Sunday, December 5, 2010

White Elephant No More?

In most cities of any size there are a few historic buildings that for whatever reason seem to defy the odds.  They are too cool, or interesting, or locally beloved to tear down, but nobody ever seems to be able to come up with a productive use for them either.  They sit, and everyone in the preservation field wonders when and if something good will happen to them.  I, and I am not alone, call such projects “White Elephants.”  Over the years I have had the good fortune to work on several, most notably what is now the Ashland Springs Hotel (formerly the Lithia Springs Hotel), and the Hot Lake Sanatorium, outside of LaGrande, Oregon.

Medford has several white elephants…the Holly Theater has been the subject of several blogs already and good things are in store for it.  Next week I will start work on what should a nifty rehab of another…the Sparta Building, at the corner of Main & Riverside, just as you enter downtown.  Designed by Frank Clark in 1910-11, the Sparta started out rough, with no use until C. E. “Pop” Gates opened Gates Ford on the first floor.  Eventually a series of auto dealers and parts suppliers were located here, right on the corner of Main Street, on the Pacific Highway, in the core of Medford’s famed “Auto Row.”

The upper floor became the home of Medford’s first successful radio station, KMED, with elaborate studios occupying much of the building, below twin, giant, wooden towers that helped broadcast the signal.  The “arts” theme was carried out by an entire host of musical renters, teaching everything from Hawaiian Guitar, to voice and piano.  During WWII the sounds of music gave way to business, as CMC, the contractors that built Medford’s US Army cantonment, Camp George A. White, had their offices there.  Downstairs, after the car dealers moved out, became more office space and a restaurant, the Cozy Nook.  Upstairs became apartments.  In the 1970s and 1980s there was a series of popular nightclubs on the ground floor and some point a fire destroyed the upper units.  Nobody even bothered to rebuild.

And there, with its fine (if much remodeled) glazed brick façade, the Sparta Building sat.  After a change in owners the building was listed on the National Register at some point, there were various plans to renovate the façade, to re-expose the graceful corner entry, rebuild the transom panels and generally clean it up but nothing much ever came of it.  One owner replaced all the windows (except the curved corner) and the next owner started to rebuild the apartments upstairs.

Now, another new owner has taken possession, with great plans to finally return the Sparta Building to its full glory.  Next week we’ll start to poke around a little and see how much of what was once there is still, buried under plaster, and paint, and at least two levels of dropped ceiling.  I will post pictures if I can.


  1. OOHHH the poking around is the best part about historic preservation work. Pieceing what remains of the building back together is a great, fun puzzle.

  2. Thanks Courtney... but it's really only the SECOND best part. FINDING stuff is the best :)

  3. Nice article on the Sparta project in today's Medford Mail Tribune.