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|
|Brewer Block in Downtown Historic District says 1912|
but the building says 1904
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|
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|
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|
|Part of the First National Bank's listing|
|They don't look very happy|
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|
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)|
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|
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.