Astoria, known as the oldest settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, is rife with historic buildings dating from the 19th and early 20th century.
Just as the city draws tourists, Clatsop Community College’s unique historic preservation and restoration program draws students from around the U.S. wanting to learn how to restore those old buildings.
Over the weekend, students restored nine sash windows on the attic and turret of the 131-year-old Capt. George Flavel House Museum, a Queen Anne mansion completed in 1885 for river pilot Flavel and his family. Teaching the workshop was Chris Gustafson, a professional window restorer and graduate of the program several years ago.
Standing on the spiral staircase Saturday watching his former graduate teach students was Lucien Swerdloff, the only full-time instructor for the historic preservation program.
“We’re the only hands-on program in the West Coast,” Swerdloff said, noting the more theoretical, classroom-based master’s degree program at the University of Oregon. “There’s a handful of those who do hands-on work. They’re mostly on the East Coast.”
Swerdloff said the program, which has 15 or so full-time students and several more part-time, relies largely on part-time instructors with specialties, such as Gustafson with windows, to teach the wide variety of courses and workshops. The historic preservation program has hands-on workshops with various local public organizations needing their old buildings restored or maintained, from the museums of the historical society to the mausoleum in the city of Astoria’s Oceanview Cemetery in Warrenton, where students will help restore stained-glass windows.
For Gustafson, one of historic preservation’s first graduates, teaching workshops and taking on interns is a way of paying the college back.
“I love it,” he said. “I love meeting the students with their stories, and sharing my passion with them.”
Also helping students at Saturday’s workshop was Matthew Powers, another of Swerdloff’s graduates. Four years ago, Powers helped restore a dilapidated former train depot owned by the Columbia River Maritime Museum into the Barbey Maritime Center. He also did workshops for the Clatsop County Historical Society, which owns the Flavel Museum and has recently hired him as facilities manager.
“It’s all preventative maintenance,” Powers said of the students’ workshops, which help him care for the historical society’s holdings at the Carriage House and Clatsop County Heritage Center, all buildings where the preservation program has done workshops.
Elizabeth Bauer, originally from Idaho, earned a degree in elementary education from Eastern Washington University, but found teaching wasn’t for her. While living in Eureka, California, she looked into a historic restoration program at the College of the Redwoods. But the program was shuttered before she could join, and Bauer headed for Astoria.
“I’m headed toward restoration of windows, and wood restoration,” said Bauer, who spent a week interning for Gustafson, repairing windows in the Cottage Grove Armory.
Like Gustafson, Bauer would like to own her own business, moving to San Jose, California, where she said historic restoration is taking off.
Bauer’s story — someone changing direction in life after finding an interest in old buildings, wanting to make a more hands-on living — is similar to that of many other students in the historic preservation program. Jay Dickason, originally from Massachusetts, earned a degree in structural engineering from the University of California-Berkley in the Bay Area, but said old construction appealed to him more than new.
“You don’t find stuff being built like this anymore,” Dickason said, pointing out the intricate, unique, old-growth woodwork in the Flavel Museum.
Historic preservation serves a decidedly older student population, but Swerdloff said he has multiple teenagers in his class. But then there is Don Haslan, 55, who thinks of his entrance to the historic preservation program as sort of a mid-life challenge.
“I graduated in 1979,” he said. “That’s the last time I was ever in an academic setting. I was in the construction trade as a plasterer, mostly up in Seattle, King County,” Washington.
On a trip to Astoria, Haslan found himself in the office of the Astoria Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, where someone put him in touch with Swerdloff.
Like Dickason and other students, Haslan said he hopes to find his niche through the practical workshops unique to the college’s program, while he enjoys all the memories embedded in the historic architecture.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Haslan said. “Pictures can’t do it.”