Big Red: The Crane Shed, Community Identity, and Historic Preservation in Bend

By Cannon-Miller, Kelly | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Big Red: The Crane Shed, Community Identity, and Historic Preservation in Bend


Cannon-Miller, Kelly, Oregon Historical Quarterly


"That represents the logging industry to me--I'm not a fan of the logging industry, so I'm happy to see it come down." (1)

"I have lived with logging all my life. I think they're taking down something that belongs to me. They have no right to take down the one thing we have left.... We can't destroy our heritage, we don't have a right to. If you lived in New York, and you wanted the land under the Statue of Liberty, would you tear her down? No, you wouldn't! Well, that's our Statue of Liberty." (2)

THE YEAR 2016 marks two anniversaries: the fiftieth anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the centennial of the creation of Deschutes County, the last county created in Oregon. The confluence of these two events offers an opportunity to examine an especially contentious debate over the fate of one historic building. During the summer of 2004, historic preservation within Bend city limits came under intense scrutiny over an enormous wooden building nicknamed "Big Red." From 1937 to 2004, Big Red--properly known as the Brooks-Scanlon Crane Shed because of the giant crane suspended from its ceiling--dominated Industrial Way on the north end of the area historically known as the mill district. It was not the type of building that went unnoticed; it was the type of building used as a landmark when giving directions.

As the Executive Director for the Deschutes County Historical Society, I and my staff are the front line for public research into historic properties and the meaning of preservation. We often answer questions about the rules and regulations applied to historic properties. Conversely, we also hear public commentary regarding the preservation process and historic buildings lost. With regard to Big Red, I have heard people say that on a clear day you could see it from Mt. Bachelor.

Despite its physical prominence and long association with Bend's significant lumber history, the Crane Shed was sold in 2004 and then demolished only nine months later. The story of how the community debated the shed's value reveals the complexities and pitfalls that exist in balancing the goals of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) with owners' rights and with local and state land-use regulations.

The NHPA states among its purposes that "the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life." For more than half a century, the mill district represented the community identity of Bend, a city built by the lumber industry. Following the final mill closure in 1993, the city's transformation from a lumber city to a retirement and outdoor recreation hub began, and the remnant mill buildings were all that remained on the landscape to testify to the lumber identity. While the NHPA is meant to function as a tool for saving historic spaces as expressions of community identity and to be controlled directly by the community and the property owners, there is an inherent conflict in attaching a system of community oversight to privately owned structures. As a result, preservation laws suffer from the perception of government overreach against owner's rights.

The Crane Shed became endangered when the City of Bend rezoned the entire mill district area, consisting of 270 acres, from industrial to mixed-use riverfront. Developers unveiled plans to turn the industrial "mill district" into today's The Old Mill District, featuring shopping, dining, office buildings, hotels, condominiums, and an amphitheater. (3) Built into a space closed to the public for over eighty years, the development was a huge gamble. Once investors secured the first retail store leases and a movie theater, property values skyrocketed, including for the acreage underneath the Crane Shed. What is an industrial warehouse to do when the industry moves away?

The building's story ended on August 18, 2004. While the Bend City Council decided whether to approve the issuance of a demolition permit, bulldozers and a work crew gathered at the site; a crowd gathered as well. …

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