Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saving Energy...Replacing Windows?

A small part of the Federal stimulus money was dedicated to improving the energy efficiency of America’s buildings by offering tax credits to homeowners replacing their windows with new, thermal-paned, sash. For local governments and non-profits, the stimulus package included grants that allow local governments to upgrade their heating and cooling systems, usually including window replacement as well. And, of course, local governments know a good deal when they see one, free money from the State and the Feds generally being considered a “good deal.”

Unfortunately, in the rush to stimulate, nobody in DC (or in my case, Salem) considered the implications or special circumstances that might occur by raining money for window replacement on hundreds of highly significant historic structures owned by cash-strapped local governments. As a result I spent the better part of a day last week touring National Register listed buildings, most with original windows, that shall soon have them removed at great expense and, frankly, minimal energy benefit.

The simple fact of the matter is that window replacement is about the least cost-effective, or energy saving, thing that you can do to a property.  But, because window manufacturers have spent millions and millions of dollars convincing everyone otherwise, it is often the first thing a property owner considers. Would that logic and common sense had an advertising budget or a marketing deal with This Old House.

100-year old, single-pane, wood windows, have an “R-value” (a value related to energy/heat transfer) of about 1.0. If you yank that window out and replace it with a state-of-the-art low-E, Argon-filled, thermal paned, window sash you will, as Anderson-Pozzi-Marvin et al are quick to point out, improve the performance of that glazing by more than 400%! To R4.5. In two words...big deal.  What Anderson and their friends don’t tell you is that the wall next to the window, even without insulation, performs about twice as well and that windows, even state-of-the-art windows, are going to suck energy out of your house no matter what. If you REALLY want to save energy, don't have any windows.

Let me add that if you are building new, of course, you should use the best new technologies can offer.  But removing existing windows for the minimal improvement and high cost of current window technology simply doesn't pay. Beside destroying historic character, it clogs the landfill, squanders embodied energy and doesn't really do much to increase America's "energy independence" in the long run.  This is especially true when most of the problems with existing historic windows has nothing to do with their single-pane glass and everything to do with air infiltration.  Air infiltration is easily repaired, or it could be if anybody ever bothered to repair anything anymore when tossing it and passing the deferred maintenance  problem onto the next guy is offered as an option.

Saving energy and money are laudable goals and the Stimulus package could help.  In virtually every case, particularly in a historic building, you lose far more energy through heat loss through the ceiling. Heat, as any 1st year physics student can tell you, rises. Insulation, that pink fiberglass stuff the Pink Panther used to promote, is fairly cheap and very effective in conserving energy. Super-insulating your ceiling/attic will typically save enough money to pay for the insulation within a few short years. Window replacement in one commercial project I am currently involved with won’t pay for itself until 2150, over 140 years.(Yes, 140 years!)

‘Course we will likely go ahead and replace the historic sash in that building with new, state of the art, sash. And we will do so in as appropriate a fashion as possible because it’s a historic building and the windows need to look as much like the originals as possible. We could improve those old windows, probably to about R2.5, and put lots of Oregonians to work (restoration being more labor intensive than replacement), but we won't.  That's because replacing the windows (or at least improving their performance to a whopping R3.2) is  a requirement of the grant and so you have replace the windows if they want to get the funding to replace the HVAC units. And replacing the old boiler is a good idea, and will save a lot of energy.

Besides, spending $500K replacing windows that don't really make sense won't be paid for by the local government.  It's the Feds money. And, as a taxpayer, it's yours.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Medford's West School

In 1884, within a year of founding their city, the citizens of Medford passed a tax levy to construct the city’s first public school. Later known as West School (presumably after they built another school building to the east), Medford’s house of education was a fine two story wood frame building with interesting stick detailing on the exterior and a belltower on the top. It stood on Oakdale, near Main street, where the Jackson County Courthouse stands today.

In 1891 Medford decided to build a new school building on the site (a brick structure that would be known as Washington Elementary). Local businessman A. A. Davis, president of the Medford Roller Mill, purchased the school building and moved it to a lot on 10th Street, near Oakdale, behind the Catholic Church. Davis, a wealthy landowner, entirely remodeled the old school as his residence, stripping off the belltower and building a fine two-story Temple Front porch as the entry. To the east he had a porte cochere, a covered driveway, built to create a dignified appearance.

After Davis, the house was occupied by another pioneer family, the Alfords, and then during WWII was transformed into an apartment complex, the “Colonial Arms.” It remained as apartments, falling on harder and harder times, until 1976 when two attorneys purchased the place and decided to transform it into offices. Their major remodel was longer on heart than quality but the building housed a host of professional uses including the Britt Festival administration, before it was purchased by Sacred Heart Catholic Church, for use as the church offices.

Today, 40 years after the well-intentioned remodel, the wood siding is failing, woodpeckers have discovered the place, and the non-insulated walls and ceilings are creating huge heating and cooling bills. We are working on some specifications to guide a major rehab project, replacing the poor 1976 siding with new material after installing wall cavity insulation, shear, and better venting. The windows will be rebuilt and improved, some bad design decisions will be corrected and, all-in-all, the building will get a new, and improved, lease on life. Think of it as the 120-year tune up.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Gold Ray Dam

In 1903 two brothers, Dr. C. R. and Frank Ray, were involved with the Braden Mine, a fairly large operation east of Gold Hill, Oregon.  Dr. Ray, who must have managed his far wealthier brother’s investments, convinced Frank that the mine would be more efficient if it operated on electric power rather than steam and so the two brothers set about acquiring property on the Rogue River near Tolo, to build a dam and powerhouse.  The Gold Ray Dam, as it is known, was completed as an arched timber structure in 1903-04 and the concrete powerhouse went into operation, powering the mine.  Soon the Ray’s realized there was more money to be made selling electricity to others than in mining.  Their company evolved first into the Rogue River Electric Company and then, after a merger with the Siskiyou Electric Power & Light Company, of Yreka, California in 1911, formed the California-Oregon Power Company.  COPCO, as that company would become known, remained the primary power provider for most of southwestern Oregon and northern California for the next fifty years, until it was merged into Pacific Power and Light, now PacifiCorp,  in 1961.

Gold Ray Dam, which produced just 1.5 megawatts of power, a small output, kept chugging  out power as the water flowed.  A new concrete dam was built in 1941 and COPCO periodically considered expanding the old plant but never did.  The 1905 generation units, connected to the turbines by rope drives, and the original switching gear, all mounted on marble panels as was typical of the times, are all still there.  By 1972, after much study, PacifiCorp determined that the old pioneer Gold Ray Hydroelectric Project was no longer economically viable, as fish passage issues and the rest continued to increase costs that could not be offset by its small power output.  They donated the dam, and the powerhouse, and about 27 acres surrounding it at one of the prettiest little spots on the Rogue River, to Jackson County, which had dreams of developing it as a park and historic site celebrating what very nearly amounts to the birth of electricity in the Rogue Valley. 

That dream was stalled, first by a County plan to put the powerhouse back on line, and finally just by lack of funding.  The powerhouse fell to vandalism, and disrepair.  The dam became an increasing obstacle to fish passage and calls for its removal grew.  Some appreciate the wetlands upstream of the dam but the reality is that the Gold Ray Dam has, at least at the moment, outlived its usefulness.  This year, as part of the President’s stimulus package, the County has received funding to study alternatives for the future of the Gold Ray Dam, ranging from removal to rehabilitation and renewed power generation.  There is the potential for more funding to improve fish passage on the Rogue if the removal option is determined to make the most sense but the county will wisely explore all of the possible alternatives for Gold Ray before making its decision.

Over the next few months, shooting toward an in-water work window next Summer, I and an entire gaggle of others will be looking at all the various impacts that removal, or rehabilitation, will have on the Rogue River and, at least in my case, on the history that the Gold Ray Dam and Powerhouse represent. 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Public Fountains of Southern Oregon

In the past few years I’ve suddenly learned more about fountains, and plumbing, and restoring the combination of the two for public installations than I ever expected. First Ashland’s Lithia Water Fountain, installed on the Plaza, at the head of Lithia Park had fallen upon hard times and the City hired John Galbraith, a landscape architect in Medford, and I to figure out what to do it. That project, which involved far more complications than anyone envisioned was ultimately completed, the fountain restored with new basins that replicated the original character and an interpretative panel to tell the “drinking public” the story of Lithia Water and its supposed medicinal properties (ignoring the sulfur smell and taste).


More recently, working first with landscape architect Laurie Sager and now directly with the City, I’ve gotten involved with the on-going restoration of what is at least the second Peter Britt fountain, located on the Britt Festival grounds, in Jacksonville. Peter Britt was quite the horticulturist and not only was responsible for introducing many plant types to southern Oregon (including the region’s first wine grapes) but maintained his own grounds as something like a park. The second Britt Fountain is a poured-in-place concrete basin about 6 feet in diameter and 36” height, with fine recessed panels forming a octagonal basin. Historic images (I think that is Mollie and Emil, Peter’s children. Emil was the Mayor of Jacksonville for most of the first half of the 20th century) show the fountain with a simple standpipe. We don’t know for sure, but it probably was just pressure fed and drained out into the garden.

At some point the fountain use ended and the basin was filled with soil and used as a planter. I can remember standing in line for Britt shows when the pansies were in bloom (As my wife will tell you I am horrible at identifying plants…I think they were pansies but they could have been tulips for all I know. They were colored flowers, okay?). Caged soil and concrete aren’t a great match and, eventually, the steel drain pipes rusted and began to force full-height cracks through some of the concrete panels. Other areas, particularly the projecting sill and the base (the concrete pad around the base has been removed) spalled and show significant damage. Eventually somebody realized watering the plants wasn’t helping and took them out.  For the past few years the Britt Fountain has been a large pot of dirt, sprouting a few airborne weeds but nothing much else.

Earlier this year Sager and Associates designed a major renovation of this portion of the Britt Grounds (including a very cool steel superstructure that will help interpret the Britt House, which burned many years ago). The City has funding to restore the fountain, which will include restoration and repair of the concrete, installation of a new pump and a single standpipe spray. To control damage we are looking at internal supports and the installation of a stainless steel “basin” (you can’t have a 36” deep pool of water in a public park due to liability issues) that will fit carefully inside the concrete. I like to think that Mollie and Emil would be pleased.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Going the Extra Mile- "Public" Architecture done right....

Given that my last entry essentially amounts to a statement about the lack of vision and commitment some public entities place on their history or responsibility to the larger community, I’ve been thinking about a time when the situation was reversed and public entities, government, went the extra mile to set a standard.  Much of that relates to the New Deal, when FDR and crew took advantage of the nation’s economic condition to put as many people to work as they could, building infrastructure (like roads, parks and power systems) that we still enjoy.  My BPA work comes to mind,  along with the Oregon Caves Chateau project, as does Ken Burns’ current documentary on the National Parks.  Both BPA and the parks were considered near-socialism a the time, by the way, but it appears that we as a nation have somehow survived.

I think a more recent example of government going the extra mile can be found at the Grand Coulee Dam, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.  BOR isn’t generally the first Federal agency people think of when it comes to supporting fine design but that’s what they did, when they hired Marcel Breuer to design Coulee’s Third Powerhouse, home of the largest electrical generation units in the world.

Breuer (1902-1981) was one of the Bauhaus boys and gained fame for his design of the Wassilly Chair, the first of those continuous chrome tubular sled-based designs that are still popular.  Like so many European modernists (he was a Hungarian Jew), Breuer left Germany in the 1930s and eventually ended up teaching at the Harvard School of Architecture with Walter Gropius.  As a practicing architect Breuer design scores of buildings, among them the Whitney Museum of Art. 

Breuer's Visitor Center, designed in 1967, is a rather unexpectedly round  building among all the linearity of the huge Grand Coulee Dam that makes it quite striking.  It's well done and interesting on the interior too.  The Third Powerhouse has this amazing textural exterior of folded sculptural triangles of concrete, that form a massive battered stupa (look  it up) below the dam.  It rather looks as if it is covered with origami and comments from Visitors Center display report that the folds have a structural component, stiffening the shell of building.  Form, Function, etc.  Those modernists, huh?  Interior images of the powerhouse reveal decorative terrazzo floors and fine metal work.  Now THAT is public architecture (although the public apparently isn't allowed inside the powerhouse anymore, thanks to security).  I give BOR credit for hiring Breuer to begin with, and for maintaining the integrity of his design since the late-1960s.

Supposedly I will have an opportunity to work on this project in the near future, as there is some proposed modifications to the powerhouse generation in the works that will involve BPA and their substation up the hill.  I’m looking forward to the chance to perhaps see the inside of the powerhouse.  There are at least two other interesting design items at Grand Coulee that intrigue me...first the gold skinned "Public Safety Building" and more directly tied to the project, the fascinating "shoji-arch" like t-lines that lead up the hill.  Wonder if they are by Breuer too, or just took some inspiration from his efforts.  Great public architecture is like that....it has the power to inspire others.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jackson and Roosevelt, a sad situation in retrospect

A comment on another posts asks "what's up with the photos of Jackson School?" that run in the sidebar. Two years ago I was involved with an unsuccessful effort to save the historic Jackson and Roosevelt school buildings in Medford. These schools, built in 1911 and each a landmark anchor in a neighborhood named after them, were both built of brick with fine entry details. Neglected, and much added onto over the years, they were in need of work but had, as we say, "good bones." And they were both loved by many and were classic examples of that dying breed, "the neighborhood school."

The School District, 549C, and Dr. Phil Long, their superintendent, had secured $189 million in bond funding from the generous voters of Medford, promising to rebuild these structures, along with major improvements to most of the other schools and construction of a new high school to replace South. In the Summer of 2007, the day after school closed, 549C summarily closed both Jackson and Roosevelt, claiming that the brick was faulty and beyond repair, creating a eminent hazard to children. This was, frankly, a lie. They had no testing upon which to base that claim and in my discussions with Dr. Long about the issue he blandly admitted that the District simply didn't want to operate a three-story building. "They just don't work for us, as a school," he told me.

In typical political machination, still without any testing, 549C came up with a silly retrofit cost from an engineer unfamiliar with structural rehab. I have never seen so much concrete and steel inserted into a structure without reason in my career. What a surprise the costs were far more than demolition and new construction. Then they announced that cost over-runs at the new high school would require that neither Jackson or Roosevelt ever be rebuilt. (Funny, but that was their original goal, before election polling showed that the bond wouldn't pass if Jackson and Roosevelt were eliminated. Parents in both those neighborhoods, assured that their schools would be retained, hit the streets and got out the vote. The bond request passed by a mere 300 or so more "yes" votes than "no.")

The group that I was involved with, Save Medford Schools, shifted (wisely) to fight to keep schools on the Jackson and Roosevelt sites as the neighbors were promised. I continued to push for release of the brick study (which I had pushed 549C to commission during the Summer, but which 549C refused to publish...guess why?) and accurate cost justification that showed rehab was more expensive than demo and rebuild. Of course, the day they released the brick study, which of course found the bricks were fine, they also announced a new plan to rebuild Jackson and Roosevelt anyway, with money that came from their over-estimate of the repair of North High School. This effectively split the opposition, with parents who just wanted a neighborhood school on one side afraid to make any more waves and preservationists and fiscally minded community number-crunchers on the other, knowing that the District had cooked the numbers to get what they wanted to begin with.

Both Jackson and Roosevelt are now the site of new, two-story, buildings that will be opened next year. "Flagship High," as the monstrous suburban collector school the District is building at the edge of town has come to be known, is nearly complete. It fails to provide adequate theater and sport facilities, meaning the District will have to retain and maintain South to make it work and that students will have to drive or be bussed back and forth between the campuses (it is too far to walk).

The entire episode, as I testified to the 549C Board in January 2008 was a violation of the public trust, a waste of public funding, and the most egregious example of mismanagement on the part of an elected body I have ever been associated with in more than 25 years of public involvement. Had I been a Medford resident I would have led an effort to recall all of them, but not being so, I was effectively characterized as a "butt-inski" from Ashland.

The photos are of Jackson, in better days and during demolition. This week the Medford Landmark and Historic Preservation Commission announced its intent to nominate Washington School to the National Register. Dr. Long is 'considering' whether to support their effort. I am not holding my breath.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Multiple Property Submittals

When I was at the UO, learning the preservation ropes, a group of us came up with the mnemonic “BDOSS” (pronounced Be-Doss) to get through the HP 101 question of “what types of resources are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (Buildings, Districts, Objects, Sites, and Structures). It worked. I still remember it.

However, like Roger Maris’ 61 homeruns, BDOSS should really be BDOSS* since the Park Service has added variations to that original group of five including linear districts, non-contiguous districts, Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP’s) and what is the focus of this blogpost (you were wondering, right?) a “Multiple Property Submittals” or MPS. An MPS is a group of resources, of any time, that are related. Some of the classic examples of MPS (back when they were called Thematic nominations) were things like the Covered Bridges of Oregon or the CCC-built structures of the National Forest Service.

I have worked on what amounts to MPS documentation before, mostly for the far flung resources of hydroelectric projects, but I am now in the process of starting to layout the formal submittal on the Bonneville Power Administration Transmission System, which is, um, more far flung than most. This nomination will encompass resources in seven states, ranging from transmission lines to radio towers, control rooms and “untanking houses,” all related to the 70+ year history of public power development in the Pacific Northwest.

The MPS format essentially defines the “BPA Universe,” the realm and extent of the resources that are related to the significant themes by geography and type and, after defining what sorts of resources are out there that MAY be significant, establishes thresholds of integrity for each resource type to determine if they ARE significant. For an entity such as BPA, with literally 1000s of “things” to consider, an MPS submittal should save a lot of time and effort from a regulatory standpoint. Assuming I get it right!

In the meantime, as posted before, I am often finding my time spent staring at pictures of substations, or t-lines or radio towers or any of the other various pieces of the BPA puzzle in an effort to determine the significant patterns. WHAT makes a transmission line significant and how much can you modify it without losing some essential quality that makes it so? Good thing I like T-lines. The following is my current desktop, which probably certifies me as being in the thick of t-line thought .....

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fixing Downtown, one facade at a time

Six or so years ago the Medford Urban Renewal Agency, MURA, hit upon an idea to spark renovation of the buildings in downtown Medford. The agency had been formed about a decade earlier and initially concentrated on large public infrastructure projects…a parking garage, some surface lots, new sidewalks, underground systems and street lighting among other things. They had developed some marketing models, helped support the creation of the Craterian Theater to spark some nightlife and helped fund the designation of the core Medford Downtown area as a National Register Historic District. A few intrepid owners took the plunge (the restoration of the Southern Pacific Railroad Passenger Station, the Medford Depot, comes to mind) but there wasn’t the resurgence of interest in restoration or renovation MURA hoped for.

So, they took a novel approach. They decided to help property owners pay for facade improvements, offering matching grants of up to $37,500 per lot for qualified projects. I was lucky enough to end up as the project designer, participating in more than 75 separate renovations over a five year period (you have to understand that there are only 200 properties in downtown). Many of those were simple paint, awning or signage but some were major projects, including two Certified Rehabilitation's and many more that took advantage of the Special Assessment program the State of Oregon offers. Most though, including the Southern Oregon Gas Company Building, shown here "before" and "after" simply involved chipping away at the accreted ugly of the decades, taking off 1940s stucco or 1950s-1960s metal that covered up the original facade (or at least the one that had pedestrian scale windows and detailing). There is hardly a block in the city that hasn’t been touched by the Facade Grant program in one way or another.

Two years ago MURA ran out of funding for this program, diverting its efforts elsewhere. This year, funding is back in place and, as of last week, I am lucky enough to be involved in the project again. We already have FOUR projects either formally enrolled in the process or soon to be. Hopefully that pent up interest will continue. You can read more about the project, and see more before and after photos, at the MURA website


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What Price History?

In 1948 the voters of Jackson County, Oregon passed a “Historic Levy,” to support the restoration of the Jacksonville Courthouse and fund the operations of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, SOHS, that would operate it. Twenty-five cents of every $1000 in assessed value would go to support the Society, a huge amount of money then and now. For decades SOHS enjoyed stable funding from this tax base and built what at one time was the largest local historical society west of the Mississippi River. In addition to the Courthouse, the County allowed SOHS to take over, manage, and maintain for its own or interpretative uses, an entire series of County-owned properties in Jacksonville, most of which it had acquired for back taxes during the Great Depression. From this Jacksonville built a strong tourism/history based economy, ultimately becoming one of the highest value community's in the region, raising property values, raising the County's receipts, and generally showing that a small investment in history pays.

As Jackson County’s property values rose, SOHS began to take only a portion of its .25 mil rate, usually about a dime. Over the years the County itself, in an effort to fund its own operations without having to go to the voters for more money, began to take a greater and greater portion of the remaining fifteen cents of the historical levy. In 1995 Jack Walker was elected to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners and for whatever reason embarked upon what can only be characterized as a vendetta against SOHS. At some point he decided that since the Jackson County Courthouse (the current Courthouse, in Medford) was a historic building (it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), and that SOHS should, out its portion of the levy, help to maintain it. Specifically, he wanted SOHS to pay for a new roof. SOHS, with its own building projects in mind, said no. Jack has never forgiven them. SOHS, like many historical societies, has traditionally been run by well-meaning historians who among many skills do not count political savvy or brinksmanship. Walker and the Board of Commissioners, which collected the levy for SOHS and so controlled its dispersal essentially took the position that THEY, and they alone could determine how SOHS would spend the funds that were levied for their support.

Long story short, Jack concocted a “split” whereby SOHS got 75% of the .10 cents it levied, the Jackson County Historical Fund got 12.5% and, you guessed it the County got the other 12.5% to “maintain” the courthouse. For a realm of scale, the total 10 cent levy toward the end amounted to about $1.5million annually. (And, of course, Jackson County still kept the other .15 cents per thousand for its own purposes). SOHS, nice SOHS, befuddled SOHS, said nothing.

Then, in 1996 and 1997, came Bill Sizemore’s Ballot Measures 47 and 50 which, among other things, made all existing special levies permanent and melded them into the County’s general tax rate. Jack and the Commissioners now had ALL the .25 cents (along with the existing levy at that time intended to fund library operations, but that’s another story). Guess what they did? They announced their intention to retain the entire proceeds of the now permanent .25 per $1000 historical levy, ending all payments to SOHS and the Jackson County Historical Fund. One can assume they still use some of the levy proceeds to maintain the Courthouse. There was a painful transition period, lawsuits, and ultimately a shotgun wedding of sorts phase out of support to SOHS but, as of a few years ago, Jackson County keeps all the money, even denying any payments to take care of the Jacksonville buildings that it still owns. SOHS made valiant efforts toward self-sufficiency but, with the recent downturn in the economy and shrinking donations, they have faced a harder and harder road.

SOHS announced earlier this week that they are going to close their operations for six months in an effort to develop a sustainable funding model. Jack Walker and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners continue to benefit from the .25 per $1000 of assessed value, a sizable portion of the County’s general fund income worth millions of dollars annually. I think that stinks. I don't think I'm the only one that does.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't Shoot the Resources! Part 2

So, three days ahead of schedule, I handed in the draft of the Lithia Springs Property Management Plan to the City yesterday. This boiled down to a more elaborate discussion on the basic theme of "keep them clean, keep they dry, and don't shoot at them" approach to resource conservation that I'd suggested earlier.

It was rather an eye opener to trek around that property and assess the wide variance in condition between those resources in the middle of the Gun Club's activities with those located at the periphery of them. One resource, the pumphouse, is a stucco-coated concrete building that the City had seen fit to "de-roof" in 1975. While the Gun Club would have you believe that the major damage to the masonry is due to weathering (despite the TARGET they had hanging in the doorway) it was informative to compare the three sides of the building facing the gun club users with the one side facing the creek and so inaccessible. Guess which side is in really good condition and which ones have been pock marked, exposing re-bar and interior masonry to the weather? Go on....guess.

On the plus side, there are several near pristine concrete "monoliths" located at the edge of the property, far outside the ranges (though directly upon the bow hunting course) that while damaged have at least not been knocked over like the similar features in the middle of the site. These each relate, I am sure, to the c1940s Carbon Dioxide processing plant on the site, presumably as some sort of extractor or reducer to separate the gas from the water. They are HUGE, about 30" square and 12' tall, with various ports and flanges.

The Gun Club, for whatever reason, hasn't been as good of a steward of this important historic site as I had hoped. The guidelines include various recommendations to isolate the resources from their on-going activity such as weather protection, berms and fencing. My favorite element to prepare was the education component, suggesting that the Club take pains to notify all of its members and visitors that they share a site with Ashland's history and should protect them from damage. But what I really enjoyed was designing the sign, to be located near some of the major features.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heritage So Rich, Heritage at Risk

For many years, in reference to building legislative support for historic preservation issues, I have suggested that until such time as saving old buildings is seen as an intrinsic goal, we are fighting battle by battle whilst losing the “war.” Were we to get to the point, from nostalgia, good planning, economics, environmental stewardship or simple respect, where there was substantial agreement that keeping buildings standing unless there is a truly justified reason to remove them, the debate would be reduced to who pays. Preservation, were it a “mom and apple pie” issue, would be a lot easier to promote.

The same, sadly, is becoming true in the larger world of heritage. Preservationists rely upon historical societies and museums, often working in close partnership with them and their extensive photo libraries and archives. Most of us, I am sure, hold multiple memberships in a variety of historical societies. I know I belong to about five or six organizations, mostly local or county museums, in the areas in which I work frequently.

Museums, by their nature, rarely get involved in the sort of advocacy issues that can sometime make preservation enemies and so, in general, elected officials tend toward a more benign attitude toward them. Aside from the stereotypes, it’s the rare museum that leads the fight to save the old farmstead, hindering the Wal-Mart that some see as progress. Instead, at least in the view of many, a museum is the responsible repository for the remnant gate or weathervane, after the farmstead is sacrificed for “progress.”

But in these hard economic times, museums and other heritage organizations are hurting. Societies and museums that relied upon public funding are seeing it yanked by officials who under prioritize their value. Many well-meaning leaders simply don’t have enough funding to go around. Others, with an axe to grind (and that would include my own Jackson County) have purposely targeted historic funding out of what is hard not to see a petty retribution. In a double-whammy, societies that were supported by donations and grants are seeing that source dry up in tough times too, particularly as the competition for limited dollars increase. That combination is forcing museums all over Oregon to shutter, to reduce hours, end programs and lay off staff. It’s a bleak picture and it shows no sign of improving in the near future.

Last Monday the Oregon Heritage Commission met in Prineville and discussed the looming crisis in Oregon’s heritage community. That community, with whatever leadership the Commission can provide, needs to work together as it never has before to develop a workable strategy for the future. Doing otherwise, I fear, will result in the loss of priceless and irreplaceable history from one end of the state to the other. Even where the pioneer diaries don’t end up on eBay, a very real possibility, they are going to be locked up and inaccessible without concerted action. Such stored resources may survive for the future, but nobody will able to use them. Keeping its history intact, and accessible, is part of what civilized societies are supposed to do, isn’t it?