BY BRIAN LIBBY
It's easy to forget that Portland wasn't always Portland.
Today if we look around at a lot of the iconic places and spaces that comprise this city, from greenspaces like Waterfront Park to preserved landmarks like Central Library and the Pittock Mansion or historic districts like Old Town and Skidmore, it's easy to forget that a generation ago most of them either didn't exist or were severely threatened.
Only beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s did Portland, under leaders like Neil Goldschmidt and a new generation of progressive planners, architects and historic preservationists, become the beautiful, walkable, well-preserved and transit-oriented place it is today. Before that, we had highways lining both sides of the river and a Robert Moses-shaped plan to make Portland a spaghetti-like knot of interstates. We had people tearing down turn-of-the-century architecture to make way for parking lots.
Former Portland Planning Bureau head and longtime Historic Landmarks Commission member Leo Dean Williams, who last week received the University of Oregon's seventh annual George McMath Award for historic preservation, was one of the people who helped make Portland what it is today. "I think the city would not have evolved into what it was without you," John Tess, one of Williams's friends, said to Williams during the award presentation.
Williams is credited with spearheading a pragmatic approach at the city that led to a lot of great places being preserved. Working with local developers beginning in the late '60s, he helped create an environment that was collaborative rather than confrontational - "seeking to bring about preservation by facilitation, not just regulation," as UO architecture program dean Brook Muller put it. "He masterfully created a mutually beneficial environment when development and historic preservation could occur together. I call it 'Leo-ology,' achieving two avenues at the same time. Those of us in government acting behind the scenes can play as vital a role as those in the private and nonprofit sectors."
During the awards presentation, a slideshow of images spoke to just how much local architecture Williams impacted the preservation of: the St. John’s bridge, the New Market Theater, the White Stag sign, the Blagen block, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Japanese Garden, the Skidmore and Keller Fountains, the Sentinel (formerly Governor) Hotel, and the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Yamhill Historic District (photo by Brian Libby)
A graduate of the University of Kansas, Williams reportedly made a comprehensive study of where he would move to after graduation in the '60s, and decided that Portland had the best chance to become a livable city. It was a time when state and local governments gearing up to administer the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, a reaction to the ceaseless demolitions of downtowns amidst urban renewal goals. Williams and the award's namesake, George McMath, wound up writing Portland's historic 1968 preservation ordinance, only the second on the west coast after Los Angeles. Yet it was not legislation or the crafting of ordinances that made Williams special, but instead the collaborative approach he took with the private sector.
"You hear so much about Portland today. You say you’re from Portland and people are like, ‘Wow.’ I was talking with someone today about how we’re attracting so much investment. We have a great brand. But it wasn’t always like that," said Williams's former colleague John Southgate during the presentation. "People say we’re the city that took out a highway to build light rail. Leo was a big player in the city we became."
"It’s not always easy to leave a legacy. People don’t wake up saying, 'I want to be a bureaucrat.' But you can have a lot of influence. The impact he had, by working with people like [developers] Al Solheim and Jim Winkler, laid the groundwork for the vision that others had. I remember it wasn’t always fun. We had our battles. But the long arc of your work was to create what we have now. Leo wasn’t the front man. We had Neil Goldschmidt. But he was there year after year."
"Leo said, 'Let’s not worry about how the rules work. Let’s make the rules work for what we’re trying to do,' Tess added. "He influenced a lot of things."
Today is again a challenging time for historic preservation. Old houses throughout the city are under threat from developers looking to tear them down and build something bigger. In the city center, historic works of architecture from the Portland Building to Memorial Coliseum, Centennial Mills to the Multnomah County Courthouse, are facing make-or-break moments. And the lesson of Leo Williams may be illustrative here: that we need to find a way to cast away the extremes of either side, be they people who eschew preservation outright or those who won't allow old buildings to be changed for the times, and instead find solutions. Of course not every old building should be preserved, but Williams helped show us that if one can find a way to make historic architecture work for its time then it adds up, along with investments in dense planning, greenspace and mass transit, to a city where people want to be.
The awards luncheon began and ended with two different people quoting legendary former governor Tom McCall, a Republican who often acted like a Democrat - in other words, a man who, like Williams, defied labels and was loved for it. “Heroes are not giant statues framed against a red sky," McCall once said. "They’re the people who say, this is my community, either by birth or by adoption, and it’s my responsibility to make it better.”
In that way, perhaps Williams was a Portland kind of hero - in that he wasn't a showy iconoclast but someone who nobly and with humility kept working like a concerned citizen, whether it was from the inside of government or out. And while the award is a nice recognition, maybe the best way to honor him is to find a way to keep Portland Portland. That happens not by freezing the city, for it will always change, as it should, but by continually taking our most beloved places along for the journey, and finding pragmatic ways to do so without divisive polemics.