Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Thrill of Discovery

Okay, I will admit that I enjoy designing ceramic tile elements as part of rehabs or restoration.  Tile bulkheads, the portion of the wall below a storefront window, were a typical portion of early 20th century design and bringing that feature back has been a common element of the various facade programs in Medford and elsewhere.  The original tile is almost always gone, removed by some well-meaning "update" in the 1950s or 1960s, and so we rely upon historic images and very very rarely a little physical evidence to design new tile patterns that are "in the spirit." Luckily, most basic colors are still available and the designs are simple and cost-effective. 

But there is the occasional "find," where the original tile is still there, unbeknownst to anyone.  Finding it is a great day and last week, at the Holly Theatre, it was a great day.  We have only one historic photo and no plans, of the entry to the theatre and there was no indication whatsoever of what the floor surface was.  Upon purchase it was covered with old red indoor-outdoor carpeting.

Upon purchase the old red carpet was replaced with boring tan, simply as a placeholder.  Sans any other information and looking for a historically appropriate design that would support the Spanish Colonial theme, I borrowed a painted flower detail from the proscenium and the plan was to resurface the entryway with a new terrazzo design that would include donor recognition tiles and the "H" logo that was both part of the original marquee and is to become the project logo.  I was pretty happy with the design, as was the client, but there is always the issue of creating something out of whole cloth and wondering if its "right" and really going to fit.


Well, that issue is past and the terrazzo design has been shelved.  As part of developing the bid for that work, the contractors were out exploring, looking at the substrate under the new carpet, and discovered that instead of it being the concrete slab that we'd all understood it to be, it was just a thin mortar coating, over tile. I got an e-mail last Thursday and after an inital moment of disbelief, went to check it out.  We cleaned up the tile a little and I was impressed with how good it looked after what is at minimum four decades of hiding, probably more.

Today they will strip off more of the carpet, and expose more of the original tile pattern, allowing us to assess the condition of what it there and the full scope of the design.  Certainly there is going to be damage and a design issue where the ticket booth once stood, but we can deal with that.  If we can save the tile, we will, and if not we will replicate this design using new materials that as closely match the original as is possible.  It's great fun to find a hidden piece of history that nobody knew or remembered being there.  I always wonder why somebody would cover something like this up, and hide it under mortar and boring carpet, but I am sure the Holly has more hidden secrets to reveal.  What fun!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Willamette Falls Industrial Area

For some years I have had multiple reasons to research, study, and write about the history of the Willamette Falls Industrial Area, a complex slice of Oregon at the Falls, lining both banks of the river between Oregon City and West Linn.  A few weeks ago I up there again, touring ‘round with a film crew for an upcoming documentary on one of Oregon’s most fascinating few acres.

Famed as “end of the Oregon Trail,” this area was also the start of Oregon industry.  Water power was a key element in city building in the 19th century, a fact that wasn’t lost on John McLaughlin who started to carve a mill race out of the bedrock in 1829.  As the Oregon Territory grew, so did interest in the falls, which boosters soon envisioned as the Niagara Falls or the Lowell, of Oregon.  In 1865 one of Oregon’s first woolen mills opened here, followed by a pulp mill, and then, in 1873 a public-private partnership built the Willamette Falls Locks and Canal, breaking the shipping monopoly that had controlled freight shipments and stifled development for decades.  Another pulp mill, a more successful one, the Willamette Falls Pulp and Paper Company, started operation in 1883.

Beginning in the mid-1880s, an entrepreneur named Edward Eastham started to assemble property and water rights on both sides of the river with the idea of generating electricity to power Portland.  In June 1889 Eastham’s company, then called the Willamette Falls Electric Company, transmit DC power from the Falls to downtown Portland, a distance of 12 miles.  Not much to us, but historically significant as the first “long-distance” electrical transmission in the United States.  In 1890, having converted the plant, “Station A,” to Alternating Current, the company did it again, even though George Westinghouse, who manufactured the new AC generators, wasn’t sure it would work.  Five years later generation at the Falls was shifted across the river, to a huge new plant designed by Thomas W. Sullivan.  Dubbed “Station B,” that plant would provide virtually every watt of power in the Portland area for the next decade. 

By 1906 the Willamette Falls Electric Company, along with more than 30 other companies, would become the Portland Railway Light and Power Company.  Today the company is known as Portland General Electric.  And Station B, renamed the T.W. Sullivan Hydroelectric Project, still produces power at the Willamette Falls.  It’s the oldest continuously operated hydroelectric plant in the country.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Holly Theatre, Medford

Several months ago I reported on the announced transformation of Medford’s Holly Theatre into a fully restored performing arts center to be operated by the JPR Foundation, the same folks that run the successful Cascade Theatre in Redding, California.  I see this not only as a great opportunity for a long neglected building, the Frank Clark-designed Holly Theatre, but as a wonderful opportunity for downtown Medford.  A revitalized Holly Theatre will, in tandem with the existing Craterian Theatre, essentially double Medford’s night-time draw, support the growing number of high-quality eateries in downtown and, written broadly, give people another good reason to be in downtown Medford after the end of the business day.

While the media has been quiet, except for the occasional doubting Thomas who still fear that Medford can’t support two theatres (nonsense), the JPR Foundation has not.  Most of the Holly’s interior has been cleaned up, as the previous owner removed things that had been stored there, creating an even more impressive space.  The Holly is, well, HUGE, with a single seating rake that once held more than 1200 seats.  The deep stage is largely empty, the leaking roof of the fly has now been repaired and the lighting is on, so you can appreciate the amazing interior.  JPR has been working on finalizing the application for a MURA Facade Improvement Grant, and expects to start work on recreating the huge 33-foot tall neon sign and the projecting marquee by late Fall.  Planning is underway for the major restoration effort, including new systems, improved building services, and, of course, an entirely accurate restoration and rehabilitation that will return the building to full function.  There are, of course, LOTS of decisions yet to be made, and lots of surprises yet to come, but the Holly is clearly on the road back.  Medford is very very lucky.