BY BRIAN LIBBY
With the national economy gaining steam after years of recession and an imperitave in the Portland metro area to densify rather than sprawl, historic houses seem to be getting demolished at an alarming rate.
One of the latest is the historic John Bridges house in Goose Hollow, dating to 1884. Designed in the Queen Anne style (with a touch of the Eastlake movement) with its ornaments, spindles and relief carvings, it is a single-story gem that also represents Portland's boom of the late 19th century, when the city was on its way from isolated muddy frontier town to burgeoning west coast metropolis.
The Bridges house's architect, Justus Krumbein, is also a particularly significant name. A native of Hamburg, Germany who emigrated to the United States in 1869 (first to San Francisco, then two years later relocating here), Krumbein's firm designed the Oregon State Capitol after it was destroyed by fire in 1855. This building too, completed in 1876, would be destroyed by fire, resulting in the building we have today, which was completed in 1935. But the 1876 version was a Renaissance style marvel that was modeled on the US Capitol, with a grand dome sitting atop an entrance of Corinthian columns.
Before his death in 1907, Krumbein designed numerous other significant local buildings, including one of the key structures at the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, interiors for the New Market Theater (1874), St. Vincent Hospital (1893), and Pioneer Hall at Linfield College in McMinnville, as well as numerous residences such as the John Bridges house, whose namesake owner was the general contractor for Union Station.
According to a February 3 Oregonian article by Elliot Njus, the developer who owns the house, Mark Madden, has offered to put demolition on hold until this summer if someone is willing to move it. "I'm trying to be the good developer," Madden told Njus.
While it's true that delaying demolition so the house can be moved offers some small glimpse of hope, I'm not sure being a "good developer" is singling out a historic house to purchase for the express purpose of getting rid of it and then allowing someone to save you the demo costs by having it moved off-site. It feels a little like saying you're the good robber because you let the hostages go before you took the money. Well, maybe that example is unfair. Madden is just a business person, and if he didn't come along someone else likely would have. Still, you can't create the crisis and then cast yourself as the good guy.
Meanwhile, there's also the case of the Carman House in Lake Oswego, which is the oldest home in that suburb and, dating to 1855, is one of only a handful of houses in the Willamette Valley that predate Oregon's statehood in 1859.
Last year, the Carman House owner submitted an application to remove the home's local landmark status. The 1.25-acre parcel the house sits on, after all, would make a profitable little subdivision.The Lake Oswego Historic Resources Advisory Board unanimously decided not to remove the historic designation. The owner then appealed the Advisory Board’s decision to the Lake Oswego City Council. In January, the Council overturned the Advisory Board’s decision, removing the local landmark designation and clearing the way for demolition of the house to make way for redevelopment. Now, with the help of Restore Oregon (formerly the Historic Preservation League of Oregon), an attorney has volunteered to appeal the City Council’s decision to Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals. The case could take several months to be heard by LUBA, and that decision could in turn be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals. But whatever decision comes forth, it may be precedent-setting.
These two houses are particularly significant examples of historic residential architecture under threat, but they're also part of a rather grim trend. According to an Oregonian report by Melissa Binder in early December, city regulators at that point had alrady approved more than 230 demolitions in 2013, up 40 percent from all of 2011. Earlier this week, for example, a historic Craftsman-style home at Southeast 28th and Belmont was demolished.
Beyond the demolitions themselves, many neighbors and neighborhood organizations feel blindsided. Although city-issued demolition permits require neighbors to be notified and a 35-day waiting period betwen application and demoition, if a property owner applies and pays for a new building permit at the same time as the demolition permit, the neighbor-notification requirement can be waived.
According to Binder's report, back in 2006 and 2007 approximately 70 percent of demlitions came with neighbor notification. Today it's only about one quarter.
There are no easy answers here. The city needs small multi-tenant housing, and the metro area's constellation of small developers are meeting that need. What's more, every home that sells to a developer is done so because the original homeowner is interested in making a profit. No developers are taking these homes from their occupants without consent. And it would be an unfair burdent to compell sellers to only sell to buyers who will keep these homes.
Even so, the time period between demolition request and act of demolition may be particularly key. Not every old home needs to be saved, but when a developer is planning to destroy a house of extra historic and/or architectural significance, the extra time between permit request and demolition gives preservationists the chance to take action. Many developers such as Madden would rather have the historic houses they buy moved rather than earn the ire of surrounding communities, but each time the process has to start from scratch: sounding the demolition alarm and then finding a new owner with a vacant lot and the financial wherewithall to move the house. In cases such as last year's Rayworth House move, though, a minor tragedy can become a win-win for everyone.
In January, Restore Oregon also made a proposal that could be a game-changer for commercial and public buildings as well as for houses: create a state income tax credit based on the cost of rehabilitating a building, which is typically 20 to 25 percent of the project cost in other states with such a credit, Elliot Njus of The Oregonian reports. Whether for the Bridges house or Memorial Coliseum, the Carman house or the Portland Building, the credit could make a difference.
Portland will continue down the path of density, and some individual historic buildings will inevitably be lost along the way. But we need to fine-tune the system so the most important ones have a chance to be rescued. Our city's greatest cultural assets are also our greatest economic ones, for a palpable sense of place - one imbued with layers of history - is always an asset.