It takes a village to save the ‘grandfather of Gearhart’

Officially, the Gearhart Planning Commission was trying to decide whether Shannon Smith, owner of a 122-year-old barn on Pacific Way, should receive another conditional-use permit to conduct events in that building.

But what was really going on in that four-hour discussion last Thursday was an attempt to save a remnant of Gearhart’s past by molding it into something usable for the future.

Is that the only way we can maintain our history?

Smith received a conditional-use permit last year for the barn, which served as Gearhart’s livery stable in the last decade of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s. But the repairs required to bring it up to today’s building codes nearly proved too much for her, and she didn’t accomplish the task before the yearlong deadline. (There were other complications, too, including a lack of communication between Smith and city officials, but that’s in the past, now.)

So Smith was in front of the planning commission again, a much wiser woman than she was when she first bought the barn in 2007.

Ever since she was a child, playing in Neocoxie Creek, she had been intrigued with the barn, she said. She used to sneak a peek into it to see what animals might be in the stalls.

When it appeared that the previous owner might tear down the barn five years ago, Smith bought the property, which also included a house.

She bought it out of love, but she also knew that she would have to make an income from it to pay its maintenance. It was a perfect place, Smith thought, for bringing people together – to celebrate weddings, attend lectures, prepare picnics, conduct birthday bashes or reunite families.

It took a year for her to clean it out and scrub it until the wood shined. Then, came another year of turmoil of trying to meet city building codes, finding an architect who knew about preserving historic buildings and creating a business that could support the cost of maintaining a century-old barn.

“I consider myself a steward of the property,” Smith told the planning commission.

She’s looked into listing the barn – possibly the only existing livery stable in Oregon and potentially the only one west of the Mississippi – on the national Register of Historic Places. But it’s a project that costs time and money, and, as she said at a meeting last fall, “I decided to pay my mortgage first.”

Should it take this much blood, sweat and tears to preserve a part of the past?

Both the planning commission and the City Council have been firm but compassionate with Smith. She has a list of 12 conditions she must follow – obtaining an occupancy certificate prior to holding any more events in the building is the No. 1 priority.

It’s a matter of bending over backwards to follow essential rules and preserve a well-aged, well-loved part of old Gearhart.

“We’re facing the same thing that many other towns have faced for 150 years,” said Planning Commissioner Sarah Nebeker. “Either we tear down something that’s old, or we make exceptions so it can stay.”

The discussion between commissioners, Smith and local residents who both supported the events center and opposed it because of the noise and traffic congestion it generated went on for four hours. The meeting was nearly a repeat of a previous session the planning commission had had a couple of weeks earlier.

But it took local resident Bill Berg, who probably knows more about and appreciates Gearhart’s history than anyone in the city, to put the barn back into the center of attention, where it belonged.

Before there could even be a Gearhart, there had to be a livery stable, Berg said. The town’s founders needed a place to house the animals they would hitch to wagons to carry supplies.

“The livery stable was the ancestor of the town,” Berg said. “It gave birth to the town. You can’t put it in some kind of land-use zone.”

It used to be that, once the town was built, the livery stable would be torn down – that’s why there are few, if any, remaining.

“We’re unique in having that building,” said Berg, who added that he’d like it to become a museum someday. “People would come from miles around to see it. They might ask, ‘How did it come about? What is this barn doing in the middle of town?’”

But the townspeople kept their livery stable, which served as the stable for the first Hotel Gearhart in the early 1900s.

But the stable – like the town surrounding it – underwent changes over the years.

It was the site of the Clatsop County Fair, Berg said. Then it was a movie theater, where residents and visitors laughed at Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films.

Beginning in 1916, the 2,940-square-foot barn became a riding academy. During World War II, the stable housed the “pony patrol,” a group of well-trained riders who patrolled the beach on the watch for potential attackers.

In the 1960s, the barn, which could house 40 horses, became a storage facility. Previous proposals for its use included an antique store, a pottery/yoga center, restaurant or – if it was torn down – a building site for three homes. None of those uses materialized.

“You have to think in terms of ‘grandfathering,’ Berg told the planning commission. “The stable is the ‘grandfather of Gearhart.’ See what you can do to bend the rules and think creatively.”

Berg shifted back to his dream of the barn one day becoming a museum that would house the detritus of Gearhart’s past.

“I’d like to see it stuffed with artifacts from Gearhart and even a few animals,” he said.

The commission gave Smith a second chance by approving a conditional-use permit – if she follows all of the conditions.

Maybe it’s a second or third or seventh chance for the old barn to shine again. But it’s an opportunity for Gearhart residents and others in South County rushing headlong into the future to pause and think about what they need to save of their past.

What’s here that is worthy of some scrubbing and saving? What are we missing or will we miss in the next few years if we don’t preserve it now?

Is it that difficult to see what might be right in front of us?

Nancy McCarthy is the South County reporter for The Daily Astorian. Her column appears every other week.

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