In the trough of the Great Recession, fifth-generation Astorian Chris Gustafson was a logger, choker-setter and handyman in his early 20s just trying to make a living.
“I was just working,” Gustafson said. “The economy tanked, and I didn’t know what to do.”
One of his employers at the time, local woodworker Tim Kennedy, suggested he go back to school.
Six years later — and four since becoming one of the first graduates of Clatsop Community College’s historic preservation and restoration program — Gustafson came back to Astoria as the head of Vintage Window Restoration, a busy niche company he operates out of Albany. He is fixing windows in Fellowship Hall for the First Presbyterian Church.
Keeping it original
Fellowship Hall, a Carpenter Gothic-style structure designed by famed local architect John Wicks, was built in 1936 as an annex to the church. The hall has more than 50 windows, which Gustafson is restoring through next summer. He visits, takes out three or four windows at a time, and heads back to his Albany workshop in a former evaporated milk warehouse.
“You don’t want it to look shiny and brand new,” he said. “That’s not the point of historic restoration.”
Gustafson, who said he has never replaced a window in his career, mainly focuses on repairing wood rot and other weather damage around the windows, most visible on the south and west sides of the building continually pounded by wind and rain. His process to repair the windows is a mix of high-tech, organic and antique technology. He takes off paint and glazing putty using an infrared heater, paints using organic linseed oil from Sweden and fabricates new parts for the window using pre-World War II woodworking tools.
When he started college in 2009, Gustafson, his wife Marcia and their 1-year-old son, Donevan, lived largely through the charity of the community. They stayed at his family’s farm outside Astoria, trading handiwork for room and board, before moving into Astoria to be closer to his schooling.
They ate off food stamps and distressed vegetables from the Astoria Co-op Grocery, Gustafson said, while he rode his bike everywhere because they couldn’t afford gas. His wife was the main breadwinner of the family, he said, while he played Mr. Mom and went to school, arriving two weeks late to start the year.
“He was a terrible student, a pain in the ass,” joked Lucien Swerdloff, director of the college’s 6-year-old historic preservation program, in which Gustafson was one of the first students.
Gustafson, Swerdloff said, was the kind of student who became really engaged, took every possible workshop and had internships with local craftspeople. Most students decide where they want to focus by their second year, said Swerdloff, but Gustafson didn’t reach that point until shortly before graduation.
In his second year, Gustafson said he siphoned off gas from vehicles around the family farm to fill his tank and drive to a window restoration project at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Wash. The project ended up cementing his interest in windows.
Gustafson was part of the first graduating class from the college’s historic preservation program, which has about 30 graduates. About three-quarters of those graduates are working in historic restoration or related fields. Gustafson said he might be the only one doing windows professionally.
He and his family moved to Corvallis, where he studied recreation and resource management for a year, while fixing windows to help pay for his education. While his interest in earning the bachelor’s degree quickly waned, his side job quickly turned into his life’s passion. “I told people I could fix a window, and I was in business.”
Paying it forward
“That program has given me such a freaking awesome quality of life,” Gustafson said of the college’s historic restoration program, adding he tries to pay it forward whenever he can.
Running the company with his wife and a bookkeeper, Gustafson teaches workshops for the college as an adjunct faculty member and takes on paid interns who help with his projects.
“I choose these students because they understand the Secretary of Interior Standards,” Gustafson said, adding most of his projects are funded through government organizations like the State Historic Preservation Office.
Gustafson travels the state, restoring the windows of community landmarks, such as a U.S. Coast Guard Station in Bandon, a masonic lodge in Burns and, most recently, an armory in Cottage Grove.
“When it all first started, it was terrifying and filled with uncertainty of where life would be next week,” he said of creating his own career. “Now … the bills are covered. We have a retirement plan. We get to go on vacation.
“Is it success? I guess you could call it success.”