Portland’s Historic Resources Inventory

When conducted in the early 1980s, Portland’s Historic Resources Inventory primarily looked at buildings that were at least 50 years old at that time. Parts of the city were also missed or only partially examined. In addition,  Portland has annexed new areas into the City since the time the inventory was conducted. The net result is that there are likely thousands of structures in the city that have never been considered as potentially historic or architecturally significant. The Daily Journal of Commerce published a nice article on the need for a new inventory just today.

The recent listing of the Memorial Coliseum in the National Register of Historic Places helped draw attention to the potential historic resources of what we call “the recent past”, but are also often termed Mid-Century Modern” buildings. It is time that the City determine a method to update the aging inventory and this inventory must include and examination of post 1935 buildings, including housing. There was tremendous growth in the Portland area, especially after World War II, but it was predominately in areas that were outside the city at the time. Many of those areas are now part of Portland. It’s time they were given consideration for their potential historic resources.

We’re not naïve enough to believe that a new inventory will offer real protection against the loss of significant buildings. Buildings still need to be designated as historic to gain a level of protection, and that requires owner consent. Nonetheless, an inventory is vital for creating the framework from which neighborhoods can better understand, among other things, their architectural heritage. There would, perhaps, be no better way to engage the 95 neighborhoods across the city, than by working with them to organize and conduct their own inventories. This would connect residents to their neighborhoods in ways many have never thought of, especially residents that are new to the area. And that would help reinvigorate Portland’s Neighborhood system. Let’s hope the City recognizes this potential as well.

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3 Comments

Filed under Historic Preservation, Local History, Modernism + The Recent Past, Schools

3 responses to “Portland’s Historic Resources Inventory

  1. Soundslike

    Perhaps this isn’t the place, but I feel compelled to comment on the “Mid-Century Modern” preservation stance, and how I feel it serves only to dilute the purpose of preservation and the definition of architectural heritage.

    What made “Mid-Century Modern” architecture and urbanism destructive, unsustainable, ugly and boring at mid-century remains in place, today. We don’t fight to preserve things simply because they’re old; we fight to preserve them because they’re culturally, materially and functionally good. They have historic significance, yes. But they are important because they remain examples from which to learn, in creating new architecture and places of true quality and economy–and for the task of repairing the damages done “mid-century” and beyond.

    The simplistic time-based criterion for inclusion on the National Register is as misguided as the destructive preservation “ethics” under which many have labored for the last forty years that mandate inferior, damaging additions and alterations to quality buildings. Neither has any continuing justification, other than to give Modernists further props in their war against architecture people love, now waged as much with sheep’s-clothing rhetoric (“sustainability,” “urbanism,” “green”) as with the wrecking ball.

    The value of post-War architecture and planning is only insofar as their meager material quality represents an existing investment of resources; and only to the degree that they can be rehabilitated into reasonably urban, coherent areas. Unlike their creators, we aren’t likely to wield the tabula-rasa wand over these areas–they must be salvaged somehow. But not as they presently stand (apart); and not because they represent quality precedent, aesthetically, culturally, or economically. They stand as a cautionary tale, only. To feel we must “embrace” them as preservationists, as though they were of equal quality to that which came pre-War, is to make ourselves as preservationists look like indiscriminate historicists, blinded by nostalgia. All that is past is not good, and we do the greater cause of preservation and quality place-making better service by not being afraid to say so.

    –Ian

  2. Just to be clear, the National Register views the 50 year age only as a consideration. It is not a hard and fast requirement but a general guideline. Buildings younger than 50 years must have very well defined significance in areas like architecture or connections to historic events. The Coliseum, for example, was not quite 50 years old when it was listed in the National Register. I believe the Commonwealth Building (Equitable Bldg) in downtown Portland was also listed in the NR prior to being 50 years old.

    Whatever we may think about Modern Architecture (in this instance I’m referring to the post WWII era), it is important to understand that these buildings, structures, or even landscapes, can too become historically significant. In many instances they may achieve significance for something completely unrelated to the their design. And while materials have cheapened over the decades, until around the mid-1960s, houses were still constructed of fairly high-quality materials. These are examples of the types of things that should be looked for, when and (hopefully) if, a new historic resources inventory is undertaken.

  3. Jim Heuer

    Val,

    Good post. As one who lives in a house that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but was not even mentioned in the 1984 inventory (and it was built in 1905, so it very much qualified as historic in 1984), I’m acutely aware of how incomplete that earlier survey was. In fact, one of the surveyor’s on that project once told me that much of the city was simply given a hasty “windshield survey” from a car, without anyone actually getting out to do an on-the-ground evaluation.

    That said, it’s time to move past the “let’s do something” stage in this discussion and get to “here are some concrete proposals for how to do this” stage. Clearly, the city planners won’t do this — the apparent reticence on the part of those responsible for historic preservation issues irritates and surprises me, but that’s the way it is.

    It’s now up to organizations like the AHC to make concrete recommendations for alternative ways forward. The examples from Los Angeles and Seattle mentioned in the Journal of Commerce article can be instructive. Also the huge volunteer effort by the Irvington Community Association on their National Register District Nomination and survey provides important lessons on what can work to enlist the neighborhoods in the effort.

    If the city can find $600 million in the next 15 years for improved bicycle mobility, I believe it should be able to find $1 million in the next 5 to help define what it is about Portland that is both historic and worthy of preservation.

    Remember: “Historic Portland — It’s Too Good to Throw Away!”

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