By Midge Pierce

Last month’s conceptual depiction of thermal baths on Mt. Tabor caused quite a stir. At a Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association Meeting, landuse co-chair John Laursen called the notion frivolous because the reservoirs are National Historic Landmarks that should not – and actually can not – be altered that way.

In fact, the hillside between reservoirs five and six is a highly-regulated dam face required by the state to be fenced off to make it inaccessible to the public. Until the reservoirs were decommissioned, the dam housed a hydroelectric plant under the protection of the federal government.

The reservoirs were decommissioned per a federal mandate. They remain under National Historic Register protections.

Laursen’s overriding concern is that the public understand the significant work already underway to restore the reservoirs to their original distinction. Plans are based on preferences from a majority of citizens’ surveyed several years ago.

The bath idea, according to Laursen, ignored a long, complex negotiation between citizens and the Water Bureau to preserve the integrity of the reservoirs and the view corridors designed by the Olmsted Brothers more than a century ago.

“A group of very passionate residents has worked for years, and literally thousands of hours, to save the reservoirs from destruction, achieve a negotiated settlement over maintenance and implement restoration needs that go well beyond just keeping water in the basins,” said Laursen.

The citizen group’s latest victory was to secure project funds at risk in the latest round of tight budgeting. In 2015, Portland City Council committed some $4 million over a period of four years as part of a reservoir land use resolution.

The funding means that work can begin to repair elegant diamond patterned trim that Laursen calls a “jewel” on the south wall the oldest reservoir on Mt. Tabor’s southern slope. Now, the challenge is to find skilled craftsmen to restore the design and possibly touch up a small, non-potable fountain tucked into the hillside. The reservoir dates back to 1894 and was a popular spot for summer promenades. Today, visitors sometimes leave trinkets in the fountain.

The south wall needs rebuilding since it has eroded to the point that rebar is exposed and deteriorating. In addition, the chain link fence around the westside dam face will be replaced with something more appropriate to an historic site.

A website and onsite interpretive displays are planned to explain what Laursen calls “the genius of the elegant” gravity-fed system from its Bull Run water source to Portland taps.

“The Mt. Tabor reservoirs are an essential public amenity that should be honored and preserved,” said Laursen.