Oregon's Historic Sites Database: A Tool for Tapping the Research Potential of the Built Environment

By Roper, Roger | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Oregon's Historic Sites Database: A Tool for Tapping the Research Potential of the Built Environment


Roper, Roger, Oregon Historical Quarterly


HISTORICAL RESEARCHERS are adept at gleaning facts from obscure places. They know the nuances and secret offerings of the various archives, libraries, and repositories of public and private records. Yet they often overlook a key primary source: historic structures themselves. What was built and how it was built often helps answer some of history's "whys." And sometimes there is physical evidence of how a structure has been used and adapted that offers compelling insight into the people and practices of the past. The following examples illustrate the point:

Victor Point School, Marion County: This 1889 one-room schoolhouse originally had four windows along each side of the building, but those on the south side were later removed. This action was in response to an educational expert's recommendation that cross-lighting was damaging to students' eyes. To compensate for the loss of natural light, three more windows were then added to the north side. The building still reflects that policy change.

Marshfield Sun Building, Coos Bay: The deeply worn floorboards where publisher and printer Jesse Luse planted his foot to run the hand-operated press is testament to his commitment to producing a newspaper for the community from 189i to 1944.

Roba Ranch House, near Paulina: Decorative stone carvings on the exterior of this 1900 house suggest old-world traditions brought to the American West by the Czech immigrant family who established the ranch and built the house.

Crook County Courthouse, Prineville: This dignified courthouse, set back from the street in a park-like setting, commands our attention and respect--both for the edifice itself and, not coincidently, for the county government and its workings. Architects of the period understood the importance of establishing, through setting and architecture, the proper tone for how both occupants and visitors should conduct themselves on the premises.

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These buildings and stories may not be headliners in the same sense as more recognizable landmarks, such as the State Capitol, Vista House, or Union Station in Portland, but both landmarks and lesser-known structures provide important insights into Oregon's diverse history. Learning to read and interpret them takes time and training. It helps tremendously if there is a comprehensive and reliable set of records about all those structures. It helps even more if those records are computerized and can be queried in a variety of ways to respond to a wide range of research questions.

Oregon has such a record set in the State Historic Preservation Office's Historic Sites Database--a one-stop source for answering a wide variety of research questions. Have you ever wondered, for example, which building in your community is the oldest? How about the oldest in the state? Or maybe you have a more complex research question about historic structures in Oregon, such as: How many grange halls are there, and which of them are listed in the National Register of Historic Places; are there any nineteenth-century library buildings still standing; which counties still have their historic courthouses; and what are the dates of construction and locations of Beaux Arts style buildings, Queen Anne houses, Octagonal structures, buildings designed by Pietro Belluschi, and CCC-era fire lookout towers?

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The database has been created by the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in recent years to better organize, track, and research the tens of thousands of historic building records in its files. The federal government and the state established SHPO in 1967, and it has been coordinating the collection of information about the state's historic buildings and sites ever since. This information is critical to historic preservationists and historians statewide.

Maintaining a master record set of all historic properties in Oregon is one of the duties assigned to SHPO by the federal government. …

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