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.