A group of community boosters known as the “Fort Astoria Defenders” hatched a plan in 1948 “to raise the memory of Fort Astoria from a patch of brambles at Fifteenth and Exchange” streets, according to a newspaper article at the time. The plan resulted in a beaverboard sign at the small park, with one side recounting the history of the fort, and the other detailing its layout.
The Historic Landmarks Commission on Tuesday approved of replacing the deteriorating wooden sign with high-density plastic, to the chagrin of local preservationists who argued the city should take care of its monuments.
Jonah Dart-McClean, the city’s parks maintenance supervisor, said the sign is in pretty poor condition from being in the elements, with rot, chipping paint and support posts that don’t appear to be solid from soundings. It’s uncertain how long the posts will keep holding up the sign, he said.
Rachel Jensen, the executive director of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society, submitted a letter calling on the commission to preserve and repair the existing sign and log supports, replacing them with like-minded materials when necessary. Preserving the existing sign shows respect to the community effort 71 years ago to mark Fort Astoria, she said Tuesday.
Commissioner Katie Rathmell, a historic window restorer, echoed the preservation society’s concerns.
“The neglect of our artifacts allows us to at some point say, ‘Well, there’s no saving it,’” she said. “It’s kind of used as an excuse to allow things to continue to deteriorate without working as a community to save these things.”
She questioned whether the city had even investigated replacing the sign with like-minded materials.
The city did not, but consulted with Lewis and Clark National Historical Park before concluding a plastic sign would be easier to maintain and not significantly change the character of the site, Dart-McClean said.
Commissioners understood the push for plastic as easier to maintain for a cash-strapped parks department, but also the provenance of wood, and wanted to see more investigation of the sign and posts’ condition.
Commission President McAndrew Burns questioned whether the sign was even the original from 1948, having heard it was replaced at some point, and said he was OK with the National Park Service’s recommendation of a plastic sign.
The commission ultimately approved the plastic sign with new treated wooden posts 5-1, with Rathmell in opposition and Commissioner Paul Caruana not in attendance. They included a condition to have the National Park Service perform an archaeological study of the site and pushed for the original sign to be preserved.
The condition of the sign came to the forefront after concerns were raised about its dated language, which was not an issue in the Historic Landmarks Commission’s decision. Replacing the sign gives him the opportunity to solve multiple issues at once, Dart-McClean said. He worked with John Goodenberger, a historic buildings consultant, on the updated verbiage.
Goodenberger said issues came up over references to Jane Barnes, which the sign proclaims as “the Oregon country’s first white woman.” His recommended sign language deleted the reference and also corrected the placement of quotation marks. He kept language like “desiring to dominate the areas explored” and “seize the mouth of the Columbia,” despite some concerns.
“My feeling is that things like Manifest Destiny should not be cleaned up,” Goodenberger said. “That was a part of our history. We did come to dominate.”