I’ve been thinking recently of skyscrapers and of Baker City.
A peculiar combination, perhaps, but one that’s not so farfetched as it might at first glance seem to be.
Baker City does not, it’s true, harbor any buildings that would conform to even a generous modern description of skyscraper.
But our city does boast an actual skyline — and one, I would argue, that’s quite a lot more imposing than our modest population of just below 10,000 would suggest.
The two most notable structures in this regard, in my view, are the Hotel Baker (current name: Baker Tower) at Main and Auburn, and St. Francis de Sales Cathedral at First and Church.
The Cathedral, finished in 1908, features twin spires that top out at about 104 feet and are visible from almost any place in town.
The 1929 Hotel Baker, by contrast, is more stolid than soaring in an architectural sense — fitting, perhaps, considering its function is not so spiritual as the Cathedral’s.
But the 10-story hotel has long claimed the title of tallest occupied building east of the Cascades in Oregon.
Had the Baker Hotel been built a few decades earlier it might well have earned the title of skyscraper — at least temporarily. The term, which originated in the 19th century, was in the early days sometimes used to describe a building as modest in stature as 10 stories.
But no building of such pedestrian height could qualify as a skyscraper once engineers perfected the steel frame system that made vastly taller structures feasible and led to such cloud-piercing edifices as the Empire State Building in Manhattan and the Sears (now Willis) Tower in Chicago.
(The previous, comparatively crude construction method relied on masonry walls that were load-bearing, which meant that the taller the building rose the thicker its walls had to be.)
My interest in skyscrapers is purely aesthetic, as I have no aptitude for architecture (the math alone would leave me floundering on the first day in class; also, I struggle to draw stick figures).
I recently bought a used book, simply and aptly titled “The Skyscraper,” by Paul Goldberger. This richly photographed volume elevated my appreciation, so to speak, for this category of building.
But while reading about such icons as the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, it struck me that Baker City has structures that are puny by purely numerical measures but which, in the context of their surroundings, are also quite grand.
Manhattan’s skyscrapers, after all, share space with a couple hundred other buildings taller than 30 stories.
But in Baker City, where buildings taller than three stories are rare, the Cathedral and Hotel Baker, as well as Baker City Hall and the Baker County Courthouse, have an eminence they would lack amid more grandiose surroundings.
I take frequent strolls about town, and as its compact dimensions dictate I walk often along the same section of sidewalk or street.
But I’ve noticed through the years that repetition doesn’t greatly diminish the visual impact of our taller buildings. Such transient factors as the angle of the sunlight, or the presence of a ground fog, can impart a freshness to familiar structures and emphasize their substance.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Hotel Baker or St. Francis Cathedral can invoke anything like the level of awe that the Empire State Building can — although I’ve never been to Manhattan so I suppose I’m relying here on the impressions of others.
But I still feel a little thrill in those moments when my eye is delighted yet again by the Cathedral’s towers or the Hotel Baker’s gray flanks.
The story of any significant building of course must include as a major chapter something about the person who first sketched its dimensions. And in this respect Baker City’s skyline also commands a certain respect.
St. Francis Cathedral, for instance, was designed by John Virginius Bennes, an eminent Oregon architect who moved to Baker City around 1900, when he was 33, and lived here for several years before relocating to Portland. Bennes designed several homes that still stand in Baker City, including the Bodinson House at 2520 First St. and the C.A. Johns House (currently Gray’s West & Co. Pioneer Chapel) at 1500 Dewey Ave.
Bennes designed several prominent hotels in Portland, including the Cornelius and Broadway, as well as the Hollywood Theatre. He also designed Inlow Hall at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande and the Hot Lake Hotel near La Grande.
It seems to me appropriate that Baker City would have attracted, however briefly, the attention of such a talented architect as Bennes.
That he didn’t design any skyscrapers here in no way detracts from the effect of the Cathedral’s spires, standing starkly against the Eastern Oregon sky just at twilight of a winter’s day.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.