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.