Historical building documents rescued from city hall basementThe basement at Astoria City Hall looks just like the one at your grandparents' house. At the end of a steep staircase, there's a big, dimly-lit room with cement floors and a musty smell. Pipes hang from a low ceiling, and "stuff" is stored everywhere.

The basement at City Hall is bigger and there's an old bank vault in its dank interior, but otherwise it's just the same. It's probably not where you'd want to store important historical documents.

But that's exactly where several hundred irreplaceable original construction blueprints for many of Astoria's historical buildings were kept - until this year.

Now, nearly 600 of those drawings have been professionally scanned and placed on DVDs that the public can view at the Astoria Public Library, the Clatsop County Historical Society's Heritage Museum and Astoria City Hall. People can make 8-by-10-inch paper printouts of particular plans at the library for 10 cents a page.

The original blueprints have been organized, sorted and catalogued. They are stored in two new five-drawer cabinets, designed to accommodate large flat files. The cabinets are on the second floor of the Heritage Museum, which offered to house them free of charge.

The drawings range from the original Astoria City Hall, which is now the Heritage Museum, to individual houses located near downtown. The majority are of commercial buildings, and most are still standing, said Todd Scott, Astoria's community development director.

"We've literally pulled them out of the basement for the world to see," Scott said.

He said the drawings are a great resource, not only for architectural historians and researchers, but also for city officials, property owners and developers.

As part of the project, the city had each set of drawings copied. Those copies are kept at City Hall, and are available for use by owners of historical properties. Several have already been put to use.

Norman Stutznegger, for example, has been using architectural drawings to guide his restoration of the old Fisher Bros. building at 1210 Marine Drive, now Pacific Coast Medical Supply. Built in the early 1900s, the building was designed by renowned Astoria architect John Wicks. Dolores Richards of KD Properties recently borrowed a copy of blueprints for the old Walters Apartments building at 10th and Exchange streets. She plans to upgrade the building's windows. Eric Moore, who is restoring the Uniontown Steambaths, also borrowed drawings.

Of course, not all buildings are part of the collection. Owners can check the data base at the library or the Heritage Museum, to see if their building is included. The database has 11 categories, including the historical building's name, architect, address, date, whether it was ever built, whether it still exists and its DVD reference number.

The document preservation project was made possible by a $4,500 grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission. City staff and volunteers from the Lower Columbia Preservation Society and the museum provided a 50 percent in-kind match for the grant. About $1,000 went to pay consultants.

"This was a great opportunity for these organizations to work together on a project that preserves Astoria's heritage," Scott said.

The Columbia River Maritime Museum also helped out by allowing volunteers to use the floor of the gymnasium at the old armory, which it owns and uses for storage, to lay out the architectural drawings, some as big as 32-by-40-inches. Scott said everyone was surprised that most of the drawings were in pretty good shape, although a few were badly faded and some were ripped and torn.

Consultants Beth La Fleur and John Goodenberger sorted and evaluated the construction drawings. Many of the drawings were of fuel tanks which used to line Marine Drive, Goodenberger said. After La Fleur left for a job in Florida, Goodenberger, an expert on historical architecture, continued the lengthy evaluation process, which took several months.

Goodenberger said he ranked the drawings using several criteria, including age (at least 50 years old); buildings that were being renovated or soon would be; buildings that didn't have other resources (such as industrial buildings, which are not often photographed); and unique examples, such as gas stations and hotels.

When Goodenberger was finished, David Pollard, of the Preservation Society, helped him gather the selected drawings and take them to a company in Vancouver, Wash., which scanned them onto DVDs, and made a paper copy of each one.

Goodenberger said the old drawings are resources that were virtually hidden, but are now easily accessible. Scholars can see how buildings were put together in the past, he said, and property owners will know what their buildings looked like originally and won't have to guess at how to restore them.

Now that the drawings are organized, recorded and stored in a safe place, Goodenberger is breathing a sigh of relief.

"The basement (at City Hall) was warm and moist ... the drawings were stored under water pipes," he said. "Now people can look at DVDs and not risk harming the drawings."