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Writer’s Notebook: A crazy genius and his demons

Robert Jacob was a key to Astoria’s rebirth
By Steve Forrester

The Daily Astorian

Published on September 11, 2018 10:16AM

Robert Jacob was an advocate for development on Astoria’s waterfront. He is shown here on the Astoria Trolley during a waterfront revitalization tour in 2013.

Edward Stratton/The Daily Astorian

Robert Jacob was an advocate for development on Astoria’s waterfront. He is shown here on the Astoria Trolley during a waterfront revitalization tour in 2013.

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In a town with more than its share of eccentrics and characters, Robert Jacob claimed a place in the Pantheon.

If Astoria had the Faulkner it deserves, Bob, who passed away Monday at the age of 69, would be the protagonist of a short story or perhaps a novella. And after telling a meandering tale of the character’s adventures, the author would spring a surprise — that the man had built one of the town’s principal monuments.

There are a few people who were key to Astoria’s rebirth that began in the 1990s. Edith Henningsgaard Miller was one. Willis Van Dusen was another. Jake, as he was commonly known, belongs in that group. And Jake was the classic case of the native Astorian who gained experience elsewhere and came back to help change the town.

When Jake came to my office in the 1990s, he brought plans for a hotel over the water. Like others who had seen the plans, I stifled my visible amazement at this vision. Jake was a graduate of the University of Oregon School of Architecture. After working briefly as an architect, he began buying Astoria properties.

Jake’s prospective hotel faced permitting obstacles with the state of Oregon. I told him what I knew about the regulatory world, although I’m not sure I was of great service. But he was grateful and brought me to the construction site when the Cannery Pier Hotel was being framed in. It was a startling experience.

During that first, get-to-know-you visit, Jake told me about his alcoholism. He said it had cost him a family. At that point he had been sober for a number of years. Our family was in the midst of doing an intervention with my cousin Jacqueline, so I did not minimize the travail of which Jake spoke or the damage that his alcoholism might do to others.

When it was my turn to seek assistance, Jake was most helpful. The board of Liberty Restoration Inc. was pursuing acquisition of the Liberty Theatre, owned by a Los Angeles lawyer and accountant named Edward Eng. It was clear that Mr. Eng did not like our group, and I told that story to Jake.

“Well, maybe I’ll buy the theater and sell it to the nonprofit,” Jake responded. The story of how he accomplished that is the stuff of fiction. He realized that dealing with Eng demanded a measure of tough talk and profanity. “When he swore at me, I swore right back,” Jake said. And most remarkably, Jake started sending checks to Eng — to demonstrate his seriousness of intent and liquidity.

Taking the Liberty Theatre away from a neglectful absentee owner and into local ownership was, in many ways, the start of the rebirth of Astoria’s downtown.

The remarkable thing about the Cannery Pier Hotel is that Jake built it without any affiliation to one of the hotel chain marketing groups. And in the parlance of historic restoration, the Cannery Pier was an unconventional but massive amount of repurposing. Jake took a former cannery site and reconstituted it as a hotel with the cannery look. It was genius.

As we began to restore the Liberty Theatre, Jake’s alcoholism reared its head. Following a board meeting in the theater, a few directors left via the 12th Street doorway. And standing there was Jake, quite drunk. In hindsight, that startling moment probably marked the beginning of Jake’s eventual decline.

On Monday morning, former Astoria City Manager Paul Benoit expressed his surprise at learning of Jake’s death. Benoit wrote to me of Jake’s “crazy genius and how he kept productive despite his demons.” That captures the essence of the human package that was Robert Jacob.

Steve Forrester, the former editor and publisher of The Daily Astorian, is the president and CEO of EO Media Group.


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