Looking west from inside the Eugene public Library

Eugene Design: The Good and the Awful

Eugene Weekly's staff picks our favorite and not-so-favorite examples of the city's built landscape

The Eugene Public Library

High vaulted ceilings, natural light streaming through subtle stained glass, and an awe-inspiring rotunda capped with a skylight mark the remarkable building that houses Eugene’s public library.

“It just feels welcoming,” says Margaret Alexander, librarian manager and facilities manager. “People come in and there’s a little bit of a sense of wonder. They see the gracious rotunda space. You walk into the round area under the stairs.” That space is even used as a venue for singing events due to its wonderful acoustics, she adds.

The 127,000 square foot building is an award-winning feat of architecture — it won first place in the American Institute of Architects of Southwest Oregon’s public architecture awards in 2003, the year construction was finished. Red brick with blue metal and glass defines the exterior, which features a barrel vaulted roof reminiscent of farm buildings and an elegant central glass tower.

Randy Nishimura, one of the Eugene architects who designed the building, says the unique barrel vaulted roof that defines the exterior of the building “might allude to old mills at one time or prominent structures in the region.”

Nishimura says his firm — Robertson Sherwood Architects — wanted the library to be “a landmark that would last a hundred years or more and that would be on the historic registry someday, so we wanted an exterior material that would age gracefully.”

They chose brick for the exterior to give it the “scale and the texture and gravity of a building that would feel timeless and like it would be around for a long time even when it was new,” he says.

Alexander says the brick makes the building feel welcoming and grounded. “We wanted it to be a big beautiful anchor building, and we wanted to build it for the future.” The library was built relatively green for its time, as well. “I think it was the city’s first attempt to go for LEED certification,” she says.

The location was similarly intentional: The proximity of the LTD station makes the library very accessible to the public, and it gets 3,000 or so visitors each day, according to Alexander. “We’re a visitor’s destination at this point — how often can a library say that in a small town like this?”

And the building really is a wonder. The space is filled with natural light from the tremendous, two-story-high windows. The stairs spiral upwards through the building, capped with a beautiful skylight. The second floor’s reading rooms at the wings both have vaulted ceilings with elegant, curved wooden slats leading the eye to the bright windows. “It’s a gracious institution for this town,” Alexander says.

And the library has room to expand. The fourth floor is currently occupied by city offices, but Alexander says they will expand into that space when it’s unoccupied and when they have the resources. “It’s a very well-used and well-loved library,” she says. “There are many towns that do not regard their libraries as highly, and we are very fortunate.” — Kelly Kenoyer

 

The Wayne Morse United States Courthouse

It’s still hard to believe, even more than a decade after it opened, that Eugene has a courthouse designed by Thom Mayne.

Now 74, Mayne is the brilliant starchitect — winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2005, which puts him in the same league as Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei — whose turbulent personality helped him avoid actual commissions, as opposed to winning design awards, until he was well into his 50s.

That was about when the General Services Administration chose him to design a new courthouse in Eugene.

The sweeping organic forms of the Wayne Morse United States Courthouse, which opened in 2006 at 8th Avenue and Mill Street, are so wonderfully out of place in Eugene’s otherwise dowdy downtown that the building looks like a hallucination. Its metallic skin is at its best on the cloudy days that are a Northwest specialty, reflecting and distorting the soft light until the whole structure appears to glow from within.

Mayne’s selection came as a surprise to U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, an evangelical Christian spearheading the project whose vision for the courthouse included classical columns. Despite early clashes, the two men grew to be friends.

Eugene was lucky to get Mayne when we did. His credits now include the San Francisco Federal Building, Bill and Melinda Gates Hall at Cornell University and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. Mayne was also the designer chosen for the Tour Phare, or Beacon Tower, which was to have been — the project was canceled before construction — the tallest skyscraper in Paris. — Bob Keefer

 

Student Housing Eyesores

Years ago, city of Eugene implemented a tax break in an effort to create more affordable housing in the city — the Multi-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) was put in place in 1978. It gave multi-unit housing projects in the center of Eugene a tax exemption — a solid effort to address an affordable housing crisis in our town.

But instead of affordable housing units, we got ugly and unaffordable student housing.

Projects like Capstone’s 13th & Olive, and The 515 (formerly Hub Eugene) created massive, cheaply produced eyesores instead of affordable housing. What’s more, these complexes have very expensive rent and charge per person instead of per lease — The 515 charges $1099 for a studio apartment “per installment/per person,” according to its website. 13th & Olive charges $1590 to $1690 for a two bedroom apartment — far higher than the average cost of such an apartment in Eugene.

And these exorbitant costs don’t even begin to address the effect that 13th & Olive has had on downtown. When Capstone sought the MUPTE tax break, it agreed to create a mixed-use building and create sidewalks that matched the rest of the city.

Anyone who walks past the building knows that the sidewalks are made of strange rubber squares that are stapled to the ground. They can be easily lifted and removed and, indeed, some of them have gone missing. The lowest floor is made up of apartments — not offices or businesses that could revitalize downtown, but the bedrooms of hapless college students who will never get true privacy.

This blight of a building radiates heat in summer, creating an inhospitable environment for pedestrians. It’s often best to go around the building to avoid the heat rays.

The 515 has also created a bit of a traffic problem because of its position on the north side of busy Broadway. Instead of a pedestrian bridge, there’s now a crosswalk across the five lanes of traffic. The metallic building appears to have astroturf rectangles stapled to the side of it.

Thankfully, the Eugene City Council revised MUPTE in 2015, excluding student housing from the program. The ugliness of Eugene’s student housing, however, is here to stay. — Kelly Kenoyer

 

The dispensary that is a historical landmark

Eugene is notorious for tearing down beautiful and historic buildings, but some are saved from that fate by extremely modern industries. The quintessential example of that is the beautiful Queen Anne style house at 588 E. 11th Avenue: The Calkins house.

Built in 1902 for a prominent banker and lawyer in Eugene, Windsor W. Calkins, the home features beautiful stained glass, high ceilings, a corner tower and, nowadays, electronica music and sativa strains.

Cannabliss & Co.’s dispensary, The Sorority House, now leases the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The manager of the dispensary, Ryan Wilson, says folks often ask about the architecture of the building. “A lot of our vendors love it,” he says. “It should be all original wallpapers and stained/colored glass.”

The waiting room of the dispensary houses features high ceilings, wooden columns and vintage border wallpaper. Adjacent, budtenders sell their wares out of glass jars next to an original tile fireplace with neat detailed carvings of babies and devils. Here the wallpaper has been replaced by a modernist motif of mountains and a starry sky, but much of the rest of the building sports original wallpaper, light fixtures and windows. “The owners take a lot of pride in it,” Wilson says.

The house is divided between servants’ passages and the rest of the home, with a back entrance leading to small side rooms, a narrow staircase and an upstairs kitchen — all with significantly less splendor than the front rooms meant for the original upper-class family.

Driving by on 11th Avenue, one can’t help but adore the two-and-a-half story building’s beautiful wrap-around veranda and nuanced sense of symmetry around its classic tower. — Kelly Kenoyer

 

Interstate 5 Bridge: A Lost Opportunity

One of the biggest construction projects in Eugene history may have been the rebuilding of the bridge that takes Interstate 5 across the Willamette River in Eugene.

The old bridge, a rather ordinary affair as bridges go with no superstructure and no particular style, was worn out. So the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) was tasked with replacing what amounts to a major gateway to the city for people arriving from the south.

That offered an amazing opportunity for a community statement about who were are, this town that once called itself the “World’s Greatest City for the Arts and Outdoors.”

Sadly, $204 million later, we have a bridge with no superstructure and no particular style. In fact, so devoid of personality is the new bridge that many people on the freeway never even realize they’re crossing a substantial river. The bridge is actually sleek and graceful from below, but that remains invisible to the majority of people who use it.

This failure of design and imagination continues northward on I-5 to the elaborate Beltline fly-over, another major ODOT construction project that offers dull and dutiful function in place of beauty or style. The main flyover ramp, which should, as its name implies, soar gracefully into the sky, looks like it was assembled, like a model railroad, from prefab sections.

Yes, ODOT is the highway department, not the art department. The irony, of course, is that it was an ODOT engineer, Conde McCullough, who in the 1920s and ’30s created the series of beautiful old steel bridges that connect Highway 101 along the Oregon Coast. — Bob Keefer