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?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Why did they do that?

Sometimes it seems to me that as a preservation consultant, particularly working in some communities, my job involves planning for what to do after we “take that garbage off” of the building façade. Of course that begs the question of “what were they thinking?” when they put it up. Most times de-garbagifcation is pretty easy, and there is occasionally the fine surprise (like leaded glass windows below a sheet metal façade on one project) that makes everyone one the project scurry and regroup to redesign. Most of the time, however, on the day of the big "unveiling," you just discover an ugly hole, or a shoddy patch-job where the windows (doors, whatever) used to be. It really seems sometimes that earlier owners and the contractors were bound and determined to remove any vestige of grace or character from their building as quickly, and completely, as possible.

In downtown Medford, a successful community for many years where merchants and property owners serially renovated their building facades to keep up with the times, there are plenty of great buildings hidden by plenty of garbage. In years past, when I was the design consultant for the Medford Urban Renewal Agency (MURA), I got pretty good and removing the 1960s (or 1980s) from a façade and finding some way to reinterpret (or rediscover) the 1920s (or 1930s) underneath. For the past few days I’ve been staring at current and historic images of the 1911 Crater Lake Garage building, one of the few surviving brick auto-garages along what southern Oregon fancied as Medford’s “Auto Row.” The poor building has been hidden behind really terrible 1980s wooden screens that cover the (unfortunately) long-lost windows. Whomever put these up, made as they are of exposed end-grain Fir, must not have realized that this is Oregon, western Oregon in particular, where we are know to get the occasional rainstorm.

Originally the Crater Lake Garage had large service doors, modified after 1922 to create typical storefronts. While the building has been modified, and while the front entry to the proposed restaurant use will actually be on what was historically the rear (facing a large public parking lot), we’ll come up with something to make this elevation more attractive. New owners, new paint, and half a dozen windows in what are now blocked in openings will return life to this building and once again get natural daylight to the interior. A modest change, but one that should have big impact on downtown Medford.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Shoot the Resources!

Shortly after the turn of the century (the last century, in 1900) the City of Ashland purchased a piece of property along Emigrant Creek and began the development of "Lithia Water," a highly-mineralized stuff that was supposed to spark huge resort development in town ("Ashland Grows when Lithia Flows," as the jingle went). A number of interesting buildings were constructed in concrete and stucco, all designed around the Lithia Water that was piped to several locations around town. The water locations included the Depot, the Library and most prominently, Lithia Park, which was named during this same period. You can still get Lithia Water in the park, at the wooden kiosk next to the Band Shell.

Anyway, Lithia Water, um, fizzled, a bit and eventually the Springs site become home to a CO2 plant. Periodic efforts to bottle and market the water itself invariably failed when people realized they had actually been drinking all that mineralized goo that settled to the bottom of the clear containers. Ashland still has Lithia Water in three spots (including the new Civic Center) and just recently we had great fun designing the restoration of the 1927 Lithia Fountain, front and center on the Plaza.

Meanwhile, after WWII, the Lithia Spring site itself, out by the Ashland Airport, saw little use after the bottling plant closed. The property was eventually leased to the Ashland Gun Club, a group of private and law enforcement users that set up targets and ranges, where they can practice and learn new skills. It's a pretty active community, and it gives them and most of the police departments south of Medford a safe place to shoot. Ashland's Public Works Department has in the past used the site for dumping fill (a practice now ended) and between that and the gun club's penchant for berms its not much of an overstatement to say the landscape as been serially, and severely, modified since the 1960s.

But there are still buildings, and walls, and of course wells, out there... all in increasingly poor condition. Four years ago we evaluated the property for its NR potential. Given the fact that the Lithia Water development was a major part of Ashland's history, and that Lithia Water itself remains a somewhat iconic part of Ashland, it wasn't too hard to find the Springs site to be potentially significant under Criterion A. One of the recommendations was that the City and the Gun Club develop a management plan that would better protect these fragile resources against the day that they have some more public use (the gun club, for obvious reasons, isn't too keen on tourists wandering around the property). Ashland, a Certified Local Government, received a small grant from Oregon SHPO to fund the documentation.

Ashland hired us to develop the management plan and so last week I again went to the Lithia Springs site, poked through the brambles (and shell casings) took a bunch of pictures, and began to think how to protect these remaining elements of Ashland's Lithia Springs era. At the moment my "three commandments" for appropriate action are boiling down to;

"Keep Them Dry,
Keep Them Clean,
Don't Shoot at Them."

I will probably have to flesh that out a bit, but I think the basic tenets will remain.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Oregon Caves Chateau turns 75

Yesterday we were at an Ice Cream social to commemorate the 75th birthday of the Oregon Caves Chateau, an NHL located in the Oregon Caves Monument, at the end of the road south of Cave Junction, Oregon. It was neat event, buoyed by the presence of Oregon's Governor Ted Kulongoski, the First Lady (and Oregon Trust Advisor) Mary Oberst, Representatives from the Congressional Delegation, the State Legislature, County Board of Commissioners and the National Parks Service, among many others that included the Friends of the Oregon Caves, former residents and workers. The Caves, and the Chateau, have an ever-growing fan base, to be sure.

As I've mentioned before, I've been working with the Friends to design and rehab a "Model Room" at the Caves, taking what was formerly the much-altered Manager's Suite and using it as an experiment to develop a viable alternative to the original (and hence historic) fiber-board/Celutex wall and ceiling coverings that were installed in 1934. These panels (in both 4x8 sheets and, in the hallways, about 18"x24" tiles) were installed directly over the studs, without any insulation, fire rating, or sound-proofing. You can see the "Before" picture above. And, if you have ever spend a night at the Chateau, I don't have to tell you how that lack of performance effects what the hospitality folks call "the visitor experience." The Manager's Suite had been modified (painted white, rather than the original brown/tan (turned orange by 1950s-era fire retardant) so working with NPS and Oregon SHPO we decided to remove it and explore a visually-compatible, more functional, alternative. In this case, after insulating the walls for both energy and acoustics, we took drywall with a chamfered bead and textured the finish. We're still messing with the paint scheme a bit and haven't quite perfected the "pickled" trim, but we're getting there. Refinished wood floors, historically-based lighting, and other details will, presumably, all improve the visitor experience. So will the revamped plumbing and electrical systems, but neither are as photogenic.

The Governor and First Lady cut a ribbon, to formally "open" access to the Model Room and the assembled crowd trekked up the stairs to see how we'd done. Afterwards everyone had Oregon150 Ice Cream (graciously served by the Governor), locally made cookies, and good conversation.

This project is the first step in what is a hoped for full systems and structural upgrade for the Chateau (Congress and Parks Service willing), to be paired with room-by-room restoration based on this model. New textiles and finishes (most from Oregon-based companies) will blend with the huge collection of historic Monterey Furniture that was part of the Chateau's original design. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tracking the Elusive T-Line

Yeah, I know, it's not what you thought "restoration consultants" did, but it's what this one is doing. Driving 1500 plus miles in the last four days, trying to unravel maps, aerial images, Garmin GPS locations and drive all at the same time (not really..Joyce is navigating and doing a fine job of it, thank you very much) in search of miles and miles and miles of Transmission Lines that run all over the Pacific Northwest (or at least, at the moment, northern Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana). It's a good thing the T-lines themselves standout from the landscape but DRIVING to the substations is occasionally a challenge (I have only given up once so far Dworshak, where my definitely not 4WD vehicle wasn't up to the grade). The payoff, when you find what you are looking for, is worth it though. T-Lines are quite remarkable, when you actually stop to think about them (and yes, I realize most people don't).

The system built by Bonneville Power Administration over the past seventy or so years is really a pretty remarkable achievement. Of course, I am rarely disappointed by the audacity of engineers to design such a grid and make it all work. Or of the men (and one presumes, women) who actually go out and plant these steel and wood towers in neat lines over mountains, streams and valleys, from Point A to Point B.

As to the question of "what does this mean" and why is somebody like me looking at transmission lines, of all things, I am still puzzling that out. I can tell you that the Pacific Northwest wouldn't be what it is, would not have developed as it has, without BPA and its miles of transmission lines (or, to be fair, without the Army Corps and Bureau of Reclamation dams that generate the power to begin with). Clearly, from the perspective of the National Register, there is little doubt that BPA's construction constitutes a "significant theme" within the history of the PNW, if not the nation. How these lines relate that significance, and more importantly from BPA's standpoint, how their "integrity" is evaluated in a manner that allows their continued utility, remains an open question.

On to Washington, and tomorrow, Grand Coulee!