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Carman House poised to lose historic landmark status

Removal would pave way for site's development


by: REVIEW FILE PHOTO - The 1855 Carman House in Lake Oswego is poised to lose its historic landmark status. A council decision allowing removal of the designation is set to become final Jan. 7.The Lake Oswego City Council will allow the owners of the Carman House to remove its historic landmark designation, paving the way for its demolition and development of the surrounding 1.25-acre property.

The decision, reached in a 4-3 vote last week, overturned a decision by the Lake Oswego Historical Resources Advisory Board to reject a proposal to remove landmark status on the 1855 Carman House, among the first built in the community and possibly the only one in Lake Oswego dating back to the federal donation land claim act, which drew white settlers to Oregon with the promise of free land during the 1800s.

At 3811 Carman Drive, the home was built by Oregon pioneers Waters Carman and Charles Bryant. Carman was one of the signers of the land claim document of Albert Alonzo Durham, marking the start of what would become Lake Oswego.

But the home has fallen into disrepair over the years, and now the owners — descendants of Carman and beneficiaries of a family trust — want to subdivide the property, develop it and place a new landmark designation on a smaller area, with a monument at the corner of Carman Drive and Wilmot Way to explain the family’s local significance and give the public access to the historic resource.

That would be an improvement over today’s level of access, contended Chris Koback, an attorney representing the property owners.

“Although it’s designated historic, nobody can go there,” he said.

Koback argued that the property is “economically unusable” with the landmark status and is now dilapidated. Landmark sites face tougher requirements for exterior work than other structures in the city. The Carman House has been largely vacant over the past decade, although one family member lives there part time as a caretaker.

“A few rooms have heat so he’s staying there enough to get insurance,” he said.

The historical resource board’s decision to deny the request hinged on whether today’s property owners had the right to call for the landmark status’ removal.

State law allows a landowner to request removal of a historic designation imposed on their property. But it’s unclear how that law applies to descendants who weren’t listed as the property’s owners when it became a landmark but did receive it through their family.

Richard Wilmot protested the historic landmark designation when it was applied to his land in the 1990s. He later transferred the property to his wife, Mary, and she transferred it to the Mary Cadwell Wilmot Trust in 2001. Trustees are family members, now in their 60s and 70s, according to their attorney.

According to the city board’s interpretation of state law, Richard Wilmot would need to apply for the landmark to be removed.

At a public hearing before the city council Dec. 17, no one testified in favor of removing the historic landmark status. A handful spoke against it.

The Carman House was among 93 properties designated as historic landmarks in 1990. It’s now one of 43 landmarks in the city.

“Of those 43, it’s the most historically significant in the community,” said Marylou Colver, founder of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society. “Waters Carman was a pioneer who contributed greatly to the early development of the area.”

She said preserving his home would serve the public good and protect an increasingly rare resource.

A survey conducted this year by Restore Oregon found that only 5 percent of the historic houses and homesteads that existed in 1865 are still standing today.

Brandon Spencer-Hartle of Restore Oregon told the council that historic places are a public good, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they must be owned by a public agency or nonprofit.

“We have reason to believe this property can be rehabilitated in private hands,” he said.

While the “era of the house museum is coming to an end,” he said, Restore Oregon works with property owners to repurpose old historical buildings, including several projects now underway in other counties.

“Private money is going into rehabilitation of these buildings to be used as single-family residences,” Spencer-Hartle said. “We would absolutely welcome that conversation of reusing for a private purpose.”

The council voted 4-3 in favor of removing the Carman House’s landmark designation.

Mayor Kent Studebaker and Councilors Karen Bowerman, Jeff Gudman and Lauren Hughes favored removal. Councilors Jon Gustafson, Donna Jordan and Skip O’Neill were opposed.

Hughes said that while she appreciated the property’s historic value, “I also feel the property owners have certain rights here as well that cannot be overrun by this designation.”

“I would love to see this home or homestead retained in some manner,” Hughes said. “I think it would have value to our community. But I do think there has to be some fairness to the property owner.”

Gustafson said he was sensitive to property rights issues but felt that waiting on that decision could allow more time for a possible compromise between preservationists and the property owners.

“This property really is at the heart of our city’s cultural heritage and our history,” he said. “State statute aside, we owe it to the city, and we owe it to future generations, to take that into account. We may not be the final say on this matter, and I certainly am not going to be one to cast a vote that sees this property destroyed and see that property replaced with who knows what.”

Regardless of the council’s tentative decision, which will become final at a meeting Jan. 7, a county judge will likely weigh in on the issue. The Carman heirs have also pursued a case in Clackamas County Circuit Court to compel the city to remove the designation.

“We’re going to get it decided there no matter what,” said Koback, the attorney for the Mary Cadwell Wilmot Trust. He said a hearing is set for Jan. 8.

Kara Hansen can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 107. Follow her on Twitter, @LOreporter.