Angular details key to proving Poultry Building, Incubator House's historic value
A fan of the PBS show "History Detectives," David Livingston recently saw his own sleuthing yield dividends, as two buildings he salvaged and restored were added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The pivotal clues in his investigation? An old document from the 1920s and a classical architectural detail called a gutta, a tassel-shaped ornament.
Livingston, business manager at Endex Engineering Inc., and Gary Feuerstein, Endex senior engineer, acquired Oregon State University's old Poultry Building and Incubator House in 1997 and 2004, respectively, rescuing them from demolition and converting them into suite-style apartments on Southwest Washington Avenue and Eighth Street.
Convinced of the buildings' historical significance, Livingston spent years poring over library archives and consulting with regional architects, and he discovered that the two structures he and Feuerstein purchased from OSU for a grand total of $11 were designed by John Virginius Bennes, a prolific regional architect around the turn of the century.
A lesson in history
Between 1907 and 1942, Bennes designed at least 35 buildings for OSU, and at least 12 other building additions and renovations, according to Larry Landis, OSU archivist.
One of his first projects was the Incubator House, designed in 1907. At the time, OSU was known as Oregon Agricultural College, and William Jasper Kerr was president.
The small building was basically a garage, but it was "the finest little garage in town," according to Livingston.
"Bennes tricked this thing out with all kinds of craftsman details," he said.
Kerr recruited James Dryden, a leading poultry expert, to head OAC's department of poultry husbandry.
The Incubator House was great for hatching chicks and conducting research, but Dryden needed a classroom space.
OAC's budget didn't have room for construction of a new facility, so college leaders decided to take the old horticulture and photography building near Northwest Monroe Avenue and 16th Street and convert it into the Poultry Building.
In 1913, OAC moved the building, which had been in storage for several years, putting it next to the Incubator House on Southwest 26th Street and Jefferson Avenue.
Bennes came up with a plan to remodel the 1893 Victorian Italianate building. His design combined craftsman, prairie-style and classical elements, creating a more horizontal look that matched the Incubator House.
But because most master architects don't do remodeling projects, in time people forgot who came up with the design reflected today.
Complicating the historical sleuthing was the fact that the buildings have been moved many times over the decades.
In 1927, the college built Dryden Hall, a new poultry facility, and that took some of the focus off the older Poultry Building and Incubator House.
At about the same time, OAC planned to start building Weatherford Hall on the site that housed the old Poultry Building and Incubator House, so these two structures had to be relocated.
The old poultry facility was moved near Southwest 30th Street and Washington Avenue, where it served as a feed mill.
The Incubator House was moved to the college's South Farm, near Brooklane Drive. Its whereabouts actually were pretty much forgotten, which eventually gave Livingston another case to crack.
In 1997, OSU needed to move the Poultry Building to make way for Richardson Hall. It was slated for demolition, but Livingston and Feuerstein saw its potential and bought it for $1 at public auction.
They moved it to its current site downtown.
OSU has pegged the South Farm area as the site of Innovation Place, its planned research and development park, so the Incubation House likely would have been demolished had the Endex men not found it, scooped it up for $10 and moved it next to the Poultry Building.
Cracking the case
Livingston knew the buildings were old and important to Corvallis' history, so he contacted Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office about getting them listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
He was told that because the buildings had been moved, they would not be eligible for listing unless he could prove they were created by a master architect and somehow exhibited the architect's trademark design elements.
Livingston scoured libraries and consulted with various architects around the state, even convincing graduate students in the University of Oregon's architecture department to help in his investigation.
One day, after a series of dead ends, Livingston exited the OSU Library only to notice a building with a angular detail that looked very similar to ones he'd seen on the Poultry Building and the Incubator House.
The building Livingston noticed, Strand Agriculture Hall, and many other OSU buildings feature this ornament, called a gutta, leading him to suspect that the Poultry Building was a Bennes remodel.
A hunch is not enough to get included on the National Register of Historic Places, so Livingston holed up in the OSU Archives looking for solid evidence.
"I spent weeks up there going through every piece of paper, and finally I found a tracing of the redesign signed by Bennes' firm that proved that he did it, which was really exciting," he said.
The identity of the architect behind the redesigned Poultry Building wasn't the only mystery confounding Livingston.
The Incubator House, not used in years, had been forgotten about, and it seemed no one knew its whereabouts.
Livingston again turned to the OSU Archives, where he found an old bid dating back to the 1920s.
On this document, a contractor had given a quote for moving the building to South Farm.
"I thought, 'Oh heck. I'm just going to go out there and take a look. But what are the chances it's still there 77 years later?'" he said.
He and Endex carpenter Fred Farris drove out to the farm in 2003, and sure enough, there was the old Incubator House, covered in poison oak.
"I couldn't believe it. I was so excited," Livingston said.
Perseverance pays off
Livingston and Farris took apart the house, moved it to Washington Avenue, and put it back together.
They both came down with nasty cases of poison oak in the process, but it was worth it, Livingston said.
It took about 18 months to come up with renovation plans that met all building code and historic preservation requirements, but construction efforts finally got under way in March 2005.
One year later, Livingston and Feuerstein started renting out elegant, furnished apartments in the Poultry Building and Incubator House to OSU visitors and traveling businesspeople.
They call the compound Washington Hall. The two also own the Corvallis Depot Suites, situated just east of the Incubator House.
It took about $500,000 and years of work to relocate and restore the Poultry Building and Incubator House and get them listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but now Livingston and Feuerstein can take satisfaction in a mystery solved.
"I'm kind of a persistent fellow," Livingston said. "There's excitement in doing this research and not knowing how it will turn out."
Oregon State University is in the process of applying for historic district status on the National Register of Historic Places. If successful, the campus would be the city's third historic district recognized by the National Park Service, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Last June, OSU received a $190,000 grant from the Getty Foundation to assist in the effort. This followed a $10,000 grant several years ago from Oregon's State Historic Preservation Office.
OSU hopes to complete its application in the next two or three years, according to Patty McIntosh, interim campus planning manager.
With Corvallis celebrating its sesquicentennial, now is the perfect time to focus on OSU's historical importance to the community, according to McIntosh.
"We have a large presence in Corvallis, and historically have had a large presence as a public institution," she said. "We have a responsibility to look at ways of embracing historic preservation and rehabilitation."
Although no buildings on campus are included on the National Register of Historic Places, OSU has a number of structures recognized as historic by the city, the state and the Oregon State Board of Higher Education.
The university also owns off-campus buildings near Corvallis and around the state that are listed on various counties' historic registers. For example, OSU's KOAC transmitter, the Civilian Conservation Corps Sign Shop and the Irish Bend Covered Bridge are all listed on the Benton County Register of Historic Resources.
These OSU buildings are included on the Corvallis Register of Historic Landmarks and Districts:
• Benton Hall, 1889
• Benton Annex (also known as the Women's Center and, previously, the Paleontology Lab), 1892
• Fairbanks Hall, 1892
• Gladys Valley Gymnastics Center (previously known as the Mitchell Playhouse), 1898
• Kearney Hall (previously known as Apperson Hall), 1900
• Education Hall, 1902
• McAlexander Fieldhouse, 1911
• Kidder Hall, 1917
• Women's Building (previously known as the Women's Gym), 1926
• Memorial Union, 1928
• Weatherford Hall, 1928
• W.A. Jenson Memorial Gate, 1940