Saturday, December 14, 2013

Camp Low Echo's Next Chapter

In the waning days of WWII, the Rogue Valley Girl Scouts Council decided that renting time at the Boy Scouts campground in southern Oregon wasn’t going to be a permanent solution.  In 1946 they negotiated a lease with what is now the Fremont-Winema National Forest for acreage at the southeastern tip of Lake of the Woods, in Klamath County, and set about planning to build what would become Camp Low Echo.  John Boyle, the famed hydroelectric engineer of the California Oregon Power Company (and father of two girls) laid out the campground and designed the main lodge.  The following year two groups of fathers set to work, one group set about dissembling a few buildings at Camp White, a US Army Cantonment, and the other using those salvaged materials (even the windows) to build a 40x100’ foot building facing the lake.  They got some other neat stuff from Camp White too, but more about that later.  The main lodge was later dedicated as “Beaver Lodge,” after the camp name of a scout leader.

For the next seven decades 1000s of girls spent their summers at Camp Low Echo, learning crafts, swimming in the lake, canoeing and spending time in the woods among friends.  It was a popular spot.  The Girl Scouts (aided by Kiwanis and Lions) built more buildings, cabins, fire-rings, and sleeping platforms, that allowed multiple groups to use the camp’s 30 acres.  None of these buildings, not even Beaver Lodge, were architectural wonders and most were built of donated materials, but they did what was needed, and for the summers, kept the bugs out and provided shelter.  When the snow fell, the uninsulated buildings were vacant, but their green metal roofs kept them dry until the next summer.

Scouting, for both boys and girls, is somewhat on the wane, as these traditional activities compete with sports, video games, and other things.  A few years ago the southern Oregon Girl Scouts Council, along with several other councils, were merged into a single statewide council based in Portland.  One of the first things that new body decided was that they had too much property.  Sadly, one of the facilities to be jettisoned was Camp Low Echo, ending any formal association between the scouts and the camp  In September of this year, after a deliberate process, the Forest Service lease for Camp Low Echo was transferred to a non-profit organization, which also purchased the Girl Scouts’ buildings with an eye toward a mixture of restoration, removal and new construction that will continue Camp Low Echo’s essential focus, while making improvements to allow the facility to operate year-round.

One thing that I expect to remain will be the luggage carts… a series of wooden boxes (now painted red) with 48” diameter steel rimmed wheels.  The scouts used them to lug sleeping bags and duffle bags from the parking area to the far reaches of the grounds (where cars can’t go).  What may not have been remembered is that these carts are also surplus from Camp White, where they began life as the garbage wagons.  I am thinking that Beaver and the other early leaders did some heavy cleaning before they were re-purposed!

The exact nature of the upcoming changes hasn’t been decided yet and for the moment exploration is on-going to evaluate the existing buildings and see how, and if, they can be upgraded to serve a year-round purpose.  Many were built of salvaged materials, often by well-meaning if not entirely skilled volunteer labor.  There are settlement and rot issues, and the accumulated impact of six decades of exposure with minimal maintenance.  And, of course, the expectations of Girl Scouts in July isn't the same as what you or I might expect in January.  What is clear is that Camp Low Echo has a distinctive style and a character that is formed by its buildings, but that character is also just as dependent on the layout and setting.  The use of materials and even the colors of the structures just scream “Camp.”  Whatever happens, I am pretty confident Camp Low Echo in 2014 is going to be easily recognizable as an evolution in what the Girls Scouts started six decades ago.  At least that’s the plan.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Egyptian Theatre Rehab is Underway!

The Egyptian Theatre, in Coos Bay, has come roaring back from the brink and is set to reopen sometime in 2014.  As you may recall, the city-owned building was in operation until 2011, managed by the Egyptian Theater Preservation Alliance, when a very conservative structural report resulted in its immediate closure.  Local wags wailed about government waste and the city’s investment in a “dangerous building” and for awhile it really looked as if the future for this amazing survivor was going to include demolition.

Instead, in a patient, methodical, fashion, the City and EPTA have gone about raising funds and crafting a phased rehabilitation plan that will 1) see the building re-opened after some structural and systems upgrades, to be followed by 2) exterior rehabilitation and finally 3) the interior rehab (which is mostly cleaning...the interior is absolutely incredible).  Phase 1 is underway, with new wooden beams going into the fly loft, metal connections, and reinforcement to the rear wall, along with new electric service, upgraded sewer connection, and two unisex ADA restrooms.  

Not all the work in Phase 1 is behind the scenes though.  Several of the absolutely incredible original light fixtures are in the process of restoration, to be reinstalled in theatre.  They have suffered various indignities over the years, with the original mica bottoms replaced by plastic (and held on in some cases by wingnuts!)  and the hand painted paper shades having faded and changed colors over the years.  We’ll take them back to the original, when they were a stunning reddish tone, with silver highlights.  And the cobras, with their polychrome paint and ivory-white eyes, offer all sorts of possibilities for future use too… Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Phoenix Update-Devenney-Steadman RIP

Well, you can’t say we didn’t try.  When last we left the Devenney-Steadman House, the Phoenix City Council had approved its demolition but the owners were willing to wait awhile before actually razing this fine 19th century house, in case somebody wanted to move it.  The Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency put together a plan PHURA that would have relocated the Steadman House to a prominent corner lot on Main Street, adjacent to a historic building on the north (the Phoenix Grange) and the Phoenix City Hall, on the west.  The Devenney-Steadman House would have been restored for use as PHURA’s offices, including a compatible addition to the rear for meeting room use, and the entire thing, including purchase of the land, could be paid for by the saved rental on PHURA’s offices over the remaining 15 years of life.  Phoenix got a great addition to its Main Street, saved money, created an asset for the community’s future use or sale AND undertook what would have amounted to a demonstration project that rehabilitation is not only cost effective but cool.  And Phoenix is a city that has little track record when it comes to historic preservation and re-use so who better to lead the way than local government?

On Monday of this week the issue came before the Phoenix City Council, who needed to approve PHURA’s expenditure to purchase the land.  To be clear, they didn’t need to provide any funding, they needed to approve PHURA using its own funds to purchase land and restore the Devenney-Steadman House instead of wasting it on rent.  Guess what they did?

By a vote of 3-3, with the Mayor voting to break the tie in the negative, the City of Phoenix formally thumbed its official nose at this win-win-win project.  If I were a betting man, I would not be betting on the future of restoration in Phoenix, especially the Devenney-Steadman House.  Sigh.

You can read the local newspaper report here:  Mail Tribune

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Alex Schomburg, PGE's North Fork-An Update

A while ago I reported on a mural painted by noted comic and science fiction magazine illustrator Alex Schomburg that was installed in Portland General Electric’s North Fork Fish Viewing Station in 1963. Schomburg  Since then much on that project has happened.

 Schomburg, as we already knew, was a key figure in the so-called Golden Age of Comics, and was responsible for 100s of covers for some of the most iconic magazines ever published in that genre.  The PGE mural led us, eventually, to Mr. Schomburg’s estate (Estate), maintained by Alex’s grand-daughter, Susan.  Susan has been a wonderful source of information on Schomburg and, as things developed, provided us with information we’d never have obtained otherwise.

PGE, as part of its improvement of the fish passage at the North Fork Dam was required under Federal law to mitigate some of its effects on historic properties.  The Fish Viewing Station, closed to the public since 9/11, was sitting rather forlorn well within a secure area and nobody really remembered the mural was even there.  So, in consultation with Oregon SHPO, we decided to restore the mural, relocate it to a more accessible location, and tell the public the story of not only the North Fork fish ladder (once the longest in the world) but of the amazing artist that PGE found to help educate 1000s of school children who visited the project between 1963 and 1991.

Nina Olsson, a fine arts conservator in Portland, took on the project of restoring the 4x8 main panel and the two 40” x 48” side panels.   After 40 years sitting 10’ from what amounts to a river, in an unheated (okay, space-heated occasionally) metal building, they were dirty, the photos were stuck to the glass, and the colors were, um, a bit muted.  Not anymore!

We developed two interpretative panels to flank the historic ones; one on the history of the North Fork Fish Ladder and the other on Schomburg.  At this point it looks like the entire assembly of five framed panels will go on a long-term loan to a local museum.  There will be a grand “unveiling” at some point this Fall and the public will be invited.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Signs-Nothing Simple Please

In most things simple is good.  Signs, not so much.  At least if you are trying to recreate something of the vibrant “signscape” that once characterized most downtowns in America.  I once wrote of the traditional signscape as being an amazing visual cacophony…and I meant it as a compliment.

Signs, especially neon signs, fell out of favor in the 1960s and were often specifically targeted by well-meaning communities who saw large advertising pieces as crass and more than a little ugly.  Signs, especially early neon signs, were removed, reduced in size, and often replaced with really boring, simply-shaped, internally illuminated cans.  You know, the metal boxes with two translucent panels and a bunch of florescent tubes.  What they lacked in design, they made up for in low cost. 

Today many communities are re-discovering their signs.  Often it starts with painted wall graphics, advertising long-gone businesses or products, but many are now starting to see the value to their economy, and their character, of either preserving those signs that have somehow survived, or encouraging new neon or at least better sign designs.  Many downtowns flat out prohibit internally illuminated cans.  I think that is a good thing. The old signs, often just a few geometric shapes stacked together to create a complex form, are interesting, often historic, and worth keeping and emulating.  Heck, if a business can survive long enough for its SIGN to become old, that's a good thing that should be supported, not discouraged.

Some years ago Medford had us develop some guidelines for sign design (you can find them here).  That document points out that complex shapes, of multiple forms and materials, add visual interest, enhance historic character and so are are strongly encouraged.  Through the MURA Fa├žade Improvement Grants we’ve seen a resurgence in new neon in downtown Medford, adding night-time interest and design.  But even far less expensive signage, what is called “indirectly illuminated” signs, where a few goose-neck bulbs shine on a hanging sign panel, can add significantly to downtown character.  Here are three recent studies for a new coffee shop in downtown… I don’t know what they will eventually pick, but I’m sure it won’t be anything simple.