First Congregational Church, Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Begun in 2011, the Endangered Places list has brought attention in its five years to a variety of works of architecture, landscape and more. According to Restore Oregon's director, Peggy Moretti, the intent is not so much to provide a definitive, authoritative hierarchy of important structures around the state but to offer help where it might be useful.
"The Endangered Places list is designed to shine a spotlight on places significantly at risk, and to rally support," she said. "We provide grants and devote consulting time to help each of those places develop a plan to move forward. Whatever expertise is needed, we’ll help get them involved. And we help work with locals to learn how to collaborate to save that endangered place."
The 2015 Oregon's Most Endangered Places list was a septet with a wide variety of scales, styles and histories.
Eastern Oregon University Grand Staircase in La Grande, for instance, is not only part of a grand circa-1929 Italian renaissance revival style (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1929), but the only remaining element of what was originally an elaborate set of landscape features as the staircase moves downward from its hillside perch over five tiers. The First Congregational Church in Portland, completed in 1895, has been a downtown landmark for over a century and for six decades its tower was the tallest structure in Portland. There were also two barns on the list, the Shipley-Cook Barn in Lake Oswego (1862) and the Smith Barn in Cave Junction (1896), each notable for their hand construction, and the rural Mildred Kanipe House in Oakland, Oregon (near Roseburg), dating to 1865. And just as the Gray Building is an important historical landmark from Portland's African American community (it was home to one of the city's first black-owned businesses and later a Black Panther Party meeting site), so too did the Wong Laundry Building (1908) play a significant role in the development of what was once the West Coast's biggest Chinatown.
Nominations for the list can be made by anyone. But the real reason I contacted Moretti was to find out who decides on the list itself. Apparently, the nominations are collected and scored by Restore Oregon’s advocacy committee, which is comprised of its board of advisors largely and a couple of staff members.
"We evaluate based on certain criteria: the urgency of the threat, the historic significance of the place, the degree of community support—we always need support from locals—and the long-term viability of the place, so if time and money is invested it has legs, and has a viable purpose," Moretti explained. "Typically we have more nominations than we can list. The Restore Oregon board takes the list of recommendations and formally votes to approve them."
Moretti said that the board of advisors, which comprises much of the decision-makers for the list, is made up of what she called subject-matter experts and regional representatives. By way of example, she added: "We have an advisor who’s an archeologist. We have somebody who has expertise with legislative issues. And we have people from the Parks Department. It's people with a certain set of skills and have eyes and ears in a certain region."
I told her that configuration made sense, because while I always learn something interesting about Oregon and its heritage when the list is published, it usually doesn't seem like a roster that was chosen by architects.
"Definitely there’s a number of buildings on our list that would not be considered architectural gems, but they have huge value culturally or historically," Moretti said. She cited the Gray Building in Portland, which was included in this year's list, and "has tremendous significance to the African American community," but is architecturally more than a boarded-up old storefront. "It’s definitely about more than just architecture," she added. "But we had last year the Dome Building at the Oregon State Hospital, for example. In some cases we’ve done a whole district or category like the Oregon Trail Pioneer Farmsteads. In that case it’s like, 'Oh my gosh!' The not just Oregon history but American history that is there."
I couldn't help but notice that some of the threatened Portland buildings that have been most discussed locally have not been added to the Endangered Places list. No Portland Building, for example. No GasCo Building. No Memorial Coliseum or Centennial Mills. In most of those cases, Moretti says the buildings were never nominated. Maybe that's because of their scale, which is a little too large for Restore Oregon to impact (at least financially), or perhaps it's because many of these dramas go on for years, with a mix of progress and regression that can be difficult to keep track of.
Of these aforementioned buildings, only the GasCo received a nomination. The committee rejected it, Moretti explained, "because we were concerned that it was not viable. It could be revisited. Every year we take a new look. But that’s a tough one. It’s so elegant, and people talk about it so much, but there’s so much stacked against it. Our goal with the list isn’t to say, look at what we’re going to lose. It’s to say, let’s rally resources so we can revive them. If we can’t identify a path forward for a place, we’ll care a lot about it and want to see it documented. But we’re trying to take some scarce resources and put them where they’ll have impact." But don't get too mad at Restore Oregon for not putting the GasCo on the list. The organization was one of the first to take action when the building was threatened and call upon its owner, Northwest Natural, to at least leave it as a ruin.
Today lists are almost painfully ubiquitous. From BuzzFeed to Bleacher Report to The Oregonian, writers churn them out from a seemingly inexhaustible ongoing supply of half-formed ideas. Yet thoughtfully made lists from real organizations, like the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment's annual 10 Ten Green Projects List for nationally-significant sustainable architecture, or Restore Oregon's Most Endangered Places list, can turn our attention to buildings and places in a way that is helpful and constructive. And while there may be some architecture that matters more to me than some of the buildings on this year's or past lists, that's what good lists should be about: expanding what you thought you knew, and what we can all do to affect positive change. Numerous preservation success stories have happened with buildings on Restore Oregon's list, and in many cases that wouldn't have happened unless they were listed.