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Oregon’s Imperative for Resilient Masonry Buildings

November 20, 2012

By Brandon Spencer-Hartle

Oregon is fortunate to have an aesthetically and culturally diverse collection of masonry buildings. These brick, stone, and concrete block buildings define our favorite commercial districts, house essential functions of government, and provide shelter for urban apartment dwellers. Although structures with masonry veneers are still constructed today, over 5,000 of the state’s masonry buildings were built without reinforcing steel, relying instead on load-bearing masonry walls for structural support. Known as unreinforced masonry buildings (URMs), many of these 19th and early 20th century places have been listed in the National Register or given local landmark status because of historical significance. Even more important, our vast stock of historic URMs are critical to the state’s economic, social, and human infrastructure.

Consider the impact should one of these historic resources disappear tomorrow:

The upper story of Pendleton’s La Dow Block has been vacant for over 50 years.

Given the certainty of an earthquake in many parts of the state, waking up to a favorite community landmark, vibrant shopping district, or beloved apartment building being lost is a distinct possibility within our lifetimes. That’s not to say historic preservationists should become seismic fear mongers. No, historic preservationists should leverage the seismic imperative as an opportunity to appreciate, upgrade, and invest in these important buildings to ensure they are a sustained part of our built environment.

Recognizing the seismic, economic, and design challenges facing our state’s historic URMs, the Historic Preservation League of Oregon (HPLO) convened a year-long Preservation Roundtable to identify policy solutions that would best pass this group of buildings forward. After talking with 250 Oregonians in Jacksonville, Astoria, Pendleton, Portland, and elsewhere over the course of 2012, the HPLO prepared a 20-page special report on Resilient Masonry Buildings. The eight action-oriented recommendations described in the report were identified by Roundtable participants as the top solutions for making historic masonry buildings safe, durable, productive, and viable.

Eight University of Oregon students attended the Jacksonville Roundtable workshop.

The HPLO released Resilient Masonry Buildings at a special event in Portland on October 25. Copies of the report have since been distributed to policy-makers, preservation advocates, and property owners across Oregon. In the months and years ahead, the HPLO intends to work with local, state, and federal leaders to see these recommendations implemented to preserve not just buildings, but the lives, livelihoods, and livability of Oregon’s historic downtowns.

Brandon Spencer-Hartle is Field Programs Manager at HPLO. He would like to thank Oregon Heritage for a grant that supported the 2012 Preservation Roundtable.

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