Saturday, September 1, 2018

Liberty Street between Court and Chemeketa Points to Historic District Flaws

Pacific Office Automation has a sign request at the restoration on 260 Liberty Street NE. It'll go before the Historic Landmarks Commission later this month.

While the east side of Liberty Street between Court and Chemeketa is formally included in the Downtown Historic District's boundaries, the buildings in it all straddle the boundary between historically significant and non-significant. In the lingo, they are on the edges between "historic contributing" and "historic non-contributing," and so they are useful test cases for our historic preservation codes in determining whether the codes actually do what we want them to do. The street also reminds us that we once did not have such a strict sort-and-separate approach to development, and that our notions about purity and integrity in any "historic district" are themselves historical and not timeless.

It is interesting to consider the immediate context of the building. A photo from probably the 1920s recently turned up in the digital collections of the Oregon Historical Society, and it really captures a moment in the development of that block and side of Liberty Street.

East side of Liberty St from Court St looking north, circa 1920s
(Oregon Journal collection via Oregon Historical Society)

Same view today - via Streetview

The half block from the 1926 Sanborn Fire Map
On the corner you can see the drug store, now Vernon Jewelers. According to the building inscription, it was built in 1904 rather than the 1912 date we have in the Downtown Historic District Nomination. The City's Historic Resources map, however, already has been updated, so the correct date is recorded somewhere. (Though the map has not been  updated with the correct 1955 date for 260 Liberty NE, showing instead the errant date of 1928 and an errant building name.)

Brewer Block in Downtown Historic District says 1912
but the building says 1904
The team that compiled the nomination judged that
the application of the "gunnite" surface materials and the closure of windows makes it a borderline "contributing" resource to the historic district...the building retains the overall form and stylistic features of the c.1950 remodel and is considered a contributing structure in the district.
By contrast, the Beanery building, which is also visible in the older photo, falls on the other side of things, and is judged "non-contributing."

Dennison Building in Downtown Historic District
Because of altered windows, a geometric ornamental band, and umbrella awning, there have been too many changes and "this building does not contribute to the historic qualities of the district in its current condition."

The other buildings on the block were not yet constructed when the photo was taken.

On the Sanborn map you can see a fraternal lodge just north of the Dennison building. I don't think you can see that building in the photo. But in the photo you can see the large duplex and its pair of window bays. And then just a little bit of the gable for the house on the corner, but not the house in between the duplex and the one on the corner.

The duplex and jumble
These houses were tucked in behind the old City Hall and you can see how the street at this time was a jumble between residences and commercial buildings. There wasn't a pure commercial district and residential district. You might recall the Carpenter Gothic houses next to the Reed one block south and on the other side of the street. We have retconned our story of historic development a little, offering a narrative of residential districts that transitioned to commercial districts, but things were actually a little more mixed up, and it was only with mid-20th century exclusionary zoning that we began to have single-use districts.

After the photo was taken, the most significant building on the block face was constructed. On the north corner of the block with Chemeketa, there was once the First National Bank building designed by Pietro Belluschi. It enjoyed a full designation as "historic contributing." It was demolished.

The demolition crater at Belluschi's First National Bank
August 2017

Part of the First National Bank's listing
Somehow we do not have the incentives and policies lined up right if the building judged most significant on the block face is lost, but the other borderline buildings are preserved. Something fundamental is amiss.

They don't look very happy
I will think the women in the photo have got a premonition of the demolition and are not happy about it. (They don't seem very happy about something! Goofy, uncomfortable outfits? Too hot? The ExLax ad? What's going on here?)

So that's a prelude to what is the ostensible subject of the post here: The proposed sign.

Proposed sign for 260 Liberty St NE
It's not a very attractive sign, but at least it's not as big as some other signs just outside of the district. It would be nice if there were grounds to redirect design to the blade suspended under the awning that we have in some other places.

At the same time, the "purity" of the historic district is largely fictional, and maybe we should be more tolerant of diversity, even mess or clutter, in the district.

This "sign clutter" is historical! (UO Library)
Here's a photo of the same length of Liberty Street, but looking south. On the left are the Littman reliefs on the Belluschi Bank (1948); our current 260 Liberty hasn't yet been built (1955) and the Paramount Market is there instead. Even though the UO cataloging info says 1935-1947, I think it's from a little later and will say circa 1950. There are also parking meters and lots of signs. And lots of people.

We're very selective about what details we count as contributing to the historical character, and we mash up details from very different eras in an ahistorical chimera for a relatively static "period of significance." And again, so much in historic preservation code is about the look of things, and we give insufficient attention to function and effectiveness. There is sometimes too much of a kind of aesthetic connoisseurship and notions about purity of style or design.

Revised Downtown Historic District listing
About the building before this round of remodeling, a draft revision to the Downtown Historic District Nomination said
The original architectural detail on the facade has been lost to modifications within the last fifty years and it does not contribute to the district in its current condition.
In crucial ways this is incoherent. It is the Belluschi Bank's demolition that fails to contribute to - indeed degrades - the district; at least this building is standing, and the mere fact the building itself exists contributes more to the district than does the loss and the crater next door.

Even with significant alteration, buildings that are still standing help give economic life to the urban fabric that supports more historically significant individual buildings. The more people who are nearby, the more potential demand there is for the goods and services that allow an owner to support rehabilitation and maintenance on historic properties. Our current policy and tax framework somehow overvalues (distinct in this sense from assessed value) empty lots and parking lots relative to actual buildings. Our historic preservation codes participate in this unbalanced valuation and do not always work as a sufficient countervailing force to curb demolitions, to spur reinvestment in buildings, and prompt rapid redevelopment after a demolition. In the end, there may be too much red tape on small details and on buildings that aren't very important, and not enough (or the right) red tape for big picture goals and on those buildings we think are very important.

The fact that a sign like this on a "hon-historic, non-contributing" building has to go through a "Major Historic Design Review of a proposal to modify a previous HLC Design Approval" seems like red-tape overkill and evidence for an imbalance in our approach.


Susann Kaltwasser said...

I always enjoy your travels back in history. I find them far more interesting than this building which is an uninteresting box with an equally uninteresting sign. The fact that it houses a business where people can work is its only redeeming quality to my mind. It is another missed opportunity to do something at least interesting, if not contributing to our 'historical' downtown.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Glad you like the posts!

It turns out there was a previous minor historic design review for a non-illuminated sign, as well as a non-illuminated blade under the awning.

Now they want an illuminated sign, and it is the illumination apparently that triggers the major historic design review.