marshall Short, the first owners of the Forest House. This imposing two-story structure, with a full double porch, is almost entirely intact. Most of the original furnishings remain, along with everything else.  It even has the ledgers from the various 19th century enterprises that were focused on this outpost of civilization: a hotel, a distillery, a fruit orchard, an ice plant, a sawmill, and most anything else that would make a fella a buck at the side of the road.

So, over the next months, we'll work to get the Forest House on the NR as the first step in an effort to find some funding to make sure it survives. Unfortunately Messrs. Knight and Short built the structure with what was on-hand, in this case full 12" round log floor joists, all with the bark in place. Beetles, and perhaps termites, have found that old growth just irresistible with the result that the building is slowly compacting the powdery wood. Some rooms, like the upstairs ball room that occupies an entire side of the house (there are dance programs for its events in the lobby) now has a floor that looks like a wooden ocean wave. The current generation, who have inherited responsibility for this amazing piece of California's pioneer history, take that responsibility seriously. We're looking forward to helping them help the Forest House.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Umpqua River CAP Project

Last week I had the pleasure of spending two and half days on the beautiful Oregon Coast. The fact that it was in the mid-60s (instead of 90 and triple digit weather at home) was an extra bonus.

I was over there doing fieldwork for a “CAP Project” on the Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum, owned and operated by the Douglas County Museum of History and Natural History, in Roseburg. CAPs, The “Conservation Assessment Program” is funded by Heritage Preservation, in Washington, D.C., to help museums assess their collection storage processes. Typically two “assessors,” one a collections curator and one an architectural curator (in this case, me) spend a few days on the site, evaluating policies and exploring the facility, then write up a detailed report that points out success and room for improvement to guide the museum program into the future. In a perfect situation, everything is, well, perfect and there’s not much to write about but in an older building there are almost always concerns related to systems; water, HVAC, power, security and the like.

The Umpqua River Lighthouse Museum is located in a nifty  FDR-era building that was constructed by the US Coast Guard and used as the Station House in connection with Umpqua River Lighthouse, an 1894 structure located nearby. In the 1970s the Coast Guard “gave” the station house to the county for public use (gave is in quotation marks because there is some confusion about how that worked…suffice to say that Douglas County is in charge of operation and maintenance of the Station House and the boat house next door, which their parks department uses as a shop). The lighthouse, which is open for tours (even up to the light) is still operated by the Coast Guard and still shines its signature, rotating, red and white beacon through the original Fresnel lens, just like it has for the past 116 years.

Thankfully, Douglas County did a major renovation of the building in the mid-1980s and with the exception of an apparently compulsive drive to remove the wood panel doors, managed to do a fine job maintaining the original character while entirely shifting the use. They did an incredible job fabricating new iron railings to provide an access ramp to the basement (now the gift shop) and to the new grade entry to the Main Floor exhibit area. New fire sprinklers, new AC, a new boiler, and all new copper plumbing all make my job as an “assessor” pretty easy. But, of course, there is always something needing doing on an historic property, and one that gets 100s of visitors a day and contains irreplaceable artifacts documenting the history of the US Coast Guard on the southern Oregon coast is no exception.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I am occasionally asked for design input on entirely new projects that are located in sensitive, historic, portions of a community.  Often this is work on vacant land but sometimes it involves the demolition of a structure, usually one that isn’t historic.

There are three ways to approach “infill” as this sort of work is termed.  The first is a knee-jerk reaction is to build something that is visually similar (or identical) to the existing historic character, matching the volume, materials, and exterior treatments.  These imitative buildings “fit in,”.  At their worst, such projects try copy history and, of course, they fail in most ways.  More frequently they are designed so that they don’t draw much attention one way or the other.  We call such structures “background buildings,” since the whole point is that they won’t compete or overshadow the historic structures.  That is fine, and often appropriate, but isn’t exactly an opportunity to make a statement or explore exciting design.

A better approach to an infill project is a hybrid, perhaps matching the historic scale, rhythm and mass of the historic character, but utilizing new materials that clearly differentiate it from its surroundings.  This approach can be lots of fun, visually, but there is a fine line between cloying imitation and creative expression and it hard to do well so only a few try.

And finally, because the site is perhaps discrete though adjacent to the historic core, there is an opportunity to truly be creative and create what might well become a future landmark.  Good design is timeless, of course, and adds significantly to the character of a city.  When you get the opportunity to work on what could be a future landmark, and you have a client and team that approaches the project from the standpoint, you get to take a risk.  When the risk pays off, everyone wins but, since it’s a risk, everyone (usually the regulators) get really nervous, which is why most clients end up in less visionary scenarios.

For the past year or so I have been working on what could be a future landmark, to be built near but not entirely within the core of a historic business district.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Let's Mitigate

When a project, under the Section 106 evaluation process, results in a loss of historic character, it is termed Adverse.  An adverse effect can occur when otherwise well-intentioned actions such as changing out windows to increase energy efficiency changes the window type, or it can be the result of some other agency goal, such as the need for a larger or different building on the site, or it can be simply silly, as in an agency that just doesn't want an old building because it wants a new one instead.  All such actions are "Adverse" and "adverse," like significance (or pregnancy) either is or it isn't.  There is not really any standard for "more adverse" and when that is the Finding (a process term) you have to "mitigate."  Think of mitigation as Section 106 penance for damaging our collective heritage.

While every adverse effect has to be mitigated, there is no hard and fast rule as to what sort of mitigation is required, or how extensive it has to be, or even if it has to be directly related to the project. “Off-site” mitigation, meaning something that isn’t actually part of the project, is the new vogue and oft-times it makes sense. The Portland Bridge MPS project that I am working is such an “off-site” form of mitigation, for while it 's certainly related to the adverse effect of pending work on the Morrison Bridge, it’s not like we’re just putting up a plaque or taking some pictures (both of which, BTW, are pretty typical mitigation responses).

I’ve done mitigation that added to the scholarly record, writing a history of a project or the forces that created it, as a form of penance for the fact that it will no longer survive. I like to think that might make it easier to save some similar resource down the road, which I suppose is the point. Sometimes mitigation is HABS/HAER documentation, elaborate graphic and written studies of a resource that is going to change or disappear. HABS/HAER can be quite useful, if you are working on something similar too. But while documentation is beneficial, I try to find a public avenue for mitigation, something people can see, and hopefully appreciate.

While every situation is different, and not all options ever exist or even make sense for all projects, my personal favorite is to somehow tie the loss of a resource or historic character to an improvement in what replaces it, either through restoration of some other part of the project that can be accomplished or, more simply, through insisting that the new work, the one that necessitated the Adverse Effect, is something that people like me will find significant fifty years from now. Losing a historic resource is never fun. Losing it for a parking lot, or something hideous and without soul, is outright painful.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who is Charge Here?

I have been thinking lately about what exactly it is that we, as preservationists, or people concerned about the look and function of communities, are supposed to be doing, when all the dust has settled.  I think about that a lot, but several recent projects have involved me and a bunch of doubting Thomas’ sitting around a table arguing about end product and approaches and what is the best course for the resource, the client, and history.  Or not.  Because surely preservationists can disagree among themselves with the best of them.
Most of our process, as I have written before, tends to focus on architectural detailing, use of materials, and the physical aspects of rehab and preservation.  That’s probably natural, as buildings are the focus, and buildings are made of pieces that can change or be modified in various ways.  How we manage that change is the acid test between rehabilitation and remuddling, right?

But not every building or structure is or should be a museum and sometimes what WAS done may not be the best choice for what needs to be done now, or could be.  Nobody should have to replicate an error, just because it was original design and I like  to think that nobody in preservation would actually expect that.  But conversely, there is no justification that I can think of to remove historic fabric without reason, simply because some bean-counter has decided on the fly that it will better society.
Two recent projects demonstrate differing sides of this complex issue.  In the first a non-historic roofing material was suggested as replacement, providing multiple benefits yet not quite getting the appearance accurate.  Most of us involved, both the proponents and the regulators, were willing to “give it a try” and see how it actually looked at the end of the day but the Federal standards (and the federal money) wouldn’t pay for it and so, whether it was the right thing to do or not, the Federal standards (and the Federal money) required that the same, historic, roofing material be used, despite its acknowledged lower performance.  I suppose that if it’s the Feds money, and they want to pay to replace the roof periodically, it's their call.
But on the other side of the issue is a second situation in which historic windows will be replaced with non-historic windows, providing what almost everyone involved acknowledges are minimal energy benefits while at the same time costing lots of money and damaging historic character.  SOME of us involved think this entire process is a complete and total waste of money, but the Federal standards (and the Federal money) demand that the historic windows be replaced, whether it really makes any sense or not, and at the end of the day the Federal standards (and the Federal money) mean that is exactly what will happen.  I suppose if it’s the Feds money, and they want to waste it paying to replace perfectly decent windows to “save” energy, it's their call.
I think it might be a good idea for the Federal government to get its story straight, to perhaps have one Cabinet-level department talk with another Cabinet-level department and come up with something that at least TRIES to present a consistent approach to what really is the same issue.  Maybe doing so would save we taxpayers money, save our community's history, and probably could Buy American and create jobs (which was the point) in the process.  Maybe it would be a good idea for the National-level preservation community to point out that REHABILITATION actually creates more jobs for Americans than what we are now paying for.  Maybe it would be a good idea for the Administration to actually listen when they do. 

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tell me a story

Sometimes, in the CRM-biz, the proposed “undertaking” is, for whatever reason, determined to be “Adverse.” This can be a necessary change that still results in the loss of historic fabric or character.  More seriously, it can mean the complete removal of a historic resource. One of the projects I am working on, the Gold Ray Hydroelectric Project, is in that latter category. A 1904-era power project, the Gold Ray Dam has not had any functional use since 1974, when PacifiCorp stopped generating power in the plant and deeded the dam, the powerhouse, and most of the site around it to Jackson County. The County hoped to develop it into a park and museum, but budget woes killed that and so the dam has just been in the way for the last four decades.

In a few weeks Slayden Construction will begin the process to remove the Dam, the Powerhouse, the old fish ladder and every other “in-stream” aspect of the project with funding from the National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS funding and participation make this, obviously, a Federal undertaking and, since Gold Ray was determined to be historically significant, and since removal is pretty obviously “Adverse” to its historic character, NMFS and Jackson County will have to mitigate that loss.

Mitigation here will include, in addition to HAER documentation and photography for the record, a fairly cool interpretive plan. We are going to salvage major components from the Power House (a generator, a turbine, the marble-backed switchboard, maybe even the roof monitor, if we can figure out how to get it off in one piece) and use them to help illustrate the scale and function of the facility on the site. I will research and write the text and graphics for two rather substantial interpretative panels to be located on-site and help explain the history and significance of Gold Ray to southern Oregon; what it was, why it was built there, and the impact that it had in bringing electricity to the region. Should be an interesting story, and hopefully will give visitors to the Gold Ray site a better understanding of what once stood where they stand. That’s interpretation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What STYLE is that?

Sigh.  How many times have you heard THIS question?  It’s understandable, that the public, clients, interested parties want to have a “name” to call their home or building and those of us in a position to serve as “experts” are logically expected to be able to give them an answer.  But c’mon, let’s be honest and point out that very very few buildings in the real world (as opposed to those in architectural coffee table books) are really pure examples of any particular style.  This is especially true for buildings, the bulk of buildings, that were designed without the aide of an architect, and even many that were.  And even in cases where a building was once easily associated with a particular style, what do you do with changes made over time, such as a Queen Anne residence with a flaming bungalow-inspired front porch?

Yesterday I gave a noon-time lecture in Medford, on architectural styles.  I’m not sure what the people who come to such a presentation are looking for, but if it was an easy check-off list that will allow them to identify a variety of styles as though it was a birders lifelist or something, I rather expect that they were disappointed.  When I talk about “style” I almost always open up with a slide about the “problem” with style (feel free to cancel me off your speakers list at this point).  Most residential design in Oregon, especially in the smaller towns that I generally work in, is most appropriately categorized in my opinion as “vernacular,” those buildings from the mid-19th to early 20th century that were just built.  There are ells, and tees, and I-houses (and double I-house variants too,  but you get the idea.)  Carpenters put the wooden pieces together to create a functional weather envelope and, given their limited tools (no chop boxes in the 19th century) they used trim not for decoration but for ease of construction and the ability to shed water.
It makes sense, and it even makes a pretty decent house.  But nobody is thrilled learn that they live in a I-House.  Or an ell.  Or a “Vernacular” anything.  That’s the problem with “style.”  Truth hurts.

Monday, April 19, 2010


There are ten highway bridge spans across the Willamette River in Portland, connecting downtown with the eastside, and forming an important part of Portland's identity both economically, historically, and visually. The bridges standing today range in date from the 1910 Hawthorne Bridge to the Fremont, built in 1973. They represent a veritable "Who's Who" of American bridge engineers (David Steinman, Ralph Modjeski, Gustav Lindenthal and Waddell-Harrington…not to mention Joseph Strauss),  They serve as a sort of  one-spot shopping exhibit of bridge forms. There are deck trusses, vertical lifts, bascules, thru trusses, suspension and one of the longest tied-arch bridges in the country. 

Portland, a growing and bustling city, has continually "messed" with its bridges, to lengthen their approach spans, to widen their decks, to keep them a vital part of an ever-changing transportation system that began to serve trains, trolleys and foot traffic, evolved (or contra-wise) to serve automobiles and buses, and now, once again, in  some cases, again serves an electric powered trolley [MAX] along with cars, buses and bicyclists. One of the more recent changes involved the Morrison Bridge, built in 1958, and while that change was necessary to let Portlanders get across the river, it was determined to be an Adverse Effect under the Section 106 process. And, like all Adverse Effects, Multnomah County and the Oregon Department of Transportation had to develop a plan to "mitigate."

What they agreed to do, and what I am honored to be able to research and prepare on their behalf, is a National Register Multiple Property Submittal on the Willamette River Bridges of Portland. I have a little chart hanging in front of my computer, with each bridge's form, it's designer and "vital statistics" in an effort to keep them straight. So far it's only partially working but I'll get it eventually. I sure don't have any trouble remembering the St. Johns….an expensive, and comparatively under-used span that at least one historian termed a "mistake" from a financial standpoint. But it sure is a beautiful design.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

To the Printer!

There is little else that is as satisfying as taking a project that you've worked on for a long time (months, years) and sending it off to the printer. Well, okay, maybe picking it UP from the printer is a little more satisfying.

Some stack of paper goes off, neatly tucked into its manila folder, and comes back bound, with a nice cover, looking so, well, "official." This week I was pleased to finally send off the FINAL (and I mean FINAL) version of Corridors of Power, the historic context statement on the BPA Transmission System that has been cluttering up my office for nearly two years since inception, review, draft edits, approval. And now its done! Who knew my desk was so large and that my floor actually has carpeting on it!

And, not to stop there, I also dropped off v2.0 of BPA's Multiple Property Submittal, as that project moves toward external review by the various SHPOs, THPOs and other parties. Maybe I can now stop mumbling about "Conductor" and latticework or substation this or that in my sleep! Hooray (but only for a while….there is always some other t-line that needs attention and I am certainly not complaining. But is nice to close something out every once in awhile….).


Friday, April 2, 2010

Change is good….

One of the most difficult issues for the public, and for many historic commissioners, is coming to grips with change. Change in use, change in design, or change in detail all create both an opportunity for quality and, sadly, for conflict. People, despite what you may read, don't like change much, even when it's necessary, or for the best.

The reality is that very few historic buildings survive without change over time. Houses get added to, or upgraded to meet new needs. Commercial buildings change use or have to respond to new code or new technology. Many of projects that I am involved with begin with "de-garbagification" (see my post from July 24, 2009), removing a change that somebody once thought was a good thing. That part's easy. Everyone is excited to get rid of the 1970s and 1980s layers that obscure history. But then come all the issues surrounding taking a structure that almost by definition failed to meet its original purpose in some fashion, and transforming it into something that "works" better and has a future. A future that reflects its past, of course, but still one that likely includes some significant changes to address function, code and a new use.

How those changes are handled, from inserting new systems into historic interiors, modifying a structure to meet new seismic or ADA codes, or even something as simple as converting a house into a business and providing larger restrooms, can cause lots of head-scratching and consternation on the part of the design team. And, of course, once that group comes up with a workable plan, there is multi-level review of local, state, and sometimes even the Feds, that get to weigh in as well. In a perfect world everyone in that chain works together toward a common goal but sometimes, at least from my perspective, unreasonable, or unnecessary, demands arise that complicate the process.

I suppose, having poked and prodded historic structures for the last 25+ years , that I  find them to be a little more resilient than some review boards and appreciate that change is an important part of their story.  These are not museums, but buildings that need a new purpose.  We've all had clients who, with the best intentions,  start out a project with the unrealistic goal of making their building "look just like it did when it was new." First, of course, that is a near impossibility from a technical standpoint and second, and more importantly, why the heck would you want to do that anyway? It is the change, the passage of time, the nicks and dents, and the creative evidence of modification to meet new needs that give a historic building the bulk of its character. Sanitizing that history of change to create something that looks "new" isn't what I think preservation should be about. Sadly, sometimes, I don't think that's the majority viewpoint.