Thursday, February 6, 2014

Preserve City Hall?

Eugene City Hall (my photo)

Following my preface below is a letter penned by Otto Poticha, FAIA. Otto’s long advocated for preserving Eugene City Hall pretty much as it is. In his view, it is an exceptional example of mid-century modern architecture in our community. Rather than see it altered beyond recognition, he is hopeful its future will include retention of its salient features, in addition to mitigation of its significant shortcomings. His letter is his plea to like-minded professional and academic colleagues to join him in assuring City Hall is not lost to the wrecking ball and with it an important part of Eugene’s architectural heritage. 
Where do I stand on the subject of City Hall’s future? 
I do concur with Otto’s opinion regarding City Hall’s historic significance, particularly its provenance as the winner of an important national competition that drew the attention of the major architectural publications of the day. The jury lauded the design by Stafford, Morin, and Longwood as a low-key, open expression of a municipal institution. City Hall’s simple parti—its drum-like council chamber surrounded by a serene courtyard—was as clear as a diagram. In some measure the virtue of the design derived from situating the courtyard above the streetscape, which literally elevated and detached the realm of government from the city it serves. 
On the other hand, I do believe City Hall’s design is also fatally flawed. Its principal shortcoming is precisely its indifference to the sidewalks that bound it. It’s not pedestrian-friendly. The building hasn’t ever engaged passersby because its architecture purposefully lacks the scale, vocabulary, and elements necessary to do so. 
Ultimately, I expect City Hall will become something much different than it is today, an outcome Otto would lament. Times have changed and Eugene has as well. Moving forward, a rejuvenated City Hall is expected to primarily serve as only the symbolic seat of civic governance, and the City has furnished a correspondingly small construction budget. It will not be the place where the majority of the work of the City takes place as it was when it first opened in 1964. How the City of Eugene plans to repurpose the portions of the building it no longer requires is very much an open question. No matter what, City Hall will be a fundamentally transformed building. 
I’m not pleased to conclude that we should allow an existing building of architectural significance to either be demolished or radically transformed simply because it fails to meet fashionable standards for beauty or measure up to state-of-the-art performance yardsticks. Fashion is relative and transitory, and we can ameliorate functional shortcomings. As a society, we’re too quick to forget our past transgressions, repeating history by destroying it. Casting aside the old for the allure of the shiny and new is unnecessarily wasteful and unsustainable; however, correcting City Hall’s failings may simply be too great a challenge to overcome. 
Notwithstanding Otto’s efforts to protect the design integrity of City Hall, its fate may largely rest with the plans now being developed by Rowell Brokaw Architects and its team of collaborators. I’m pretty certain they’re exhaustively exploring ways to extend City Hall’s future without completely erasing its essence. They owe it that much. 
Here’s Otto’s letter: 

Monday, February 3, 2014 

To: Architectural and University Colleagues 

Re: The Eugene City Hall Building and Site 

As all of you know I have spent over three years attempting on getting the neglected Eugene City Hall building and site to be protected and not demolished. 

This is a building with documented architectural credentials and a significant architectural history. This is an architectural art piece that needs recognition and preservation. A building with these credentials is rare in Eugene. The good news is that the original building has not been extensively renovated so all of the “bones” and design concepts are still in place. 

The other night we were given the Rowell Brokaw introduction of the process for the new City Hall on this site. We were told of the problems with energy, structure and the budget first phase program size relative to the existing frame. We were also introduced to the Council resolution to save the council chamber, the art and parking. We were shown how the existing wooden fins could be used as paneling in the renovated structure. This introduction was certainly very professional but appeared as a way to build a case to tear down most of the building and the initial important concept. It almost uses the same justification as we used for the downtown urban renewal process in the 70’s. 

I believe it is the responsibility of the community at large but certainly the architecture community to get more involved in retaining this building. I am seeking those members of the architectural and larger community who are willing to be a part of an advocacy group to lobby, monitor and focus on retaining this important mid-century modern building. Perhaps this building, with all of its identified problems, is not to be used as a City Hall. Perhaps a new first phase City Hall could be built on the South Side of 8th including the relocated Council Chamber and art. The existing building and site sold to a developer or reassigned another civic role (like the County Historic Museum or Eugene Art Museum) with the provision that it must be maintained and restored. 

I have taken on the task of filing the necessary forms and support materials to the City and State, with over 70+ 11" x 17" pages documenting the building’s history, awards, distinction and the design process involved. This is the first step of the process of getting the building and site placed on the National Register of Historic Places. I just received notice that my application to the Eugene Historic Review Board was rejected because the City ordinance requires that only a Building Owner, the City Council or the Planning Director can apply for this designation, and none are willing. The application has also been submitted to the State Historic Review Board (SHPO). This is a first phase in the process for National Registry Designation. It requires that the State agency (SHPO) supports that the building and site would be eligible for National Historic Registry recognition. I recently received notification that the building and site are eligible. I now am prepared to start the final recognition filing and the filing of the application to National. 

I assume that as an architect you consider architecture an art form and as an art form the piece requires understanding and protection. Any form of art does not require all to like and appreciate in the same way but it is important to the community and to all or any of what we do. 

As you are aware, having it recognized on the National Register guarantees nothing and the building can still be altered or demolished. 

Please share this letter with your office colleagues, as they might be interested in participating. 

Please consider volunteering to be on this City Hall Building Advocacy Committee. 

If you are willing please contact me by email and I will organize our first meeting. 

Otto P. Poticha, FAIA  (541) 686-9466

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