Editorial: What’s the value of historic buildings? (June 1, 2022)

Scott Swanson

Sweet Home, unlike some neighboring communities, is not blessed with a multitude of classy old buildings.

For much of its history, this town has been largely focused on getting ‘er done, primarily getting timber out of the woods to a waiting world. Practicality has been a major controlling factor in city planning and, frankly, architecture.

We have a few buildings that are more than 30 or 40 years old, (including the one in which The New Era is located), but – speaking frankly – they generally lack the regal presence of some in downtown Lebanon or Albany.

But those buildings represent history and that should be part of the consideration as Sweet Home plans its future, particularly how to improve the downtown and hopefully take advantage of other tremendous opportunities before us.

Last week we reported on the current status of the old Sweet Home train depot building, which has been in the community since the 1930s, but in 1980s was moved from its location at the intersection of two railroad spurs in the 2000 block of Main Street to make way for McDonald’s and, later, Bi-Mart.

Those moves were at the instigation of individuals who were recognized the cultural value of the building and wanted to preserve it. Regrettably, some of those are no longer with us. Others have advanced in age and, understandably, moved on to other concerns.

Meanwhile, as our May 25 story reported, the building has sat behind the city Public Works Department facility, where it was moved early on a Sunday morning in 2013 by local loggers Mike Melcher, Jim Cota and Steve Nelson, who rigged up a frame made of logs and skidded it a couple of blocks’ distance from behind McDonalds, in what is now the Bi-Mart complex, to 24th Avenue.

Unfortunately, since then, time has taken its toll. Vandals have broken in and tagged the inside with graffiti, siding’s been ripped off the exterior, and there’s a lot of rot.

City officials estimate it could cost millions to restore the depot.

Whether or not someone feels strongly enough to produce that kind of cash to save the depot is a question we’ll have to wait to see answered.

As city Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen noted in our story, the building would be an asset in future development of, say, the quarry park area that is expected to one day provide a concert venue for the Oregon Jamboree. Or it could be used as a train station again, for the Albany and Eastern Railroad excursion trains.

Is it worth it? How precious is history to us?

Those are questions that city residents and officials need to ask themselves about historic structures in town – the old City Hall, the old Masons Hall, the former Woodworkers Union Hall, the Fallon Building, to name some of the most obvious.

Rio owner Thomas Baham has demonstrated what can happen when attention – and money – is directed towards and old building.

The theater has literally become a destination attraction in Sweet Home – people regularly visit from Albany and some have come from as far as Portland just to see a movie there after Baham’s efforts to remodel and upgrade the facility.

What used to be a dark, dank, depressing hall has become a vibrant, comfortable, exciting place to watch a flick – demonstrated by overflow parking when a big movie plays.

We recognize the challenges of restoring old buildings. After all, this editorial is being written inside one that, like others, requires continual maintenance and could stand some upgrades. Money’s tight, particularly in this era of skyrocketing construction costs.

That’s a challenge, though, that Albany and Lebanon and other communities in our area have addressed with rather impressive results. Those downtowns are interesting, even spectacular in spots, as a result of the restoration efforts.

That challenge is now ours in the case of the depot and other historic structures: Do we invest in them or do we replace them?

It might be possible for innovative individuals to find ways to lessen the cost of restoring the depot, despite those mind-boggling estimates. It would be wonderful to see it function in some capacity as described above, as some kind of visitors center, displaying a glimpse of Sweet Home’s past.

Whether that’s possible or not, time will tell.

But as city officials ponder what to do about the vacant buildings in our downtown (page 1), these considerations are a necessary part of that conversation.

If we care about our past, now’s the time to preserve it – before the wrecking ball arrives.