BRICK BY BRICK
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
In its heyday this quietly ornate building ranked among
La Grandes most striking structures.
U.S. senators, congressmen, Oregon governors and even movie starlet Dorothy Malone were among the buildings visitors.
Today the structure stands inauspiciously in the midst of a 17-year slumber from which it will never awaken.
The old Observer building, 1710 Sixth St., is going the way of the Linotype press and the typewriter.
It has been deemed obsolete and is being dismantled by its owner, the La Grande First Baptist Church.
The building, which housed The Observer from June 1930 to January 1985, is being taken down to allow the La Grande First Baptist Church to later expand.
The church purchased the building from the City of La Grande in 1993. Church leaders intended to remodel it into a youth center. Work was done before it was learned in 1994 that the expense of bringing the building up to state codes was prohibitive.
The congregation voted to tear the building down in 2001.
The newspaper building was an integral part of the lives of people like Bob Moody, the Observers publisher from 1974 through 1997.
It had real character with its mahogany paneling and shelving, said Moody, who is retired and lives in La Grande.
The mahogany Moody speaks of was in the buildings conference room and office.
Dorothy Fleshman of La Grande, who worked as an Observer reporter in the mid-1940s and the 1960s, also has fond memories of the building. She will never forget the constant clacking and clinking of manual typewriters and Linotype machines. They complemented a thick, ever-present musk of ink and hot lead.
When you walked into the building you knew that you were in a newspaper office right away because of the smell, Fleshman said.
Rooms in the old building were sometimes rented to other businesses and government agencies. An attorney, a television cable company and the Social Security Administration had offices in the old Observer building at one time.
The buildings entrance was decorated by arched windows separated by an ornamental iron balcony. Marble tile and the mahogany added touches of elegance inside.
The quality of the old Observer building is a credit in large part to Charles Miller, an architect who left a remarkable legacy in La Grande.
Miller was one of La Grandes chief architects from 1920 until he left in 1937. Business structures he designed included the J.C. Penney Building, the Sacajawea Inn (demolished in 1970), and the Roesch Building (known today as the Sac Annex).
They were very modern for their time, said La Grande historian Jack Evans, the retired director of Eastern Oregon Universitys library.
Miller was responsible for nearly all the finer homes built in La Grande between 1920 and 1936 and for many of the more modest dwellings as well, Evans said.
Millers first major residential design was probably Stang Manor, which was completed in 1923. It was built by August J. Stange and is still considered to be one of the citys finest residences.
His designs are notable for good proportions, structural integrity and great attention to detail and finish, Evans said. His buildings were designed to be elegant but not extravagant. They have a quiet eloquence.
Miller moved in 1937 to Pendleton, where he continued to work as a architect. He died in 1960.
VISITORS OF NOTE
Politicians campaigning for public office were regular visitors during the 55 years the newspaper operated in the building.
Movie stars who came by included Dorothy Malone. The starlet visited the Observers press room in the summer of 1955 while in La Grande during the filming of Pillars of the Sky. The western, which also starred Jeff Chandler and Ward Bond, was filmed in the La Grande area and released in 1956.
Abandoned in 1985
The Observer moved out of its old building in January 1985 following the completion of its present building at 1406 Fifth Street. The new building provided more space and boosted efficiency. The greater efficiency is a credit to the fact that all production work is done on the ground floor. In the old building the press was in the basement. Papers had to be carried up stairs after being printed.
Western Communications, which owns The Observer, tried unsuccessfully to sell its old building after the 1985 move was made. A buyer could not be found because of the remodeling work that would have to be done to allow it to meet handicapped accessibility codes, Moody said.
One prospective buyer wanted to convert the building into a restaurant. The individual backed out after being told that an elevator would have to be installed.
Western Communications later gave the building to the City of La Grande. The First Baptist Church bought the building from the city in 1993.
Wayne Pickens, pastor of the La Grande First Baptist Church, hopes that demolition of the building can be completed by this fall.
The bulk of the work will be done by Mike Hindal, a brick mason from Union. He signed an agreement with the church to tear the building down brick by brick. Hindal started earlier this winter and hopes to be done sometime this spring. He will be allowed to keep the buildings bricks and other materials in return for his labor.
The building has 60,000 to 70,000 bricks, Hindal said. The mortar and bricks on the upper part of the building are quite worn.
I pull the bricks on the top out by hand, Hindal said.
He said that many of the buildings bricks would have to be replaced if was still being used.
Once demolition of the Observer building is complete, a fenced playground will be put into the space by the First Baptist Church. The playground will be for the churchs Heidi Ho Preschool.
Someday a youth center may be put in at the site, Pickens said.
FIGHTING DOGS PLAYED ROLE IN LOCATING OBSERVER TO 1710 SIXTH
Why was the Observer based at 1710 Sixth St. for several decades?
A fight between two dogs in the early 1900s is apparently the reason.
Prior to 1907 the Observer was located on the upper floor of the J.D. Slater building on Fir Street. The cost of rent was rising so the Observers owners, brothers George and Fred Currey, began looking for a place to erect a newspaper building, according to an article in the June 26, 1930, edition of The La Grande Evening Observer.
One day George Currey noticed a large gathering of men at the site of 1710 Sixth St. where the old Observer building is now. He walked closer and discovered that the men were watching two dogs fighting. Currey surveyed the site and thought it would be a good place for the newspaper.
The lot was owned by a farmer whose last name was Campbell. Currey, riding in a buggy, went out to Campbells farm and purchased the land. He did so on the condition that his brother, Fred, would approve, which he did.
The Curreys then built a small wooden structure at the Sixth Street site. The Observer was based in the building until about 1920.
The Observer then moved to 1416 Adams Ave. The newspaper was based there until 1930 when owner P.F. Appleby moved it back to 1710 Sixth St. after the new brick building was completed.
STATE REQUIREMENTS WAYLAID CHURCH'S REMODEL PLANS
Remodeling work on the old Observer building was under way in 1994 when the La Grande First Baptist Church on Sixth Street next door received bad news.
The State Fire and Life Safety Plan Review Board informed the church that it was refusing to accept the remodeling plans unless 23 changes were made.
The major issue was that two handicapped accessible ramps were required instead of the one that First Baptist Church had planned to install on the buildings south side.
The remodeling project was halted when the church discovered how much usable space would be lost by the construction of the second ramp.
The actual process of taking the building down started last fall. Church volunteers, wearing suits and masks, removed asbestos-containing ceiling tiles from the basement. The project was done under the guidance of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
Another group of volunteers met on the roof of the building in November to remove heating and electrical units.
A contractor last year removed asbestos-containing floor tile from the basement. Another contractor peeled off the roof this winter.
Later this year the concrete foundation and the basement will be removed by a contractor.