University of Oregon students step into past of 1800s farmhouse

SPRINGFIELD — Tara Ikenouye called for a knife. Beneath the wallpaper in the Briggs house bathroom, she could feel a gap where two boards met. It might be the location of a boarded-over window, or perhaps a door. The only way to know was to cut away the old wallpaper and take a look. A door here might be further proof that the room was once a kitchen.

Ikenouye is one of a handful of University of Oregon students carefully peeling back the layers of the 1880s era farmhouse to better understand the structure before it gets demolished. The university's architecture department has devoted an entire class to the topic: "Oregon Vernacular: Investigation of the Briggs Farmhouse."

"I think of it as the story of the house, when it was built, how it was built, how it was used," Ikenouye said.

From the outside, the house looks in no way remarkable. Covered by ubiquitous grooved plywood siding, there's no hint that it is, at nearly 130 years, the oldest structure on the Dorris Ranch, a historic and still working filbert farm just south of Springfield's downtown.

The students, under the guidance of instructors Liz Carter and Larry Wikander, as well as Kingston Heath, head of the UO's historic preservation program, have been spending their Sundays at the house and have discovered a structure in surprisingly good shape that may be older than anyone had previously guessed.

It's known as the Briggs house because it was once owned by the Briggs family, who were employed as orchardists on the farm. But the house was built by homesteaders Marietta and George Thurston, although no one knows just when. The Dorris family moved into it when they first came to the property in 1892.

While the house may be historically significant, it has been reviewed and found wanting, said Greg Hyde, planning and development manager for the Willamalane Park and Recreation District, which owns and manages the 258-acre property.

A master plan for the Dorris Ranch concluded that the high cost of restoring the house probably isn't justified, Hyde said. The consultants who wrote the master plan suggested that the property be reviewed by the state Historic Preservation office, and that review concluded that the house doesn't merit listing on the National Register of Historic Places, Hyde said.

Willamalane had been considering allowing the fire department to burn it down as a training exercise, to clear the property in preparation for an interpretive center on the site. That's when the UO instructors proposed documenting what was there before it was removed forever. Willamalane agreed to the proposal, spokesman Mike Moskovitz said.

The information gathered by the students will be used by the Dorris Ranch staff in its efforts to create an authentic picture of farm life in the valley, Moskovitz said.

The students will get invaluable hands-on learning as they carefully remove siding, false ceilings and old wallpaper to reveal the original structure, Carter said.

When the exterior T1-11 siding was pulled off, for example, students found both shiplap and weather board siding, But underneath that was a startling discovery. The house was built using a technique more common in the 1850s and 1860s than in the 1880s.

Called box construction, it looks nothing like the stud walls of today. Back then, the builders nailed wide planks vertically to a bottom sill and a top plate to form a solid though thin wall that had structural integrity.

The bottom sills, heavy timbers 7 inches by 11 inches thick, were hand-hewn, not milled. On some, the bark is still visible, said UO architecture student Michael Fischer, who explored the foundation with fellow student Chris McLean.

There is some water damage in one area, but other-wise the foundation looks sound, Fischer said.

"The connection to the ground is in pretty good condition," he said.

The outer layers hiding the vertical planks have done a good job of protecting the old wood, he said.

Inside the house, Carter and Ikenouye teased out the uses of the rooms, concluding that the current bathroom probably was the kitchen before an addition to the house — using stud frame construction — relocated it.

They found bits of newspaper under the wallpaper in what was once a living or sitting room, the first room that visitors would enter.

Oregon has lost most of its box-frame houses, Heath said.

"We keep tearing them down," he said.

Whether the house is worth the cost of preserving it is a tough question to answer.

"It's always been left up to communities to save what they value," Heath said. "It was the industry standard of the day, from the 1840s to the 1880s. There's very few of these houses left."

While the house is slated for removal, the park district is willing to consider other options beside simply burning it, Hyde said.

"If there's a way to dismantle it and recycle it, if someone wanted to come and move it, that's something we'd be open to," he said.

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