Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Citizen Involvement Central to Preservation in Eugene 

12-09-2015 17:35

Eugene, Ore., has been a university town since 1872, when we were selected as the home city for Oregon`s first state university, now the University of Oregon. Our citizens have always been progressive in their inclinations, with strong commitments to education, parks, recreation, quality schools, disabled accessibility, bike paths, and maintaining our riparian connection to the Willamette River. Our Emerald City nickname came about in 1960 because of our verdant hills and tree-lined streets.

Like other Oregon communities, our population numbers exploded following World War II when suburban growth spread in all directions from the core of what had been a small provincial city. The post-war era saw our population expand from 21,000 in 1940 to 50,977 by 1960. Today our citizens total nearly 140,000, with continued expansion at five percent growth per year. Eugene was recently named one of the best five retirement cities in the United States by Money magazine, which gave us high marks for quality of life and proximity to spectacular natural amenities such as the Pacific coast and Cascade mountains.

The City`s Commitment to Preservation

In 1975 Eugene established its first Historic Review Board. Twenty-six years later, Eugene has matured into a city that cares about its history, and its future. Our Historic Preservation Program is housed in the Planning & Development Department, where the Historic Review Board stands as a subcommittee of the Eugene Planning Commission. Planning Commissioner Adell McMillan has sat on the Historic Review Board for nearly nine years while serving as a key liaison for effective planning and preservation.

The Eugene-Springfield Metropolitan Area General Plan`s historic preservation element maintains the objective to: "Encourage preservation and restoration of sites, structures, objects and areas of cultural, historic, or archaeological significance for the enjoyment and knowledge of present and future generations." Concern for historic preservation also links Eugene with Springfield, our neighboring city east of the Willamette River. Each year during Preservation Week, the two cities come together to plan events related to our shared history, including walking tours and a speakers` series.

Volunteers and Partners Aid Eugene Landmarks

The success of our local historic preservation program comes from mutually beneficial collaboration and enthusiastic volunteers. Our volunteers, who now number nearly 300, do their work quietly, effectively, and with determination. We are solidly partnered with the University of Oregon`s Historic Preservation Program. Graduate students in the master`s program compete to hold internships in our preservation program, allowing the city to leverage limited funding. We formed a joint partnership with the U. of O. in 1999 to ensure appropriate restoration of the city-owned Shelton McMurphey Johnson House. This 1888 Queen Anne-style house is a museum and public meeting place. It is prominently sited on the south slope of Skinner Butte Park, which dominates the northern view of our downtown.

The Skinner Butte Park was part of Eugene Skinner`s donation of a land claim of 360 acres. The city is named for him. The Skinner family sold the remainder of its land holdings to Dr. Shelton, who constructed the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House.

Eugene`s Parks Department is working to update the Skinner Butte Park Master Plan, and recognizes the unique history of this geological formation of basalt columns. The park is notable as the site of the first basalt quarry, for its two giant hillside letters (a giant "O" for the University of Oregon and a giant "E" for Eugene High School) that date back to 1908, and as the regional camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps. CCC boys worked to establish the trails in the park while constructing basalt retaining walls along the scenic drives. Today the Rotary Club has spearheaded a drive to clean up the summit of the butte where our citizens and visitors can enjoy panoramic views.

The Pacific Northwest Field School, an arm of the university`s Historic Preservation Program, used the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House as their learning laboratory in the summer of 2000. More than 80 students from around the country enrolled in the summer session and worked on window, door, foundation, and iron cresting restoration over the course of six weeks. Additional courses, like paint analysis and restoration carpentry, were taught during the academic year. This is a win-win partnership that allows students hands-on participation in complex restoration technology, utilizing local academics and experts in the profession.

Pioneer cemeteries receive strong support by our citizens. In 1995 the Masonic Cemetery was on the city`s list of threatened properties because of a high level of vandalism and criminal activities. City staff coalesced a citizens` group to oversee the management of this 10-acre hillside site. Today the Masonic Cemetery Association is raising $60,000 a year that is spent directly for a site manager and for appropriate restoration of the 1914 Hope Abbey mausoleum, the best example of Egyptian Revival architecture in Oregon. Neglect of the site resulted in the establishment of a stupendous collection of native plants. Protecting them is also a high priority for our volunteers. The board has collaborated with the Eugene, Pioneer, and Mulkey Cemeteries to leverage limited funds for site management and grant writing.

Help for Residential Areas and Schools

The South University Neighborhood is a premier historic community, with a classic mix of residential styles spanning from 1898 to 1950. Retired residents of this area have worked for three years to list 593 houses as a historic district in the National Register of Historic Places. Their positive work has revived the defunct neighborhood group, which now meets regularly to discuss neighborhood issues and successes. Because of the close proximity of this neighborhood to the University of Oregon, the edges of the area have been prone to conversions for rental use. Historic district designation will allow the city to regulate all new construction in the area for compatibility of scale and detail to the signature architecture in the vicinity. A majority of the district residents believe that design review will help to ensure quality construction and serve to preserve the unique street and alley landscapes that make this area a great place to live.

Our changing demographics have resulted in the 4J School District making tough decisions about school closures in our city. Three schools - Edison, Whiteaker, and Santa Clara, all designed by Theodore Gerow in 1926 - were earmarked for closing. Edison is a gathering place for children and parents in the South University Neighborhood, so parents actively participated in closure discussions. Students and volunteers at Edison entered the Historic Preservation Week poster contest sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Their efforts earned second place honors in the national competition and a $1,000 award.

Leveraging Funds to Expand Preservation Activities

The National Trust for Historic Preservation continues to be an important partner in our local program. In 1998 it awarded the Masonic Cemetery a Preservation Services Fund grant to help cover the cost of hiring consultants to research and write the preservation plan for the cemetery. Numerous reports and studies have been written for the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, but none for the restoration of the landscape. The National Trust awarded the city a Johanna Favrot Fund for Historic Preservation grant to hire a consultant to analyze this hillside heritage landscape that has a direct visual connection with our 1908 Richardsonian train station. In both instances, the National Trust has provided Eugene with dollars that are leveraging a significant contribution by my staff and by local experts working as volunteers. This landscape study will allow us to plan for the wise use of the land and determine how to add and place improvements such as lighting, outbuildings, and parking, as well as how to reestablish the historic connection from Skinner Butte to downtown Eugene.

Volunteers and staff continue to look for ways to leverage limited funds. Recently the city of Eugene received a seed grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to complete research to implement a heritage plaque program and walking tour in our downtown.

With the recent news that the General Services Administration (GSA) will build a new federal courthouse in Eugene, we have seen the need to document our civic history as a county seat, and as a federal destination for southern Oregon. The city and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, another critical partner, are working with the General Services Administration to resolve Section 106 concerns regarding the Eugene Fruit Growers Association Cannery, where many Eugenians worked during the summer and fall. The cannery, which is closing, will be demolished to make way for the new federal courthouse. We intend to create a video of the final year of cannery operations.

Our cultural resource surveys are well advanced, informing us of where our significant historic areas are located. We have applied for a grant from the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office this year so that the city might develop a context statement for Modern Architecture in Eugene, Oregon 1935-1970. This project would allow us to prepare for preservation of the recent past in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Eugene`s volunteers, staff, and citizens support historic preservation because it helps us to understand where we have been, and how we can better plan for the wise use of our resources. Historic preservation makes a difference in Eugene, and to me.

Publication Date: Fall 2001

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Author(s):Jim Torrey