History of change

Ashland's downtown Plaza has changed radically over the decades, growing from a muddy turnaround for wagons to a picturesque garden to a space that is again facing change.

City officials are pondering a major redesign of the Plaza that could lead to more concrete, less lawn, low protective walls around trees, and a radial design in the concrete underfoot that is meant to reflect the site's importance as a social and economic hub.

The idea of changing the Plaza has been met with a mix of emotions — the same kinds of feelings that likely were stirred up when previous generations altered the site. "It really feels like every 25 years or so, the Plaza goes through a big change," said Alan Pardee, a principal with Covey Pardee Landscape Architects.

The city of Ashland has tasked the firm with gathering public input and crafting a concept plan for a Plaza redesign. Any redesign would have to be approved by the Ashland City Council. The council could make a decision on whether to move forward with reconstruction as early as September.

While studying landscape architecture at the University of Oregon, Pardee — who was born and raised in Ashland — researched the history of the Plaza.

Archaeological evidence shows Shasta Indians likely had a settlement on the Plaza site before the arrival of European settlers, according to "Images of America: Ashland," Joe Peterson's photo-rich book about Ashland's history.

Eager to supply gold miners traveling in the area, settler Abel Helman built a flour mill in 1854 where the entrance to Lithia Park is today. It was the start of the downtown Plaza business area, according to Peterson.

The Plaza site was a muddy turn-around and parking spot for wagons, with surrounding shops providing goods for residents.

After an 1879 fire destroyed wooden businesses, brick storefronts emerged, and the Plaza became home to a single, spindly tree. The sapling was protected by a small circular wooden fence that doubled as a hitching station for horses, as revealed by historic photos in the collection of Ashland resident Terry Skibby.

In 1908, the Women's Civic Improvement Club persuaded Ashlanders to set aside the defunct flour mill and surrounding area as a park, leading to the birth of Lithia Park. Residents voted overwhelmingly for the plan, despite opposition from some who wanted to preserve the mill as a historic site, and others who wanted the area to be used only for businesses, according to Peterson.

The town's women also took up wheelbarrows, hoes and shovels, and worked to beautify the Plaza itself, as seen in a historic photo.

"They weren't just posing for the photo. They were rolling up their sleeves and doing it," Pardee said, noting that the women turned the Plaza into a more garden-like space.

As the first generation of settlers passed away, residents erected the landmark Iron Mike statue on the Plaza in 1910, according to Peterson.

There are no plans to remove the historic statue as part of the proposed Plaza redesign. Iron Mike grasps a rifle and gazes off into the distance.

By the 1930s, a huge neon sign advertised fountains on the Plaza that gurgled with lithium-laced mineral water. The fountains still deliver "lithia water" today, a reminder of early schemes to promote the town as a mineral water resort.

Except for the fountain and statue area, the Plaza mainly was covered with decorative viewing gardens in the 1930s and 1940s, Pardee said.

"The Plaza was not necessarily a place to be. It was a place to tour around and look at," Pardee said.

In the 1950s, Ashland was booming with sawmills to feed a post-World War II building boom. Tall trees grew on the Plaza and locals-oriented shops such as department stores, barber shops and hardware stores abounded, according to Peterson.

Ashland took on a decidedly bare, auto-centric appearance in the 1960s, photos show.

Many residents worried about the town's appearance, especially as logging began to wane and storefronts were boarded up downtown.

The town paid a consultant $36,000 — a premium sum in 1966 — to give recommendations for improving the downtown. Recommendations included promoting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, passing rules to restrict sign clutter and taking out parking meters, according to Peterson.

The Plaza itself was little more than a lawn with trees, the lithia water fountain and the Iron Mike statue, Pardee said.

By the 1970s, historic photos show newly planted street trees were beginning to grow and old-fashioned-looking street lights decorated downtown.

An information booth that still stands today was built on the Plaza in the 1980s, Pardee said.

Dense evergreens darkened the Plaza in the 1990s until they were removed. The city of Ashland banned evergreens as street trees because they shade streets and sidewalks in the winter, contributing to icy conditions. Their boughs also tend to accumulate snow and break, Pardee said.

The Plaza underwent a significant reconstruction in the 1990s, with backhoes breaking up the cement areas, where new cement was laid down, Pardee said.

"That was the last major reconstruction," he said.

By the 2000s, downtown street trees had taken on a mature look and people became aware that trees planted on the Plaza in the 1960s and later weren't well-suited to tight urban spaces.

As part of the Plaza redesign now under consideration, some of those towering trees may be replaced gradually with trees that thrive in cities.

Once again, the Plaza could be home to saplings — recalling that lonely young tree in the 1800s that provided a hint of shade to horses tied to a little rail fence.

Photos for this story came from Terry Skibby's collection. Digital files of historic Ashland photos are available from Skibby for $15 each. To reach him, send an email to terryskibby321@msn.com.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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