Mercy Corps headquarters (photo by Jeff Amram)
BY FRED LEESON
One of the toughest challenges facing an architect is designing a new building in a National Historic District. Is the goal to build something that looks “old” so that it blends in, or should it be relentlessly “new” to let observers know that it belongs to its own time and place?
The Historic Preservation League of Oregon has spent much of the last year trying to capture “design principles” that could help guide new developments in historic districts throughout the state. It may come as a surprise to learn that Oregon has 123 districts placed on the National Register of Historic Places, including 15 in Multnomah County. Many of them contain gaps – often surface parking lots – that could someday be filled with new structures.
Peggy Moretti, director of the state-wide preservation advocacy group, said goal of the year-long project is to provide inspiration and guidance for new projects in historic districts. Too often, she said, preservationists are perceived “as purveyors of ‘no.’” During its study, the HPLO held public meetings in Ashland, The Dalles and Portland where design professionals, preservation advocates and citizens added their voices.
The topic is especially relevant in Portland, where planners, Old Town property owners and preservation advocates have been battling over several vacant “opportunity sites.” The developers, understandably, would like to take advantage of zoning that allows 250-foot maximum heights in parts of the district, while preservation advocates argue that the historic “context” of the district calls for far less. The HPLO study suggests that historic districts get hurt when there is a major “disconnect” between zoning regulations and existing historic fabric – certainly the case in Old Town.
Some of the most interesting comments at the Portland session came after Ann Naito-Campbell, whose family owns many buildings in the historic district, said she had heard no negative comments about the Mercy Corps addition behind the Packer-Scott Building of 1892 at SW First Avenue and Ankeny Street. Well, now she has.
The addition, which approximately doubles the size of the original building, was designed by Thomas Hacker Architects. It was approved by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission in 2007, after considerable discussion that resulted in a rare split vote, 4-2 in favor of the Hacker plan. Though the designers took some cues from the older building on the addition’s north and south faces, the east wall facing heavily-trafficked Naito Parkway is substantially a glass curtain wall. Motorists passing by would have no clue that the building is essentially a gateway to a historic district.
William J. Hawkins III, a retired architect and foremost expert on Portland’s historic cast iron buildings, said such modernism makes a “farce” of the historic district. Henry Kunoski, who teaches architecture at the University of Oregon, said historic districts face “death by a thousand cuts” from inappropriate additions.
So: What could the guiding principles be? The HPLO is working on as several, some more important than others. The most significant, however, is that “the district is the resource.” That means designers of new buildings should look at the entire district in which they are designing, not just the immediate neighbors, for design cues and appropriate context. Inspiration for massing, shape and materials, where possible, should come from the specific district.
Further, infill is secondary to the historic district. This could be a challenge for architects hoping to be daring or dramatic. While designs should be compatible, they also should be sufficiently distinct to let observers tell easily what is old and what is newer. However, the scale, patterning and texture of new buildings should reflect the district’s character, and floor-to-floor heights should match those of historic buildings. New building materials need not be manipulated to mimic “old.”
Another topic if fertile discussion was whether design guidelines should be regulatory (read: mandatory) or advisory. Jeff Joslin, a former Portland Bureau of Development Services manager, said many districts throughout the state lack guidelines – and that guidelines drafted for some districts are out-dated or ineffective. The mix is complicated by the fact that in many smaller jurisdictions, bureaucrats charged with overseeing historic districts have no design or historic expertise.
The consensus seemed to be that advisory guidelines are insufficient, but that designers need flexibility to deal with specific unusual circumstances that often arise. John Russell, a Portland developer experienced in renovating historic buildings, said he liked the idea of firm guidelines “with decision-makers” available to hear and rule on special requests. In general terms, that is how Portland functions with its Landmarks Commission.
The HPLO hopes to complete its infill recommendations in the next few months. That should make them available for the next development fracas in Old Town.
Fred Leeson is president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center.