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A Hidden Architectural Treasure in Eastern Oregon

August 8, 2012

By Kenny Gunn

Map showing location of Fossil.

Situated in the north-central part of Oregon in Wheeler County and surrounded by ranchland is the small, rural city of Fossil that many Oregonians are never fortunate enough to stumble upon. The city, with a population of under 500 people, has a unique feel to it that is unlike any other that I have experienced in Oregon.

Established sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s, Fossil has experienced a fluctuating economy that throughout its history has both affected its people and the architecture they’ve created. Due to the economic state of Fossil since the mid-twentieth century, there has been little commercial development resulting in perhaps one of the most intact structures from the late nineteenth century within Oregon.

Fossil in c.1890 (Courtesy of Fossil Museum).

The building is located directly on Main Street in downtown Fossil, connected on the left to the Fossil Mercantile. It is believed that the building was originally constructed circa 1890 and has had various uses over the years. These include as a market with the second floor as an open hall for meetings and other social events involving the people of Fossil and surrounding area. Today, the building is used as storage space serving the neighboring mercantile as both buildings are owned by the same person.

Perspective of the Fossil building (left).

Elevation detail of the Fossil building.

The building retains such a high level of integrity that it is unlike many that you come across as one travels around the state. The building features an original rubble stone foundation supporting brick walls and large wooden floor beams. The large wooden windows on the first and second floor are original and represent a scale of wooden window that has mostly disappeared from our culture due to renovations to buildings over time. The ceiling on the first floor is an original decorative pressed tin design that stretches end-to-end across the large expansive interior space that has never been enclosed with interior walls as most similar structures have. The front façade is currently painted a blue-teal color, although the property owner has expressed great interest in removing the paint and returning the building to its original natural red brick color.

Front facade of the Fossil building.

For me, the question arises as to what to do with such a unique and intact structure to ensure that future generations are able to enjoy it as we are able to do today. This is a challenge that we as preservationists experience everyday, although it becomes especially challenging in a place such as Fossil where the economic situation is what it is. Where does a building like this one go from here? And what can be done to ensure its viability and use in the future as a resource? I am sure there are many other unique and excellent examples of buildings from all periods of Oregon’s history hiding around the state that do not receive the recognition and appreciation that they should. This is just one example of what Oregon has to offer the architectural world.

Kenny Gunn is a graduate student in the Historic Preservation Masters Degree Program at the University of Oregon and currently interning with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, part of Oregon Heritage.

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