Two decades of turning back the clock

April 18, 2002 12:00 am
During a period of modernization, many Baker City building facades were covered up. Today, 20 years after Historic Baker City was formed and almost 25 years after the establishment of the original historic district, 75 of the buildings in the district have been preserved and restored. (Photo courtesy of Historic Baker City).
During a period of modernization, many Baker City building facades were covered up. Today, 20 years after Historic Baker City was formed and almost 25 years after the establishment of the original historic district, 75 of the buildings in the district have been preserved and restored. (Photo courtesy of Historic Baker City).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Historic Baker City wasn't quite so historic looking when John Bertram first got involved in helping the downtown business community retain its former splendor 20 years ago.

"You've been very successful maintaining that special character, and you are very authentic," said Bertram, the principal at Planmakers, the planning and urban design firm that drew up the original plan for recovering the downtown's historic feel and followed that up with a second plan last year. "Baker City had a terrific heritage due to its gold mining, and people were proud to put their name on their buildings.

"But beginning after World War II, especially in the 1960s and 70s, downtowns wanted to look modern, so they boxed up all their great facades."

Bertram said that it wasn't until downtown merchants like Betty Kuhl, former owner of Betty's Books, began to, at their own expense, remove the boxes of modernization from their building facades to reveal the simple, elegant — and tourist-attracting — ambiance of the town's turn-of-the-century charm, that downtown merchants realized that banking on the past could provide for a profitable future.

It's high time, HBC president Beverly Calder said, to recognize that kind of pioneer spirit, as well as to give the community a peek at what's ahead. So HBC has scheduled its first-ever Celebrate Your Downtown and Honor Awards Ceremony at 7 p.m. Thursday in the ballroom at the Baker Tower.

The public is invited to the free event, which will feature an art show called "Historic Paintings of Baker City," by members of the Baker High School advanced art class. When they're not on display for the event, the paintings hang at Bella, 1828 Main Street, where they are being sold during the month of April at silent auction.

Set to perform Thursday is BHS student Heather Brady, who will debut her newest composition for piano as guests arrive.

Bertram will speak during Thursday's event, as will HBC's first paid program manager, Timothy Bishop, who's now executive director of the Downtown Walla Walla Foundation.

Bishop's tenure at HBC was from 1993 through 1995. He said he will talk about what he learned in his years on the job, lessons that helped him shepherd Walla Walla into being named a National Main Street Award Winner.

"It's been exciting to live close enough to see the continued progress of Baker City's downtown," he said. "My in-laws still live there, and it's been fun to see HBC come to fruition."

Bertram said he plans to include during his talk the "streetscape" aspect of developing the downtown area. That focuses on amenities that have helped increase foot traffic: sidewalks, trees, benches, bike racks, plaques and historic signs.

"That aspect is now so much richer" downtown, he said. "It makes the streets more comfortable to move about."

But the work is not nearly done, he said.

"Downtowns need continued management, and we need to keep going," he said. On Thursday, he plans to go over his updated 2001 plan and answer questions.

During Thursday's event, Calder said, people who have contributed significantly toward redeveloping the downtown area will be recognized.

"It'll be both a celebration and a reminder of all the things we've accomplished over the past 20 years," she said. "I think sometimes we focus too much on all that's left to be done. We need to step back a moment and look at the 75 buildings that we've done already.

"We've honored volunteers in the past, but we want to take it up a notch."

Calder said that following January's resignation of HBC program manager Diane Adams, the board of directors is taking a much more active role in the group's day-to-day operation.

"The (program manager) job's scope is just too large, and it's just too difficult for one person," she said.

A committee has been appointed to study whether the job might be better performed by up to three part-time employees.

"The board really supports this opportunity to become stronger and more active," she said. "I think we now have a better understanding of what needs to be done."