Preservation sought for Oregon dam’s long-unused powerhouse

  • Mon Feb 1st, 2010 11:00pm
  • News

By Mark Freeman Mail Tribune

MEDFORD, Ore. — Duane Ericson steps onto the rotting floors of the Gold Ray Dam powerhouse and picks through decades of debris, he marvels how time truly has been kind to the 106-year-old building.

The heavy concrete walls, though pockmarked with potshots from bullets and tossed rocks, never were replaced with cheap prefabricated siding. No one ever traded out broken windows for vinyl ones.

The roof features a “monitor” — a rectangular glass space to admit light — which is testimony to a time when America was just beginning to feel its own industrial-architecture wings.

“It’s a time-warp,” says Ericson, a graduate student in historic preservation at the University of Oregon. “No one’s touched this place, except vandals. But even though it’s in bad shape, the integrity is amazing.”

The powerhouse proposed to meet a wrecking ball this year as part of the plan to remove the dam from the Rogue River to help struggling salmon runs is perhaps southwest Oregon’s oldest version of “prairie style” architectural design, and Ericson wants to see it preserved.

He’d like to see the building adapted and used for some other purpose so it could remain a touchstone for a uniquely American style.

“The dam probably has to go for the greater good of things,” Ericson says. “But this is a very significant piece of architecture.”

Ericson says he does not know what type of alternate use he could propose for the building, but he hopes to find one.

He’d better find one quickly.

Jackson County, which owns the dam, is putting the finishing touches on a study and design for removing the dam, fish ladder and powerhouse.

As part of that effort, county officials envision preserving some of the dam’s historic pieces, including one of the rope-driven turbines that were the last of their kind in the United States when Pacific Power decommissioned the plant in 1972.

Photographs and other items could be added to an interpretive kiosk near the powerhouse to pay homage to southwest Oregon’s first hydropower plant.

“That’s all very much in a transitional phase,” says John Vial, the county’s roads and parks director, who is overseeing the project.

While all involved believe the powerhouse likely qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the county still wants to see it removed, along with the dam, over financial liability issues.

As part of its effort to garner permits for dam removal this year, the county soon will negotiate with the State Historic Preservation Office to determine what level of historical mitigation is necessary for removal to move forward, Vial says.

If an interpretive kiosk were approved by the office, the work would be considered mitigation, Vial says. That way, the county could use what’s left of its $5 million federal stimulus grant or its $1 million Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board grant, he says.

Slayden Construction Group has a $5.5 million contract to study and demolish the dam, should county commissioners approve the project.

“It’s unfortunate about the time frame,” says Ericson, an archaeological technician for the federal Bureau of Land Management in Medford.

At the least, Ericson wants the public to know what’s about to go away.

Prairie-style architecture began in the late 19th century as American architects began to move away from European influences and forge their own style of industrial buildings.

“It’s the first American architectural style that broke free of European influences,” Ericson says.

Instead of tall, gothic-style structures, prairie buildings were wider, with low-pitched roofs, and many sported the signature monitor.

“It’s a character-defining feature,” Ericson explains. “The irony is, it’s to let light in, but this was an electrical powerhouse.”

Prairie-style architecture was popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright, who likely ran in the same circles as Col. Frank Ray, the rich industrialist who bankrolled the dam to pump electricity to his gold mines, as well as Medford and other nearby towns.

No one has unearthed the architect’s identity, Vial says. Ericson says it could be one of the heavy hitters of prairie-style design.

“It suggests that very likely it was done by a famous architect,” Ericson says. “Even if it’s not, it’s a hugely important piece.

“This was cutting-edge stuff in 1904,” he says.

Information from Mail Tribune, www.mailtribune.com.