This year's DeMuro Awards winners remind us that historic preservation is a civic act.
If I asked you to imagine a beautiful historic building, chances are it would be from the early 20th century — if not older.
Maybe you'd picture a brick-clad storefront with an apartment upstairs: quintessentially American Main Street. Or a 19th-century church, its steeple traditionally the highest point in many a small town.
Chances are you wouldn't imagine a historic preservation award going to a building that sits both atop and beside automobile parking and exterior screening that blocks the view inside.
Yet on a recent visit to Living Room Realty's headquarters in the Central Eastside — one of 11 DeMuro Award winners for historic preservation announced earlier this fall by Restore Oregon — I was delighted to find inside this former Postal Employees Credit Union building a soaring, light-filled space. Even the parking outside looked great, thanks to a rainbow-hued mural.
Originally completed in 1962 and more recently holding offices for the local corrections bureau, the building's design by Frank Blachly, a lesser-known member of the celebrated 14th Street Gang (a group that included architect Saul Zaik and several acclaimed house designers), was a gem hiding in plain sight.
A restoration by Shannon Baird and Anna Carmel of S. Baird Design focused on midcentury-appropriate period details, and the Living Room headquarters today is a hive of activity, especially its gorgeous central double-height space. At the top are large clerestory windows banded with a Piet Mondrian-like grid of red and purple stained glass. From there, the roof curves downward, its ceiling of glulam beams and Douglas fir ceiling beams curving downward almost like the rest of an ocean wave.
Nine of this year's 11 DeMuro Award winners were buildings completed before the 1930s. Jim Fisher Volvo, dating to 1911, is a sole remnant of days when Burnside Street was lined with car dealerships. The Madeleine, a gorgeous restoration by Carleton Hart Architecture of the Madeline Parish's original 1912 sanctuary, includes some remarkable stained glass of its own.
The oldest DeMuro winner, the Caples House Museum in tiny Columbia City (along the Columbia River near St. Helens), is an 1870 classical-revival style home. It bears some visual resemblance to the youngest DeMuro Award winner, the Pole House 5 residence on the Oregon coast near Otis, completed in 1971. Restored from a design by Beebe Skidmore, it's one in a group of simple houses by esteemed Portland architect Bill Church rescued from years of deferred maintenance.
To truly preserve these structures, it often takes years of perseverance and dedication, as well as a tolerance for uncertainty. Old buildings are often built well, but time inevitably takes its toll, and contemporary code requirements (seismic and otherwise) can make these projects difficult to pencil out.
Even so, a well-executed old-building restoration is arguably a greater accomplishment than even the tallest and shiniest new architecture. By preserving tradition and the voices of the past for future generations, a historic restoration is something more: a kind of civic act.
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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