Iron Workers Cottage faces big challenges

Project is finished and under budget
Old Town Neighborhood Association chairman Dick Reamer says the Lake Oswego Iron Worker’s Cottage is an important relic of his neighborhood’s historic past as well as the city’s former place at the heart of the Northwest’s iron industry. Here he shows some of the damage the cottage is experiencing.

While the Lake Oswego Iron Worker's Cottage might not fall down today or tomorrow, it could crumble sometime in the future without much-needed attention.

'It hasn't received any of the repairs it needs,' said Susanna Campbell Kuo, who has spent years researching, planning and helping with restoration efforts related to Lake Oswego's iron heritage. 'With any wooden building, rot can progressively destroy the structure.

'And we've had a couple of unusually wet winters. If they don't do something, it's going to become more and more expensive, and it will damage the original structure. It's something you want to take care of as quickly as possible.'

Historic preservation advocates are now celebrating the likely funding of restoration work on the cottage, a local landmark purchased by the city in 2002.

'Those of us who want to see the cottage preserved are just thrilled,' Campbell Kuo said. 'A lot of times there is support for preserving a really grand old house, like the Pittock Mansion - even though that one was once threatened with demolition - but when it comes to a little tenant cottage like this, there are hardly any that survive, because they simply aren't grand enough.'

Built in the late 1870s or early 1880s by local carpenters known to have constructed many buildings for Oswego Iron Company, later Oregon Iron and Steel Company, the simple cottage at 40 Wilbur St. is considered one of the city's most intact sites related its iron heritage. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its association with the city's short but key role as the center of the Northwest's iron industry in the late 19th century.

The 900-square-foot rectangular abode also serves as a rare example of an old building technique: vertical plank construction, a method that made for quick housing.

The cottage has no frame; instead, the walls are made of planks standing upright and nailed to a base and top plate. The planks hold up the roof, and 'there isn't any empty space in the walls,' Campbell Kuo said. 'There's no place to run plumbing or wiring or insulation. It has siding of course. … But if you subtract the exterior siding and interior panels, the walls are essentially 1 inch thick - the thickness of the planks.'

'It would be neat if the city were able to restore it, if it's accessible to the public, to have a section of the interior wall exposed so people could see the plank construction,' she said.

There used to be many more like it in the neighborhood, said Dick Reamer, chairman of the Old Town Neighborhood Association.

'Those buildings, they aren't going to come back,' he said. 'If there's a chance to save one as an example of not only the architecture but of the lifestyle of the original community that existed around the ironworks, it seems logical to do that.'

The cottage can help residents and visitors alike understand the difference between today's culture and lifestyles of the past, he added.

'If you've taken a look at it, it's a pretty small residence,' Reamer said. 'For Lake Oswego today, that isn't really a place too many people would be comfortable living in.'

A city committee has advanced a 2011-12 spending plan to the city council that approves $55,000 to help stabilize the worker's cottage, and all signs point to council members upholding support for the project. The city council is poised to adopt a final budget later this month.

'We've heard the iron worker's cottage is in dire need and it needs to be stabilized,' said Bill Tierney, one of multiple council members supporting the cause at a recent budget committee meeting. 'Otherwise, we'll lose it.'

But even with the money, the building's future remains unclear.

The cottage has housed some tenants since the city bought it in 2002, but it's no longer rented out. An intern from a college historical architecture program apparently lived there a couple of summers ago while working for the city.

Mayor Jack Hoffman has suggested exploring options other than city ownership, such as selling the house to a group interested in restoring and preserving it.

Marylou Colver, another longtime historic preservation advocate in Lake Oswego, isn't sure about that idea, though she hopes officials will take some sort of action with the cottage, now part of the city's new Iron Heritage Trail along with the recently restored historic iron furnace in George Rogers Park.

Though it may be easy to miss the small abode when driving or walking by, Colver said, 'short of the unlikely opening of an iron mine for visitors, the restoration of the cottage is the last piece of funding in this chain of investments.'

Visiting heritage sites is a top tourist activity in Oregon, she added. In that case, selling the cottage might not make much sense.

'I don't think it would be the best thing for the cottage,' Colver said. 'Who's going to want a big interpretive panel in their front yard?

'But it's better for the building to be occupied or used in some manner. Buildings last longer that way than when they're sitting empty.'

City councilor Mary Olson recently urged city leaders to move ahead with restoring the cottage before it's too late.

'While we are continuing to explore our options,' she said, 'it is falling down.'