Citizens rally to save Buena Vista Club House
This story has been updated
Oregon City commissioners on May 1 are expected to approve an initial six-month, nearly $5,000 work plan for the Buena Vista Club House, but a newly formed friends group needs more public participation to help achieve the long-term dream of reopening the historic resource.
In 2013, Oregon City officials declared the Buena Vista Club House a "dangerous building" and then disconnected its electricity. Having raised funding independently of the city, advocates are asking that commissioners approve reconnecting its power to prevent further degradation of the circa-1900 structure.
The decision on electrifying Buena Vista is on the commissioners' meeting agenda after the city is scheduled for its annual recognition of May as Historic Preservation Month.
Hardwood flooring needs refinishing in the approximately 1,000-square-foot clubhouse's large dining/dancing area, among several other maintenance issues. With the restoration of power, there could be minimal heat turned on in the building to slow the deterioration of the structure, along with better security lighting until long-term repairs are funded.
Buena Vista's clubhouse was moved to the Atkinson Park property on Jackson Street in the 1930s. The building is a surviving remnant of the Buena Vista neighborhood, which used to be a distinct area and is now part of the McLoughlin Historic District.
Clubhouse meetings over the years included weddings, yoga classes, city planning discussions, neighborhood functions and reunions. Many people who had used the building, including neighbor Todd Iselin, an architect volunteering his professional services to save the building, were shocked when the Buena Vista Club House was suddenly closed.
In the late 1980s, when the remaining club members donated the house to Oregon City, the city's attorney recommended that officials prioritize taking care of the Buena Vista clubhouse, which was considered "well maintained" at the time of its takeover by the city. But at a recent City Commission work session discussing $27 million in deferred park maintenance, Community Services Director Phil Lewis said that staff needed the permission of elected officials before investing anything into the Buena Vista building.
"We do not feel comfortable, given the rather large deferred-maintenance backlog for the system as a whole, to start to invest in this property, knowing that it would be a substantial investment," Lewis said.
City officials estimate that it would take at least $500,000 to reopen the Buena Vista Club House for public use. The monthly electricity bill is estimated at $40 for minimal heat and security lighting.
Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office said Buena Vista qualifies for the National Register of Historic Places, which would in turn qualify the building for much-needed repair grants. Denyse McGriff, a newly appointed city commissioner and a member of the Buena Vista friends group, said that volunteers can take care of the work in historical applications, bringing funding to the city for construction grants and eventually allowing the city to once again generate revenue in renting out the building.
"We can bring some money to the table," McGriff said. "There are resources that can be brought to bear when it has a little bit more status."
McGriff, who had worked as a planner for the city, was shocked to learn the city hadn't bothered to include it on its local historic registry. Another mystery is why the building was condemned, since no records remain about the decision to red tag the clubhouse; Oregon City's previous building official and parks director have since left city employment.
Commissioner Frank O'Donnell said that he had no reason to object to the private group funding a city resource.
"I'm not going to get in the way of those people," O'Donnell said.
City officials have been grappling with the sad state of the Buena Vista Club House for years, and it looks like they're prepared to take their first steps in turning the situation around. In 2016, Mayor Dan Holladay pledged that Oregon City would never let its resources fall under such disrepair under the watch of the current City Commission.
"Just like our homes, we have to maintain our city's infrastructure, and that includes our buildings," Holladay said. "There's no excuse for that to have happened at the Buena Vista House."
When the crisis of Buena Vista's degradation came to light in 2016, Commissioner Rocky Smith was serving his last year of a term on the commission, and now he's back on the commission to provide a strong voice for historic preservation.
He said it took "20 years of yelling at the city" to save the Ermatinger House, and is proud of the part he played in restoring the fabled site of the Portland-naming coin toss that won out over Boston in 1845.
"It looks like I have another house to save, and we're going to do it," Smith said. "We have quite a reputation of not taking care of our buildings, especially our historic buildings."
Roger Fowler-Thias, president of the Oregon City Parks Foundation, said the OCPF is acting as an umbrella nonprofit so citizens can make tax-deductible donations to the clubhouse. Friends of the Buena Vista Club House's successful fundraisers so far have included selling "pi" pies on March 14 (the 3/14 date approximating the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). Next up they plan a "let them eat cake" bake sale 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at the Oregon City Public Library.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that, while hardwood flooring in the Buena Vista Club House needs refinishing, a recent architectural survey of the house found no signs of rotting or mold in the wood.