By Midge Pierce
The lack of preservation incentives dismays Portlanders who consider the City’s classic, older home stock a greener, more sustainable option for affordable housing than teardowns replaced by pricey new builds.
Oregon has fewer preservation protections than most states. One way to protect a home – or neighborhood – is through designation on the National Register of Historic Places, the federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings and structures worthy of preservation.
While not every house qualifies and not every homeowner supports the designations, it can be a way to save notable architecture and the unique character of some neighborhoods from demolition. A seminar about historic designation will be hosted by Restore Oregon on September 8.
Houses can be nominated for the National Register individually. Neighborhoods can also seek district designations providing they can document historic significance and solicit support from a majority of neighbors.
The September seminar is intended to demystify what district designation means to homeowners and the intricacies of what can be a time-consuming, research intensive process.
Peggy Moretti, Executive Director of Restore Oregon, says the only way a house on the National Register in Portland could be demolished would be to gain the approval of the Historic Landmarks Commission.
“That has never happened,” although she adds that there was a case in which a demo denied by Landmarks was later approved by City Council when a developer cited overriding public benefit from the demolition.
National Register listing, she explains, is an important designation with many benefits but it does not fully guarantee against demolition, neglect or loss of historic integrity.
Portland has its own historic inventory list, but it has virtually no teeth. Houses on the inventory should be subject to a 120-day delay. The designation is purely voluntary and property owners can remove their homes from the listing.
A radical, controversial way to save a house from the jaws of a bulldozer is to purchase the property. A neighborhood coalition in NE Portland has successfully negotiated to buy the storied, 1913 Ocobock House built by architect Charles Erst who built Laurelhurst Theater as well as other distinctive buildings.
It has ties to the local African American community and may have been visited by Martin Luther King. The property is being purchased by Vic Remmers for $1.1 million, significantly more than he paid for it.
“The developer literally held the property for ransom and demanded top dollar,” comments Moretti. “The neighbors demonstrated amazing fortitude and commitment. They figured out how to pay. Few are able to do that.”
The buy-back tactic didn’t work on the classic Alder St. Victorian recently leveled in Montavilla.
It did work, however, in well-heeled Laurelhurst for the Markham House and it might work in Eastmoreland to save a “treasured” mansion, targeted for demolition, atop a 10,000+ square foot lot. The house, featured on a recent home tour, is described as 1920s-style architecture (think Great Gatsby) with circular staircase and balcony, a floor to ceiling stone fireplace, open beams and numerous other irreplaceable architecture features.
It’s hard not to be moved by what the demolition of such a landmark would mean to Portland’s heritage. It is the kind of elegance that caused one passerby to say, “They would never tear that down, would they?”
Remmers is listed as the contractor on a permit to demolition the house, according to The Portland Chronicle newsletter.
An application has also been made to open up underlying lots that would enable the replacement of the grand home with two or more housing units. The price of each new build would likely be much higher than Remmers’ reputed $749,000 purchase price for the property.
Shaking his head, the passerby asked, “Since when did preservation become a dirty word?”
Housing activists view efforts to preserve grand homes on large tracts of land as inequitable signs of waste and privilege.
Groups like Portland for Everyone see large lots as prime turf for development of affordable housing. At neighborhood meetings throughout the eastside, they have lobbied for the “burden of greater density to be shared equally by all” neighborhoods.
Eastmoreland preservationists say it’s developers who are greedy and that it’s unlikely new residences built by Remmers would provide the kind of affordability housing activists have in mind.
The neighborhood association, still smarting from the City’s rejection of proposed R7 zoning in the area, is currently exploring designation as an historic district to save its treasured housing stock.
Not everyone in the neighborhood agrees. Some express concerns that they would lose control over what they can do on the property.
For landuse chair Rob Merrick, it’s a way to protect homeowner’s right.
In an Eastmoreland newsletter, he wrote, “Given our planners’ aversion to district planning outside of the central city, disregard for architectural and cultural history, and opposition to localized zoning regulation we are left few options. This is why the formation of an historic district for Eastmoreland is so important.”
Those interested in learning more about living in an historic district should attend The Restore Oregon Meeting September 8, 6-7:30 pm, 10th Church of Christ Scientist, 5736 SE 17th Ave.