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Gresham Museum rallies to save artifacts after arsonist sets history ablaze

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - An arsonist started a fire in the Gresham History Museum Friday, July 2, causing untold damages and an uncertain future. The former Gresham Carnegie Library is a special place to many, including Mark Moore.

His family moved to Boring in 1961, after their berry farm off Anderson Road was bought out to make way for Highway 26. His mother was a teacher, and she would often visit downtown Gresham for hair appointments or shopping. During those visits, she dropped 6-year-old Moore off at the library.

That was a place where he would explore new worlds and discover knowledge. The Carnegie Library seeded a passion for history that would eventually draw Moore back to Gresham's most historic building.

About 15 months ago, Moore was hired as the director of the Gresham History Museum — which operates out of the former library at 410 N. Main Ave. In his short time at the helm, he has had to lead the museum through an unprecedented pandemic that shuttered the building to visitors and placed finances on unstable ground.

But just as things were starting to return to normal, and the building was reopened to the public, an unfathomable tragedy struck.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Mark Moore, the museum director who grew up visiting the Gresham Carnegie Library, was brought to tears by the damage. "I grew up coming here," Moore said with tears in his eyes. "It would have been devastating to lose this historic place."

Gresham came close to seeing its museum destroyed Friday morning, July 2, when a stranger snuck into the building, went up to the second floor, piled up historic clothing, and inexplicably started a fire. Though the blaze ended up being minor, only consuming a few articles of clothing and a patch of carpet, water damage to the museum was pervasive and concerning.

Water from the automated sprinkler system streamed down the walls and dripped from the ceiling, soaking priceless artifacts and pooling inches deep in the basement, which serves as the main storage area for the museum's rarest pieces.

Thankfully, no one was hurt at the museum, and the arsonist suspect was arrested a few blocks away after causing a four-car collision while fleeing police. While his motives are unknown — whether it was wanton destruction or something more targeted — the end result is the same for the History Museum.

The building is closed indefinitely, everything is being removed to prevent the potential for mold, 10 dehumidifiers roar throughout the museum to dry out the wet spots, and the need for community support is greater than ever.

"This has all been emotional for me," Moore said. "It's hard to believe people don't respect our historical treasures."

Second-floor fire

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - The inside of the Gresham History Museum is unrecognizable as everything is being removed to protect it from water damage and mold. It felt like a normal day at the museum.

Around 10:30 a.m. that Friday, a couple walked into the museum, and as the two volunteers on duty and Moore were chatting with them, talking history, the arsonist crept in through the side door.

Normally that entrance to the museum is closed and locked, but during the oppressive heat wave it was being left open to allow for ventilation. The historic building doesn't have air conditioning, and the heat was getting difficult for volunteers to manage.

"We had to learn the hard way not to do that anymore," Moore said. "But at the time we didn't know anything was happening."

The man, later identified as Matthew Svobada, made his way up the stairs near the side door to the second floor, which serves as an office and storage space for racks of historic clothing. Svobada had made it out of the building nearly undetected. As he crossed the street with an alleged armful of clothing, however, one of the owners of iCandy, the business across the street from the museum, stepped in with a warning.

While one of the museum volunteers attempted to confront Svobada, Steve Krause, owner of The Hoppy Brewer, warned an alarm was going off. As Krause called the fire department, Moore discovered the damage on the second floor.

"It was smoky but there were no flames," he said. "The guy had piled up some clothes and lit it on fire."

None of the volunteers had ever seen Svobada around the museum before.

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Matthew SvobadaAs the fire was being discovered, Svobada allegedly ran toward East Hill Church. One of the volunteers followed him at a safe distance to ensure he wouldn't return to the historic building, and watched as he allegedly stole a car in an attempt to flee pursuing officers.

Svobada made it to the intersection of Northwest Division Street and Eastman Parkway when witnesses said he caused a four-car collision. Gresham Police were able to make the arrest after he attempted to flee on foot following the accident.

Svobada, 43, now faces charges of arson, burglary, unauthorized use of a vehicle, third-degree assault, criminal mischief and felony elude.

It is still unknown why he allegedly started the fire.

"This was a wake-up call for all of us. None of us had gone through a fire before," Moore said. "If not for the help we got from our neighboring businesses, fire and police, this could have been a lot worse."

Moving forward

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Ten dehumidifiers are roaring throughout the museum to dry things out after the sprinkler system was set off by a fire. Right now the Gresham History Museum is nearly unrecognizable.

Most of the exhibits are in the process of being removed as a massive drying effort has been undertaken. Within the next few weeks, everything will be gone from the building.

"We wanted to err on the side of caution," Moore said.

The majority of the museum's artifacts are being stored safely in a warehouse in Sandy. There is also some restoration work being done on some of the pieces — including the clothing and some books that were damaged by water.

The positive to it all is that no historical artifacts or documents were seriously damaged. The sprinklers never went off in the main room, so other than water dripping from the ceiling, the bulk of the displays were protected.

The trouble spots for water damage are on the second floor; the archive room which had water seeping down the walls and light fixtures; and the basement which had several inches of water pooled by the stairs.

All of the electrical systems within the museum were fried, and the WIFI router was destroyed by the water as well.

"We are worried about mold," Moore said.

He said some of the plaster in the building will likely have to be replaced, and contractors are seeking out other trouble spots that will have to be addressed.

The museum will be closed indefinitely, and it is difficult to know when they will be able to reopen.

"We were just getting our momentum back after COVID," Moore said. "All our volunteers were geared up, we were having steady visitors, and making sales in the gift shop. Now we have to start that process all over."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - All of the nearly 10,000 artifacts, photos and documents will have to be removed from the museum. The museum needs community support. It is unknown what the costs related to damage will total, but any donations help. A special account has been set up for the Gresham Historical Society Fire Account at the Gresham branch of Riverview Community Bank to accept donations for the cleanup and restoration.

Donations can also be made by mailing them to P.O. Box 65, Gresham, OR 97030, or by visiting the website at greshamhistorical.org

Moore also wants to start raising money to better care for the historic building and collection.

"At the time the building was built, it was never intended to house artifacts that are affected by temperature and humidity," Moore said. "We need to take this a step further than just preserving the building — we need to preserve the artifacts for future generations."

The ultimate goal would be the installation of air and temperature control systems throughout the building.

"I've dedicated my life to history and trying to preserve these things from our heritage," Moore said. "Having these systems would help do that in Gresham."

The museum won't let this fire slow its mission of spreading love for history. They plan to continue having in-person events out front of the museum, including during the upcoming Third Thursday on July 15.

The museum will also find a way to continue its traditional Christmas events.

"We can rise from the ashes and go forward," Moore said.

Donate:

The Gresham History Museum needs help rebounding from the arson.

Donations can be made to the Gresham Historical Society Fire Account at the Gresham branch of Riverview Community Bank, 225 N.E. Burnside Rd.

Donations can also be sent to PO Box 65, Gresham, OR 97030, or online at greshamhistorical.org


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