Historian Eileen Fitzsimons gets Oregon Heritage Excellence Award
Since 1995, readers of THE BEE have enjoyed articles about the history of Inner Southeast Portland, carefully researched and well-written by Westmoreland resident Eileen Fitzsimons.
Beyond her writing about local history for more than 40 years, Fitzsimons has been recognized as an accomplished expert in the areas of Oregon architectural history, Oregon pioneer trails, public gardens, and being the co-chair of the Oregon Quilt Project – an organization which has documented some 1,800 quilts, and their stories.
In the nomination for her to receive a 2020 "Oregon Heritage Excellence Award", Fred Leeson wrote, in part, "She has shared her expertise often in public lectures, on walking tours, in newspaper articles, and on the Internet. She has a firm belief authentic history needs to be shared publicly, rather than be 'hoarded' for narrower uses."
The Oregon Heritage Commission was to present their "Heritage Excellence Award" to Fitzsimons at a banquet in Corvallis – but it was scheduled to take place shortly after COVID-19 coronavirus concerns cancelled all such gatherings. "We hope to reschedule it, but are uncertain of when," remarked Heritage Commission Coordinator Beth Dehn.
After providing so many fascinating stories about Portland of the past, THE BEE was delighted that the typically-modest Fitzsimons agreed to an interview about herself.
BEE: What attracted you to the study of Portland's historic architecture?
"I was working my way through PSU, and had a work study job with the City of Portland Landmarks Commission. It was just after a very significant synagogue on the South Park Blocks had been demolished overnight by its owner – for a parking lot. The Commission, which was pretty new, was concerned that it was the beginning of a demolition 'trend', so I was asked to research the history of the entire Park Blocks [on the west side of downtown Portland], as well as every building then facing the length of the park.
"I realized that historic buildings could act as 'pivot points' around which an extensive community history could be arranged."
BEE: What led you to research, and write nominations for, numerous buildings in Portland to be included in the National Register of Historic Places?
"In 1984-85 I was researching and writing the narrative portions of ten buildings for nomination by their owners to the National Register of Historic Places. Then, these nominations had to be approved by the City Landmarks Commission, followed by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation. If a building passed both hurdles, the nomination went to be listed nationally.
"These were all commercial buildings, including [Portland General Electric] Station L (now part of OMSI), and Montgomery Park – and, all ten are now on the National Register."
BEE: What motivates you to study and "save" older buildings?
"To me, buildings are 'touch screens' to our collective history.
"You can see photos of a building; but there is nothing like seeing it up close, or moving within the space, to give you a 'feel' for a period of time, and make you wonder how our predecessors lived.
"For instance, go to an estate sale inside an older home of the 1920's or 30's, and observe the small size of the bathroom and closets, with virtually no storage space. It seems that 'life is coming full circle' when one thinks about 'tiny homes'."
BEE: What do you consider to be the most significant and interesting Inner Southeast Portland historical buildings you've studied?
· The Howard Vollum home – Located at 1115 S.E. Lambert Street. He lived here from his birth to marriage in his 30s. He was the founder of Tektronix. While a very modest home, it shows that greatness and achievement are not reliant on grand surroundings.
· The Sellwood Library – The first purpose-built Sellwood Library (which had several previous temporary storefronts), located at 1406 S.E. Nehalem Street was in a bungalow-style building, built in 1915. It was used until 1965. Now restored, it is a private home.
· Moreland Theater – This neighborhood movie house in the Westmoreland Business District at 6712 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue opened in 1925, and is still in use today – whenever it is allowed to reopen [after the coronavirus closure].
· Oaks Amusement Park – Opened in 1905, it's one of the very few "trolley parks" in the United States, opened in that era, that is still entertaining families today.
· Springwater Corridor – This "40 Mile Loop" for non-motorized use and pedestrians was, by the 1920's, the route of one of the country's most extensive, electrically-powered interurban train lines, originally operated by the Oregon Water Power & Electric Company.
Now you've had the chance to meet the woman behind so many BEE stories – Eileen Fitzsimons – and to learn just why she is receiving a statewide honor: The Oregon Heritage Award!
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