Plans for cremains memorial hit (another) snag

From the Salem Statesman Journal, April 21, 2012

The cremains of thousands of Oregon State Hospital patients — some abandoned, others forgotten — still linger within corroded copper canisters; their location a closely guarded secret.

A historic building constructed in 1896 is expected to house the remains, transforming the space into a public memorial and final resting place for the unclaimed souls.

But the dead will have to wait.

Plans to create the memorial, initially scheduled for completion this year, have come to a halt after the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission recently decided the project didn’t meet all the national standards for restoring historic buildings.

Now the architects designing the memorial have to go back to the drawing board.

“I think what we’re proposing is a relatively minor change, but to historic preservationists it’s the end of the world,” said Daniel Mihalyo of Seattle-based Lead Pencil Studio, who is designing the memorial along with his partner Annie Han.

The duo proposed creating a 240-square-foot opening for a new Plexiglas window in the northern wall of Building 60, which was formerly used as a paint shop and infirmary on the hospital grounds. Part of the existing wall would have to be removed.

“We wanted the viewer to feel like you’re inside something; part of the history that took place there,” Mihalyo said.

But the plan has drawn opposition from some Salem residents, who say tearing down a portion of the building would alter a piece of history and compromise the integrity of the structure.

“While the applicants have an infinite number of possible solutions available to them in the realm of design, this structure has only one historic expression,” said David Skilton, who helped place the state hospital on the National Register of Historic Places, in a letter to the commission.
Preserving the integrity of a historic building

The memorial’s design now hinges on the interpretation of one of 10 national standards for rehabilitating historic buildings.

“New additions and adjacent or related new construction shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired,” according to the standard by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

Five members of the commission voted Thursday that the memorial’s design didn’t meet that standard. Three members voted in favor of the proposal.

Proponents say the artists have taken steps to make any changes reversible. For example, the brick from the northern wall of the building would be lowered to the floor of the memorial as one intact piece; it would be bordered with protective felt; and the brick would be cut from the wall in a way that would allow it to be restored if needed.

But members who voted against the memorial’s design argue the standard isn’t about reversibility, but whether the building will retain its historic characteristics once changed.

“The intent of the standard is for the building to have its integrity after the modification not for historic buildings to be dismantled in such a way that they could be put back together again,” said Ian Johnson, the commission’s chairman.

“Yes, you’re going to have the material laying there, but it’s not going to be the same,” said Chairwoman Joy Sears.

In response, the architects asked for a chance to redesign the proposal in a way that would better meet the last standard.

The historic landmarks commission is scheduled to revisit the memorial project again during its May 17 meeting.

Striking a balance

The memorial’s architects are left with a complex challenge: Can they retain their artistic vision and intent for the memorial if they only used an existing opening in the building?

In 1949, another building was attached to Building 60 creating a large opening to allow access between both structures. The building also had a door and window that were filled with brick.

Commission members said they wouldn’t object if the artists used the existing openings.

The architects said it’s an option they’ve considered and studied but hasn’t worked so far.

“Imagine what it would be like in large groups, how it would feel to teach history through smaller windows and what it would be like to sit on the benches 15 to 20 feet away and look at those openings,” Mihalyo said. “There are many repercussions that would be detrimental to our feelings about the social history aspect of it.”

They initially proposed creating an indentation using the existing opening but scrapped the idea because of security issues.

“If viewers can’t physically get in the building because of security issues, we still want people to feel like they are inside of the building in the presence of the people and their history,” Han said.

Jodie Jones, Deputy Administrator for the Oregon State Hospital’s Replacement Project, said the hospital decided that allowing the public to walk into the building wasn’t safe because they currently don’t have the staff to keep an eye on visitors. They also want the memorial to be accessible to the public 24/7, she said.

The memorial, which could cost up to $500,000, is currently funded by the state’s Percent for Art in Public Places program. The law requires 1 percent of direct construction funds of new and renovated state building with construction budgets of $100,000 or more to go toward acquiring works of art.

Mihalyo and Han said they did expect some push back.

“For all good projects, you have to run a gauntlet through something and you never know what it’s going to be,” Mihalyo said.