Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Best of Times, and Not

Think of this as "a tale of two theatres." For one it was the best of times, for the other, probably not the worst, but not what anyone expected.

It’s the end of the year and like many of you, I am making my year-end contributions to various arts and cultural organizations, to be matched by a donation to Oregon’s unique and amazing Oregon Cultural Trust.  I’m in the process of writing out a donation to the Egyptian Theatre, in Coos Bay, and that got me thinking about the comparative progress made by the two theatre projects I am/was working on at this time last year and the fairly divergent paths they have each taken in 12 months.

In January 2012 the Egyptian Theatre in Coos Bay was closed due to structural concerns and faced an uncertain future. Some were calling for its demolition in light of an estimated $4.5 million renovation cost.  But in the past twelve months the diligent volunteers of the Egyptian Theatre Preservation Association have, with their stalwart partners at the Coos Bay Urban Renewal Agency, completed a marketing study, hired a fund-raising consultant, re-visited the structural report that caused the theater’s closure, and have embarked on a cost-effective, exciting plan that expects to see work begin next year and the theatre reopened to the public by 2014!  Costs are estimated at less than $1 million.  Early fund-raising efforts are paying off with Foundation support and a year-end direct campaign is hitting stride (heck, they convinced me to donate, you should consider it too!). 

On the other side of the mountain, the Holly Theatre, in Medford, started 2012 with a bright future.  The JPR Foundation, of Jefferson Public Radio, had received funding from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency to match its own investment and was in the early construction and planning phases of a full exterior restoration that would lead up to a “Grand Relighting” ceremony in April.  The exterior neon pylon and the marquee was fully restored, new tile work and storefronts went in, new painting and restoration of the cornice was taking shape.  And on the inside, the cracked beams that had closed this theater more than 10 years ago were finally being repaired, allowing the removal of the ugly structural cribbing and letting the public re-enter to appreciate the potential.  The relighting ceremony was a hit, with 1000 people on the streets for the big moment.  Speeches were made, switches were thrown, and the cheers for the Holly’s bright future could be heard all over downtown.  The fundraising campaign to finish the interior and transform the building was in the wings, poised to take off.

Sadly, for the Holly and Medford, politics and lawyers intervened.  The cheers of the restoration got overwhelmed by another agenda and by September the connection between the radio station and the theatre had been stretched, if not broken.   SOU’s President Mary Cullinan had successfully undertaken what might be called a “coup,” and the future of the Holly was, at best, on hold, until what has been called “organizational chaos” at JPR could be sorted out. The radio station, now owned entirely by the State Board of Higher Ed, continues.  A new entity, one created from the wreckage of the JPR Foundation, is supposed to take over the Holly.  Whether the restoration will get back on track is a question that, at best, will take some time to answer.  Downtown Medford, and the Holly, are waiting.  They mostly will still be this time next year.

Two theaters, two very different years.  I have every expectation that the Egyptian will be back in business and firmly on the path to success within the next 18 months or so.  I have no idea what the future holds for the Holly.  I’m not really sure anyone does.  

Public restoration projects taken a certain combination of vision, capital, time and fortitude.  In Coos Bay, the supporters of the Egyptian Theatre have worked hard, built a coalition, asked tough questions and are making it work.  In Medford, all the pieces were in place for the same, perhaps even quicker, success.  Those pieces are all still there.  The question is whether anyone is going to pick them up.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Greyhound Bus Portal- A Missed Opportunity

Well, I wrote earlier about the “portal” arch at the former Greyhound Bus Depot in downtown Medford and the fact that its future is undecided.  No more.  At noon today the Medford Urban Renewal Agency (MURA) board voted 6-3 to request the arch be demolished and replaced with a plaque. That request will be forwarded to the City’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission but the reality is that all they can do is delay demolition for 120-days.  MURA Board members talked about their lack of affection for the arch and their concern that the cost of saving it was too high, though nobody really knows what it will cost to save.  The “ballpark” figure being bandied about is $50K. 

I wrote a Guest Opinion in the local paper MT attempting to point out the value in keeping this as a part of the city’s downtown, what it takes to make a great urban place, and the value of retaining context among things.  While several of the board (even several that voted against) were quite complimentary about what we had to say, it obviously wasn’t enough to convince them.  It appears that what was really going on here was an unfortunate competition between saving the arch and building a seasonal ice skating rink that has come out of the blue as the holy grail of crowd attraction to the downtown.  Too bad.  I would like to personally thank Mayor Gary Wheeler, and Councillors Greg Jones and Karen Blair for their votes.  I wish they could have brought along some of their fellows.

From the testimony, and the comments, I think that many of the board were uncomfortable with this decision.  Some of their opposition stems from what might be characterized as anti-Mid Century Modern sensibilities, others from structural unknowables (the format doesn’t really allow much information sharing at the meeting and who knows what happened before it got to this point), but in the end it was mostly about money.  After having spent $14 million of public money, much of it for property acquisition, building demolition, infrastructure and other costs related to The Commons project and Lithia’s new corporate headquarters (a building strikingly reminiscent, frankly, of the tile-clad, angular, mass of the Greyhound Depot), spending $50K on this public amenity within the two blocks of public park land was deemed excessive.  Restoration of the Greyhound Arch was originally offered as what amounted to “mitigation” for the destruction of multiple historic buildings to allow for the construction of The Commons several years ago. This would involve re-installing the 'Greyhound" channel letters at the top and the cleaning and repair of the mottled green ceramic wall tiles, all to serve as "gateway" of sorts to the park.  It would have been cool.  Now, backing away from even that token effort, the Board is proposing to offset this loss with a plaque.  Why bother?

A few days ago I had hope that "vision will out."  It didn't.  Medford is great town, with a great history.  Over recent years they have gotten much better about embracing that and seeing the potential history offers in creating vibrant, interesting and enjoyable urban spaces.  Not so today.  This decision to remove the Greyhound Bus Depot portal is a mistake.  A seasonal ice rink, if they ever even build that, won’t make it right.  With or without a plaque.

ADDED 12/5Although it appears unlikely this will even happen, below is the rendering that was submitted to show the restored, completed, Greyhound Arch.  I still think MURA is making a big mistake but apparently that is a minority opinion.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Littrell Building, Medford...Pieces of the Past

The Littrell Building, which stood at the corner of 6th and Bartlett in Medford’s downtown historic district, was designed by Frank Chamberlain Clark and built by Elmer Childers for local investor John Tomlin in 1936.  Its original tenant, a Safeway market, occupied the prominent corner volume until 1945 when E. A. Littrell purchased the building and moved his auto parts company there.  Littrell expanded to the east, doubling the space and matching the design.  The company occupied this corner for more than four decades.
Next, Lithia Auto purchased the Littrell Building and used it as part of their downtown service complex.  In 2006, with funding from the Medford Urban Renewal Agency (MURA), Lithia undertook a fa├žade renovation and brought the structure back to some of its original cool design, painting the engaged columns and the nifty shield-like finials. I think they even won an award.

Alas, as Lithia began to design its new corporate home, and the adjacent development and park blocks that are to be known as “The Commons,” in downtown Medford, the Littrell Building was demolished.  Lithia agreed to keep the finials (and the sign block) and will use most of them as landscape elements in the new park, along with some interpretative material on this history.  They also plan to keep the “arch” from the old Greyhound Bus Depot (1949), a great Streamline Moderne building that was designed by Clark’s partner, Robert Keeney.  The future of that, unfortunately, is somewhat up in the air, but I’m hopeful that vision will out and the restored arch will remain as part of the design.  I imagine there will be more on that later.
Anyway, some of the finials turned out to be extras and I was pleased to be able to save two of them.  They are happily on display as yard art….not a perfect preservation solution by any means, but certainly better than the dump, and surely mitigated by the fact that the majority will be restored and retained in the new Commons park.  These little curiosities, I think, serve a vital role for those times when a building can’t be otherwise saved.  They make people ask questions…and they remind us that things, even parts of things, are worth saving and have value.  In the meantime, if you know anybody that wants a three-ton 48" x 96" or so 8" thick chuck of concrete that proudly proclaims "Littrell Bldg." let me know.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Summit-Fairmount Survey, Medford

Next week, working with Tama Tochihara, we’ll start the fieldwork for a reconnaissance level survey of the Summit-Fairmount neighborhood in Medford, Oregon.  This is an early residential district in west Medford with an estimated 1000 homes scattered over about 40 blocks.   A quick drive through last week showed that the majority of the homes are pre-WWII and most of those are pre-WWI.  This makes sense, since most the area was platted into additions to the city in the decade between 1900 and 1910.  That’s an important ten year period in Medford’s history, generally known as the “the Orchard Boom.”  Inspired by the arrival of the railroad, improved cold-storage technology that allowed long-distance fruit shipment, and an incessant drum beat of promotion, Medford became the center point of rapid growth in pear, apple and peach orchards.  Between 1900 and 1910 the city’s population exploded, growing more than 400% and lauded as the third fastest growing city in the United States.

Medford’s Commerical Club (a precursor to the modern Chamber of Commerce) led the charge of “boosterism” in support of the city’s growth.  They published maps, and brochures, and most notably well-illustrated pamphlets and booklets (often through the Southern Pacific Railroad) to attract “Settlers” to the valley.  Orchards were laid out, many purchased by eastern money, and downtown Medford grew to provide services.  Areas like Summit-Fairmount were platted and hundreds of new homes were built to house the newcomers and the workers that flocked into the area.  The small additions in Summit-Fairmount, many only a block in size, represent a virtual who’s who of early Medford gentry.  Ray Toft, W. H. Canon (who would become Mayor), Warner, Wortman, Stewart, Purdin, Page and Palm, among others, all were involved various projects in this new part of the city.  Most have fairly prosaic names (the Anderson-Toft Addition, the Page Addition) but at least one, The Bungalow Addition, provides an indication of the times.  As might be expected there is a school, non McLaughlin Middle School, and a few other institutions scattered among the blocks, all within walking distance of downtown. 

I haven’t done a survey for awhile and, at least at this point, am somewhat agog about the ways in which new technology has made this so much easier.  We used to take film photos, and try to keep them organized with roll numbers (not to mention bracketed exposures).  Digital cameras pretty much ended that.  And we used to have to use all sorts of ungainly mapping, trying to transform reality into something that could fit in your hand, in the field, or on your desk, when you were sorting it all out.  Now, with GIS and low-elevation aerial photos (THANK YOU to the City of Medford!) that information fits neatly into an 11x17 binder filled with accurate and up-to-date images.  Standing on the sidewalk with a clipboard and camera is still a part of the deal, but I’m impressed with how much more technology we can now bring to the project.

Soon we’ll have photos, and some preliminary information about construction, estimated dates and in some cases perhaps a little history, to start to make sense of these early neighborhoods.  I expect we'll have a good share of Bungalows too.  The City is already receiving some positive comments from area residents, long curious about the history of their homes and neighborhood.  Over the next few months, there will be more information for what ought be a great discussion.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Camp White Revisited, Again

Beginning in 1990-1991, I have had a connection with Camp White, the WWII-era US Army cantonment that was built in the Agate Desert, north of Medford, Oregon.  Camp White was constructed in 1942 to train US infantry troops.  Covering more than 70 square miles, its 1400 buildings were mostly built of wood.  More than 100,000 troops were trained at the camp and the base was the second largest city in Oregon at the time.  100s of babies were born here, the valley’s first large contingent of African-Americans arrived, and there was even a German POW camp near the end of the fighting.  By 1946-47, most of the camp buildings were being dismantled for parts, or moved to serve as schools, churches, and other uses.  Not much remained.

The Camp White Station Hospital, however, was built of brick, what the local leaders of the time called “permanent construction.”  The Rogue Valley, for all its independent bluster discovered that having a major federal presence in the valley was good for business and, with the end of WWII they were loath to let it evaporate.  Medford and Jackson County used political muscle (in the form of Wayne Morse) to, um, convince a foot-dragging Veterans Administration that Camp White would make the perfect location for a veterans facility.  The VA, from the start, said the Camp White Station Hospital was too big, too remote, and would be too expensive to operate.

Fast forward to 1991, the 50th Anniversary of WWII, and Camp White was celebrating almost a half century of service as the White City Veterans Administration Domiciliary, the “Dom” in local parlance.  Renamed Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics, the Camp White Station Hospital and its lovely grounds continue to provide services to returned soldiers and the VA presence remains an important part of the valley.  The huge two-story brick buildings of the station hospital, most connected by an amazing series of internal hallways, are arrayed in military-like formation, neatly in rows and rows.

In the mid-1990s the Camp White Station Hospital was evaluated for historic significance in connection with an ODOT-funded widening of Highway 62.  Later the hospital was the subject of both a detailed survey of its 50+ structures and the development of a Manual for Built Resources.  Now, as the result of the Department of Veterans Affairs long-range plan to provide improved facilities at the site, we’re again in the process of the evaluating the resources at Camp White, determining which, if any, are individually eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  Many will likely be replaced by newer, and more efficient, structures, still arrayed in the neat little rows that personify the camp.

In 1991, in Camp White: City in the Agate Desert, I wrote of the legacy of Camp White and the station hospital, really the only “built” elements of the camp that remain.  “Nothing so large, so monumental in scope, can be measured solely by its remnants, no matter how impressive.  The true heritage of Camp White is the change that it brought.”   That is still true, seventy years after the first construction at Camp White began.  We are just starting this new evaluation project at SORCC, but I think it's pretty likely that at least some of the hospital buildings are going to prove eligible for listing on the National Register.  Call it an educated guess.