Uniontown is the largest historic Finnish community in the Western United States. The Historic District encompasses the homes of fisherman and cannery workers who were an integral part of Astoria's industrial development. Its distinctive architectural character, which includes houses, commercial structures and waterfront buildings, is reflective of a working class community.
The story of Uniontown is an important chapter in the history of Astoria's preservation movement.
In 1905, the Morning Astorian said Uniontown was "composed of Finns who are frugal industrious people, home builders, and with progressive tendencies. ..." Several years later, a college student wrote a description of the neighborhood, "The homes are small and unpretentious, for they are mostly owned by these fishing people, but they are very neat. Here and there scattered among the trees they stand shining white in appearance."
In 1987, Uniontown was designated a Historic District. Both the Uniontown Association and the Alameda Neighborhood Association were active in its nomination. Neighborhood pride was high. The simple, yet beautiful buildings of Uniontown were recognized as having significance. As a collection, the buildings of Uniontown were said to have strength, evoking something beyond themselves. Something extraordinary.
It seems remarkable at first that vernacular buildings could be worthy of National Register listing. This was the first time in Astoria's history that lower-style buildings were collectively acknowledged. It was no longer good enough to preserve only the grand homes of captains or business leaders. There was recognition that most Astorians did not live in ornate houses. So, if Astoria was serious about preserving the character and history of the city, preserving examples of all classes, not just the upper class, became critical.
The designation of these buildings was based on architectural significance, integrity, contribution to setting and sociological significance. The Portway Tavern was one such building. It was constructed in 1923 for Victor Jarvinen who lived with his family on the second floor. Victor operated a blacksmith shop from the rear of the building. In 1925, the Jarvinens opened the Portway Cafe on the first floor. The cafe did not serve alcohol because the Finns of Uniontown voted it a dry ward in 1904.
Although Victor died in 1931, the family continued to own the building. By 1934, the cafe was changed to the Blue Peter Restaurant. Two years later, it became the Portway Beer Parlor and remained with the Jarvinen family until 1984.
The significance of this building is based on long-time family owned business that adapted over time to social and cultural needs of Uniontown. Rarity of type comes into play too. You don't need all your fingers to count the number of historic wooden commercial buildings remaining in Astoria.
The building's style, viewed in context, is critical. You won't find a picture resembling this building in an architectural field guide. It is vernacular. It borrowed brackets for its cornice from the long-gone or out-of-style Italianate.
It had three-part windows on the second story which were Craftsman in origin. Other character defining elements included broad window casings, clapboard siding, corner boards and crown moldings. Its box-like form was broken by a recessed entry, diagonal to the front corner. Large windows with transoms accentuated the commercial space.
All the elements, when considered as a whole and viewed within the streetscape, help define Uniontown for what it was and what it can continue to be.
Owning a historic building within a Historic District offers many challenges. However, there are financial incentives to assist property owners. In exchange for historic designation, property owners may apply for special assessment: a 15-year freeze of the assessed value of a building in exchange for maintenance or restoration. A second incentive exists for income-producing buildings: a 20-percent federal tax credit for restoration and renovation.
These incentives have been available to 132 historic properties in Uniontown for 15 years, yet only seven have taken advantage of them. The incentives can make the difference between a quickly thought-out solution and one which will serve the buildings well for generations.
When property owners make exterior alterations to their building, those plans are reviewed by the Historic Landmarks Commission. Like the Planning Commission, the HLC makes land-use decisions and is considered quasi-judicial. The HLC bases its decisions on criteria established by the Department of Interior in 1966, recognized as meeting Oregon state-mandated goals in 1974 and adopted by city code in 1979.
The criteria attempts to insure that replacement of parts is kept to a minimum and character defining details remain intact. When a property owner proposes an alteration, they need to ask themselves two questions. First, does it work with the architectural character of the building? Second, does it retain the historic character of the neighborhood? This requires the person to look beyond their front door to the larger community.
Anyone who has ever remodeled, restored or constructed new, understands that architecture can be complex. The design process by its very nature is difficult, non-linear in its resolution and often frustrating. Sometimes that frustration is misplaced on the historic ordinance, but it's just the way architectural design resolves itself.
It's understandable when newcomers are confused by the rules. In some cases they come from cities where there is no historic ordinance. In other cases they come from cities where the rules are more stringent. City of Astoria staff, however, have always been available to assist people in need.
To some, the historic ordinance seems like a good way to freeze Astoria in time. Or, strangle any growth, change or new business from ever coming here. Yet, property owners have successfully navigated its nuances with minor turbulence for nearly a quarter century.
According to city records, the HLC has reviewed 188 applications since 1988; only 12 decisions have been appealed to the City Council. Furthermore, preservation continues to add millions of dollars to our local economy through materials and labor - not to mention its attraction to new business and tourists.
Preservation of Astoria's historic architecture will always have contention: that is a part of the public process. But as we make decisions regarding our city, it is necessary to return to the reasons which make our area significant: nationally important history, a unique social culture, rarity and density of historic building stock, unusual architectural examples and a landscape as beautiful and dynamic as anywhere.
The decisions we make, small as they may seem at the time, build upon each other. We have a choice: strengthen and reinforce what makes Astoria unique and significant, or chip away at what we have until no one will recognize the place we all call home.
John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria.