Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

Looking down from the McLoughlin Promenade at the panorama of the Blue Heron paper-mill site below the cliff, a big boxy factory building with corrugated pale blue panels hogs the shoreline and blocks the view of the Willamette PHOTO COURTESY: WILLAMETTE FALLS LEGACY PROJECT - The Willamette Falls Legacy Project Photo of the Day for Jan. 22 shows No. 3 Paper Machine buildings extended basement running from the expanded, modernized southern half well past the dividing wall and deep into the historic northern half.

A clutter of ducts and machinery housings sprawls like some parasitical organism along its roof and sides. An extension of the structure smothers the former right of way of Third Street.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: PUBLISHERS PAPER CO. - A mid- 20th century aerial photo from the cover of a Publishers Paper tour guidebook shows the long, narrow No. 3 Paper Machine along the riverfront, its pitched-roof southern half towards the top, and the cupola-roofed northern half, below. It also shows the parallel long-pitched roof of the buildings now-lost twin, No. 2 Paper Machine.There’s no getting around the basics: today’s No. 3 Paper Machine building is ugly.

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) appears to share a similar sentiment. The three “demonstration scenarios” it presented to the public at the December Interactive Event featured graphic representations of a handful of the historic mill structures incorporated into the redevelopment as part of the framework Master Plan. No. 3 Paper Machine did not make the cut. The WFLP’s Jan. 22 blog post on its “Photo of the Day” page ( says diplomatically:

“Today’s photo looks up from the basement of No. 3 Paper Machine. This building has been identified as potentially eligible for listing on the National Register. However, further analysis has shown that rehabilitation of the building is complicated by numerous additions and its current condition. Therefore, the Willamette Falls team is not identifying No. 3 Paper Machine as a building that will be required for rehabilitation as part of the Master Plan process. Rather this building, like many others will be left to a future developer and the market to determine its direction. The Master Plan is concentrating on the following structures: Mill O, No. 4 Paper Machine, De Ink, Hawley and Woolen Mill Foundation.”

The draft Master Plan the WFLP recently released has made some important “second tier” additions to these five buildings: namely, No. 1 Paper Machine building, the foundation of the historic Brick Mill, the Boilers, a distinctive metal chemical storage sphere some have affectionately dubbed “Sputnik,” and the Digesters; the WFLP now even prominently features the Digesters on commemorative postcards.

Is there a place for No. 3 Paper Machine in the WFLP Master Plan?

One possible answer begins to emerge in reflecting upon the fascinating photograph accompanying the WFLP’s “Photo of the Day” blog post. A close look reveals, as if in embossed silhouette within the corrugated panels of the modern expanded box structure, a concrete dividing wall.

by: PHOTO BY: JAMES J. NICITA - A 2014 photograph taken from the McLoughlin Promenade shows the pitched-roof southern half of No. 3 Paper Machine now replaced by the big ugly box (left), but the historic, cupola-roofed northern half (right, behind other warehouses) looking much as it did back in 1913.The wall divides the modernized, expanded south half of No. 3 Paper Machine — the big box — from the north half, which remains to this day in its original historic form. The slight pitch of the top of the dividing wall reflects the slightly pitched roof of the north half of No. 3 Paper Machine. It also demonstrates the more modest dimensions of the south half of the building before its modernization and expansion.

by: PHOTO COURTESY: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - A mid-century close up photo of No. 3 Paper Machine. The north half, with shallow-pitched roof and cupola, is at left. The south half, with steeply-pitched roof prior to the modernization, is at right.Originally, No. 3 Paper Machine was not a big ugly box. Rather, it was long, narrow and sleek. The southern half housed the paper machine, under a steeply pitched roof. The northern half housed paper-cutting machinery and printing presses, and also served as a warehouse, all under a shallow-pitched roof with a distinctive cupola popping out of it.

Beneath both halves ran — and still runs — an enormous, deep basement. The fascinating “Photo of the Day” reveals the magnitude of this space: the basement can be seen extending from the south half of No. 3 Paper Machine, where the photo was taken, and continuing well beyond the dividing wall into the subterranean area below the original, north half of No. 3 Paper Machine. The light shining into the basement windows at left give a sense of the location and position of No. 3 Paper Machine on the top of the sloped bank along the Willamette River (but, according to maps, just outside of the floodplain).

The Oregon City Courier heralded No. 3 Paper Machine’s 1913 construction, now just over a century ago, on New Year’s Day 1914. The following excerpt gives a sense of the building’s form, and its centrality in the Hawley paper making operation, which eminently justifies No. 3 Paper Machine’s official status today as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places:

“This structure, of concrete and steel, designed according to the best practice of the present day, is 40 by 300 feet, and occupies the entire block on the river front between Third and Fourth streets. It rises two stories above the ground, and has as well a commodious basement, thus adding 36,000 feet of floor space to the plant. It contains an additional paper machine, and high-speed printing presses for the manufacture of fruit-wraps, bottle-wraps and other similar products in which the Hawley company has been specializing as a development of the general manufacture of all grades of paper.”

Establishing a place of prominence for No. 3 Paper Machine within the WFLP Master Plan could start with removing the big box that now covers the south half of the building, then envisioning the adaptive reuse of the building’s original elements from 1913: the remaining “commodious basement” of the south half; and the entirety of the warehouse, or north half, which retains the integrity of its original construction.

Adapting the south half could be both exciting and low-cost, and involve nothing more than retaining the basement foundation as a multi-level, open riverside platform to support recreational uses like picnic tables and cafes; or with more ambition (and cost) an ice- or roller-skating rink, racquetball or tennis courts, etc. Covering all this activity and making it all-weather and year-round, a steeply-pitched pavilion roof, with the exact dimensions of the roof of the original south half of No. 3 Paper Machine, would rediscover and restore the original long, narrow and sleek block-long form of the historic No. 3 Paper Machine. The recreation platform would be a link in the riverside trail proposed in the WFLP Master Plan, people could descend to progressively lower levels to discover treasures like footpaths leading down to the river’s edge, a magnificantly renewed floodplain ecology, a restored, daylighted and flowing Tailrace #2, and the basalt stone foundation wall of the historic Brick Mill.

Regarding the latter, a succession of old Sanborn maps suggests that the Brick Mill foundation corresponds with the front half of the footprint of No. 2 Paper Machine. This building, now lost, appears in historical photos as the neighboring “twin” of No. 3 Paper Machine: it had a parallel, identically-dimensioned long, steeply-pitched roof. A daylighted Brick Mill foundation could be incorporated into the adjacent riverside recreation complex, and a double pitched pavilion roof over the entire complex could thereby recreate the historical forms of both No. 2 Paper Machine and No. 3 Paper Machine. The complex would echo the “mill ruins” concept discussed in the Master Plan regarding the Woolen Mills foundation, but would have the advantage over the latter of being directly on the river. Finally, the recreation complex could be either publicly developed or incorporated as an amenity for a private hotel, apartment or condominium complex on the same block.

For its part, and particularly if this recreation complex became an adjacent amenity, the north half of No. 3 Paper Machine, which survives virtually intact from 1913, may well be one of the most developable buildings within the Blue Heron site. It has prime riverfront location (but again, just out of the floodplain). It is of manageable size. Its cupola gives it architectural character. Its history gives it authenticity, and eligibility for the generous 20 percent federal historic investment tax credit. And, significantly, it will be at the corner of a critical intersection in the circulation plan envisioned in the WFLP Master Plan: namely, the corner of Fourth Street and the reopened Water Street that will branch off of Highway 99E. The building’s “commodious basement” might be convertible instantly into an on-site, multi-level underground parking structure directly off this intersection.

If a realistic vision for No. 3 Paper Machine exists, perhaps the WFLP Master Plan should call out the building explicitly — along with the others already named in the draft — for a very particular reason: if the vision requires public funding, even if only in part, it is hard to see legislators or agency officials giving it any consideration if the Master Plan does not consider No. 3 Paper Machine worthy of attention.

Today’s No. 3 Paper Machine might be thought of as a big, flimsy, ratty treasure box. The box itself might not have any value, and should be discarded, but we should take care to guard and preserve the treasures inside the box: both those existing as actual gems, and those that gleam as golden opportunity.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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