By Bill Rautenstrauch
Observer Staff Writer
La Grande attorney Wes Williams, formerly a high school teacher, has a strong sense of history. It stirred within him the first time he walked up the stairs of the West-Jacobson Building at the corner of Elm and Adams, downtown.
The building spoke of many years of hard use. The carpets on the nearly vacant second floor were threadbare, and the ceiling had sustained major water damage from leaking pipes. A couple of transom windows were broken, and the walls were in sore need of painting.
But Williams was excited to think that long ago, some of La Grande's best lawyers, including the distinguished Circuit Court Judge Wesley Brownton, former District Attorney George Anderson, and lawyers William Carey, and both Carl Helm Sr. and Carl Helm Jr., had kept offices there.
"It had an interesting legal history and lots of fascinating stories," Williams said of the building, which was constructed in 1913.
Williams and his wife, Jennifer, who came to La Grande from Eugene in 1996, bought the West-Jacobson and set about restoring it, paying close attention to historical detail.
Walls were plastered and painted, new carpets laid, windows replaced, oak woodwork restored to its former beauty. Light fixtures resembling the originals were installed.
"The upstairs has a nice, open feel, just as I imagine it had before," Williams said.
Williams admits the restoration project was expensive, but he believes it will pay off in the long run. Ten businesses rent office or retail space there, including a popular coffee house on the ground floor.
"With the profits going back into the building, it can operate on its own," he said.
And though he hasn't applied for them, Williams is eligible for tax incentives that could help him recoup his investment.
Today's West-Jacobson building is very much in line with what the City of La Grande envisions for its National Register Downtown Historic District.
While reflecting local heritage and serving as a source of community pride, it is also an attractive place for businesses to locate.
That's a big plus, as far as the city is concerned, said City Planner Mike Hyde.
"It's the city's goal to stimulate development," Hyde said.
Hyde said The City of La Grande decided to pursue National Historic Register District status for the downtown area in 1999.
With help from a State Historic Preservation Office grant, the city hired a consultant to survey holdings in the downtown area and prepare a nomination report.
The report was submitted through channels and finally approved by the U.S. Parks Service. Downtown became a National Register Historic District on Sept. 4, 2001.
"One advantage of a historic district is that building owners get to partake without having to be individually nominated to the register," Hyde said.
Tax incentives also make the district attractive for businesses.
Provided owners meet guidelines for restoring their buildings to a condition closely resembling the original, they may qualify for a 20 percent federal investment tax credit and and a 15-year freezing of taxes on their investment.
"It ensures their property taxes won't skyrocket," Hyde said. "The savings can add up."
Unfortunately, not every owner of a building in the historic district is able to take advantage of the program, Hyde noted.
He said some buildings in the downtown area have been altered to a point where restoration to National Register standards is impossible.
Recently, the city took another step in the development of the historic district, with the Landmarks Commission's Historic District Plaque Project.
Through another SHPO grant, 13 plaques were mounted on buildings in the downtown area, each bearing a photograph and historical information about that building.
Building owners shouldered some of the cost of having the plaques researched, manufactured and mounted.
There are 64 contributing buildings in the historic district. Owners of 21 buildings originally expressed interest in having plaques mounted, but that number was reduced to 13 through change of ownership, the downturn in the economy and other circumstances.
Photos for the plaques came from the collections of local historians Richard Hermens and John Turner, who also researched the information printed on the plaques.
The plaques were made by Matt Barber of Grande Ronde Sign Company.
Hyde said the plaques are meant to educate local citizens about the area's history, and to increase pedestrian traffic in the city center.
He said a brochure is being designed to guide people to the historic landmarks. The result will be a walking tour through the city center.
"State rules say that if you have a brown (highway) sign advertising a historic district, you've got to have something to show people," Hyde said.
La Grande's downtown area isn't the only one in Union County to be entered in the federal register.
The City of Union's Main Street was named a national Historic District in the mid-1990s.
Walt Brookshire, owner of the Union Drug Company, headed the effort. Brookshire said local volunteers put together the nomination report and submitted it to the state.
"It was a difficult process," he said.
Union's historic district, taking in most of Main Street, contains about 22 contributing buildings, and others that Brookshire describes as "secondary."
"There are a several that didn't qualify," Brookshire said.
There are mixed reviews on the impacts the designation has had on the City of Union's economy.
Brookshire says he thinks the benefits, including money saved through the tax incentives, have been minimal.
But City Manager Bill Searles offered some guarded praise.
"It (entry into the register) happened before I became city manager. But I've heard a lot of people comment that they like the historical aspects of downtown, so probably it is a benefit," Searles said.