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Historic building on McLoughlin reminds of earlier era

by: COURTESY OF ODOT - The State Highway Division Region 1 Office (the Highway Division is now ODOT), shortly after its completion in 1938, on the east side of McLoughlin Boulevard, south of Ochoco Street. Tucked away in the industrial section of McLoughlin Boulevard, just south of Sellwood, S.E. Ochoco Street, and the Springwater Corridor Overpass, sits a substantial rustic park-style building. It’s a structure made of wood and stone that you might mistake for a lodge, or perhaps a ranger interpretive center in one of the National Parks.

What it actually is, however, is the onetime headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation – built during the start of the Great Depression in the early 1930’s, when relief programs like the WPA , Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Public Works Administration, had been established by the government to boost the fallen economy of the nation.

When Franklin Roosevelt took office as the 31st President of the United States in 1933, the country was in shambles. Unemployment was at an all time high of 30 percent, and business leaders had lost the confidence necessary to be offering new jobs.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a new agency created by the President in 1935; its funding was provided from the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act approved by Congress. Under the WPA program, thousands of unemployed men were hired to repair bridges, tunnels, improve roads and parks, and build public buildings.

In Layne Sawyer’s article in the Oregon State Archives, it’s recorded that “The WPA played a prominent role in the relief effort throughout Oregon from 1935 until 1942. During those years it employed 25,000 people in Portland alone.”

Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood, the Portland Municipal Airport, and the construction of Rocky Butte Scenic Drive in northeast Portland, are just a few of the many projects completed by the WPA around our state.

Smaller projects were set up by the WPA to hire regional musicians for free concerts and musical events for the public to enjoy. Artists and craftsmen were given the opportunity to paint murals on various post offices around the state and also at the Portland Art Museum. Many musical performances were presented at Reed College; and the Eckles Iron Shop, on Boise Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood, was used by trained artisans and iron workers to produce the ornamental iron work used at Timberline Lodge.

When the newly-constructed so-called “Super 99 Highway” (now McLoughlin Boulevard, but still Highway 99E) was completed in 1935, administrators at the Oregon Department of Transportation were looking for a new place to build their regional headquarters. They found their spot at the side of the impressive new highway, on the east side, just south of Ochoco Street, just inside Clackamas County.

Using Federal and State funds and following the suggested guidelines of the WPA, local masons were hired to build the foundation, which was fashioned from native stone quarried from Rocky Butte. Masons were also responsible for most of the labor-intensive work that was done – using men with hand tools and ingenuity, who had very little assistance from heavy machinery.

Some of the outstanding features of the transportation building, which still stands today beside McLoughlin Boulevard, included the wavy horizontal siding on the exterior, cedar shingles on the roof (later replaced with composition shingles), and copper downspouts and gutters.

Dr. Robert W. Hadlow, Senior Historian for ODOT, who furnished most of the information and photos about the ODOT structure for this article, also revealed that workers spent many hours installing rows of fir stripping under the lath and plaster walls. In its time, the 1½ story building must have looked very majestic to motorists driving by, with its gable roof and multiple dormers.

The front of the building showcased a paneled door with side lights and transom; ornamental crafted iron work on the sides; and a native stone wall, which showcased the entrance from the highway.

Under the guidance of engineers from the Oregon State Highway Departments Bridge Section, the ODOT Regional 1 Headquarters was finished by 1938.

Just why would the Transportation Department construct an office and maintenance building in the style of a National Park Lodge, in an industrial area of Clackamas County? WPA guidelines stressed a desire that architectural themes harmonious with the surroundings be used in the construction of new structures. Buildings needed to harmonize with their immediate natural setting, using unemployed and sometimes unskilled workers locally to complete each project.

Looking closely at the surrounding countryside, in the various pictures taken of ODOT’s headquarters, you can see that workers followed those instructions closely. This area of Clackamas County reveals an abundance of pine and fir trees, and open spaced farm lands filled with a scattering of comfortable bungalow homes. The multiple warehouses and angled concrete structures had yet to be built.

The carved ends and decorative edges of the wood beams and rafters, handmade chimney, and decorative iron work compliment the natural woodwork of the exterior, making the public offices blend in perfectly with the existing landscape. Oak trees were planted on the west side of the grounds, possibly qualifying them to be included in today’s Heritage Tree inventories.

The Oregon State Forester Office, located at 2600 State Street in Salem, is the only other example of this rustic style structure constructed with WPA funds in Oregon during this period.

But the function for which the local building was built is no longer there. In 1995, the Oregon Department of Transportation, in need of more room, moved out, and the building stands vacant today. The status of this unique and historic structure today is uncertain. The building meets the criteria needed to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but putting it there requires time and money.

The City of Milwaukie and ODOT are deciding what to do with the property, as TriMet pursues construction of the MAX inner-eastside light rail system that will change the surrounding area. One can hope that the transportation building will be preserved as a museum or historical interpretive center, to acquaint the public of the history of the Oregon Department of Transportation, or some other useful purpose in the community.

On another note, if you enjoy local history, I invite you to purchase the 2013 Sellwood-Moreland Historical calendar, now on sale at various local businesses. This is a great time to buy an historical keepsake for only $10.00 which your friends, family members, and those interested in the past will treasure for years. Among the locations where this SMILE-sponsored calendar is available are Branch’s Unique Card Shop, Schondecken Coffee Roasters, and Wallace Books.