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A roadmap for re-affirming our values

Some of the Endangered Places are particularly beautiful. The Alvin T. Smith House in Forest Grove, for example, is the city's oldest and dates to 1854: a blend of Classical Greek Revival style with the practicality of an old farmhouse. The Concord School in Oak Grove embodies Depression-era public works architecture, modest yet grand, rendering in brick a fusion of traditional and modern architectural forms.


Novelist and historian John Dos Passos once wrote, "In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present."

I was reminded of that quote recently when the historic-preservation nonprofit Restore Oregon released its annual Most Endangered Places list. Although it includes buildings and places throughout the state — a wharf building in Astoria, an Elks lodge in Medford, a guard station in the Mt. Hood National Forest — many of the historic landmarks on the list are in the greater Portland metro area. That makes them our collective responsibility.COURTESY: BRIAN LIBBY - The Alvin T. Smith House is Forst Groves oldest building, dating to 1854.

Some of the Endangered Places are particularly beautiful. The Alvin T. Smith House in Forest Grove, for example, is the city's oldest and dates to 1854: a blend of Classical Greek Revival style with the practicality of an old farmhouse. The Concord School in Oak Grove embodies Depression-era public works architecture, modest yet grand, rendering in brick a fusion of traditional and modern architectural forms.

Two other Portland buildings on the list are important in marking our diverse history as a nation of immigrants. The Gray Building in Northeast is modest and architecturally unremarkable: a largely windowless storefront facade attached to a pitched-roof house, almost like a Hollywood set. But it has played a significant role in local African-American history, particularly in the 1960s during the civil rights movement. Similarly, the Wong Laundry Building in Old Town helps tell the story of this neighborhood's different waves of Japanese and Chinese migration.

And who doesn't love the Jantzen Beach Carousel, another entry on the list? The good news is when South Carolina-based company Edens removed the circa-1921 carousel (originally constructed for the Jantzen Beach Amusement Park) from the Jantzen Beach Center mall in 2012, it was carefully boxed up and put in storage. But it's been out of commission for too long.COURTESY: CAROUSEL HISTORY - The historic Jantzen Beach Carousel is also on Restore Oregons list of Most Endangered Places. It was shut down and put into storage in 2012.

Beyond Restore Oregon's list, there are three more prominent local examples of landmarks needing attention: the long-abandoned Centennial Mills, the soon-to-be-vacated Multnomah County Courthouse, and the still-busy Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Each is set to undergo some kind of restoration planning process in the next year or two, and each has a viable and important future role to play. But in all three cases that future remains uncertain until the restoration work is actually done.

We can't preserve every old building, nor should we — but that's not the point. Historic architecture reminds us we're merely the latest caretakers of this place, that every generation faces hardships as well as the opportunity to make a mark. And paying it forward, handing off our landmarks to the next generation, is a chance to re-affirm our values.

Look where there's an absence of old buildings, be it in outer suburbs or new urban districts, and they feel a bit alien. That lifeline to the past is more than sentiment. It's something we feel in our bones. And the more uncertain the future feels, the more our enduring places can give us a sense of perspective and optimism.

Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com


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