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A champion for historic preservation

Cedar School owner spent year revising preservation code for county

For the past year, Colleen Cahill has lived and breathed building codes, research and regulations.

“I know so much now I should run for office,” Cahill mused.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Colleen Cahill, owner of the historic Cedar School in Troutdale, has spent the past year preparing a revised historic preservation code for the county.

Owner of the historic Cedar School in Troutdale, the photographer has spent the past 16 years rebuilding the 1857-vintage school on Troutdale Road, piece by piece. But when she thought about selling the school, the idea that someone could tear down her hard work — and a piece of local history — was frustrating.

“For me that was huge. That's why I started this,” she said. “When I considered selling it, the realization someone could come in and knock this down is what promoted this. It happens all the time.”

Outside of listing the school on the National Historic Register, there is no local listing that protects historic buildings from demolition.

“People ask about the National Historic Register, why aren't you on that? They tried,” she said. “There's a lot of historic buildings that don't meet the criteria for that. This is one of them because they had altered the back end. Then there's nothing else to protect you.”

But when Cahill began asking around, she heard there was some sort of historic preservation code buried in a box somewhere in a county building.

That code has been revised in the last several months as Chapter 6 of the proposed Comprehensive Plan, currently being reviewed by the Multnomah County Commission. The chapter encompasses historic and cultural preservation on a county level.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The Cedar School was built in 1857 on the Troutdale Road. Photographer Colleen Cahill has spent the past 16 years working to restore the building while also employing it as her studio.

“If adopted, (the code) would first and foremost help in the preservation of our historic structures and possibly offer some incentives for the owners of those historic buildings to help maintain them from deterioration and demolition,” Cahill said.

Although it seemed everyone Cahill spoke with about the code and necessary protections thought it was necessary, getting the code in front of the county took a lot of ground work on her end.

With the help of land use attorney Andrew Stamp, Cahill began collecting all the necessary documentation and information to get the code implemented. A meeting with Commissioner Diane McKeel helped too. Cahill said McKeel took the information to Director of Community Services Kim Peebles, who then directed the Multnomah County Planning Department to prepare the chapter for consideration.

McKeel declined to comment for this story.

Cahill said McKeel had told her that unlike most issues in the county, this one had a solution, ready to go.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - The entrance to the historic Cedar School has served as the setting for many images created by photographer Colleen Cahill, who owns the property and is helping prepare a historic preservation code for Multnomah County.

“Like everybody else who you talk to about this, this is important,” Cahill said.

A historic designation could save buildings from demolition — if the proposed chapter is altered to specify this — but it could also provide special use permitting. That permitting could allow for hosting events on site, or renting out the space for a fee.

“Promoting new ways for this building to bring in revenue would be one of the ways I can make a little bit more money, and they can designate it and know its going to revitalize the building,” she said.

Such as pay for the grounds maintenance, or revive the exterior brick that's beginning to crumble.

“This is about giving incentives and people an income to keep these buildings up from deterioration,” Cahill said.

Although much of the groundwork is complete, and the Community Advisory Committee has started its review of the comprehensive plan, Cahill acknowledges her work could be a dead end.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - A bedroom in the living quarters inside the historic Cedar School, owned by internationally renowned photographer Colleen Cahill.

“After all of this work they could take it and say we just don't have the funding to do this, and it could go back in a box in the basement,” she said.

But she's hopeful historic preservation is something everyone can get behind.

“Just save them,” Cahill said. “And give us a financial way to maybe help do that.”

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