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.