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Philip T. Oatfield house threatened with demolition in Oak Grove

Clackamas County regulations fail to provide any protections for the county's registered Historic Landmarks.

Designated a Clackamas County Historic Landmark in 1987, the Philip T. Oatfield house is a rare example of surviving architecture from an Oak Grove pioneer family.

PHOTO COURTESY: OAK LODGE HISTORY DETECTIVES - After being named a Clackamas County Historic Landmark in 1987, the Philip T. Oatfield house has fallen into disrepair.Located at 14928 S.E. Oatfield Road (a street named after the Oatfields), it was the only house for a mile in any direction when it was completed in 1903. Now surrounded by subdivisions, the house has fallen into disrepair and is scheduled to be demolished after a hearing March 9.

PHOTO COURTESY: OAK LODGE HISTORY DETECTIVES - In 1903, Philip Oatfield built the now-historic house when he was about to propose to his neighboring sweetheart, Dora Thiessen.In its place, the developer said he is planning to build an approximately 3,000-square-foot house. Noting that the house has been declared dangerous by the county, Paul V. Matveev of Kavkaz Construction said that details about potential additional houses at the site won't been available until the land is cleared.

"We do not have the permits to build yet. We have to deal with the historical house first," Matveev said.

The impending demolition of the Oatfield House shows that Clackamas County regulations fail to provide any protections for the county's registered Historic Landmarks. The head of the state's architectural heritage advocacy group, Restore Oregon Executive Director Peggy Moretti said that developers often see historic architecture as a barrier to packing in additional homes.

"The Portland metro area is in the midst of a demolition epidemic," Moretti said. "Developers often see an opportunity to create a denser development, and they see the historic house as something that's in their way. Sometimes I like to say to them that a historic house that's been restored is a huge competitive advantage and can set apart a denser development from other subdivisions. Across the state, there's a lack of incentives for historic preservation and a lack of a regulatory framework for preventing this."

Also, there are no consequences in county regulations if Matveev demolishes the structure before going through the hearings process. 

"The applicant spoke with me concerning demolition about two years ago," said Linda Preisz, a senior planner for Clackamas County. "He has been willing to go through the required process."

Rich history

Michael Oatfield immigrated to the United States from Austria in 1853 and settled south of Milwaukie in the early 1860s, according to research by the Oak Lodge History Detectives. In 1903, Oatfield deeded his son, Philip, 100 acres of his 600-acre farm. Phil was about to propose to his neighboring sweetheart, Dora Thiessen, of the adjacent farming family of Henry and Selena Thiessen.

Oatfield's neighboring pioneer family of Thiessen Road fame planted a famous black walnut in 1860, just a year after Oregon was granted statehood. In August, the giant Thiessen black walnut was cut down, despite neighborhood uproar and despite the fact that four separate certified arborists said the tree should remain. The case brought to light how the county also lacks protections for heritage trees, even if they are registered with the Clackamas County Heritage Tree Program.

To complement the landscape for the house that he would share with his bride, Dora, Phil Oatfield planted four giant sequoias that are now Clackamas County Heritage Trees. Phil and Dora married on Nov. 8, 1903, and moved into the house that originally was plumbed for gas, since electricity did not come online until about 1913.

Around 1920, Dora had a stroke and it became difficult for her to negotiate the stairs up to their bedroom. So Phil built a newer house, with a bedroom on the main floor, about 300 yards north, on land he still owned. The Oatfields moved in 1922, selling their first house and 10 acres to Fred W. and Leah Schwarz. 

The Schwarzs lived in the 1903 house until sometime after 1930, when the property changed hands several times until the 1970s, when James and Frances Rothschild became the owners. According to Mike Schmeer, chairman of the Oak Lodge History Detectives, James Rothschild died in 2006, and Frances continued living in the house until her death in 2011.

"By then the house had fallen into disrepair, and Frances' children sold it," Schmeer said. "In 2014 the property was purchased by Hilltop Contractors LLC, a development company based in Hawaii, which has recently petitioned the county to demolish the house and will be proposing to subdivide the property."

Preisz said that Matveev is the brother of the owner and is applying to demolish the house on his brother's behalf.

Salvage or move?

The neighborhood might never have found out about the proposed demolition until after the fact. Schmeer said that notification of proposed demolitions such as this are not automatically sent to the appropriate Community Planning Organization. 

"This only happens if the applicant is applying for a partition, which generally would happen later," he said.

Preisz said the CPO will be notified, along with surrounding property owners within 350 feet. The Oak Lodge History Detectives have expressed interest in salvaging items. 

"One of the elements of this process will be to require the applicant to contact several salvage companies in the area to come and see if there are items to salvage," Preisz said. "It could all be arranged before the hearing."

After a "dangerous building" complaint, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office required the closure of the Oatfield House well. Inside an old pump house, an open well, 30 feet down, was determined to be a safety issue. 

Schmeer noted that the purpose of both Oregon's Historic Preservation Office and Clackamas County's Historic Preservation Ordinance is to protect and preserve our historic and cultural resources. 

"Unfortunately, without the stewardship of a caring owner, this process can be circumvented and financial realities can intervene," he said. "The legacy of the Oatfield family is quickly disappearing, and unless a philanthropic individual steps forward to move this house to a new location, this historic community icon will be lost forever."

The county has no funds to assist in moving the Oatfield House, Preisz said.

"If it is moved, it has to be placed on a separate legal lot of record and the lot must allow single-family structures," she said.

The Land Conservation and Development Commission, a group appointed by Gov. Kate Brown that sets land-use policy for the state, held a public hearing to consider changes to its rules guiding protection of historic resources at its meeting in St. Helens on Jan. 27. The proposed changes are in response to several disputes around the state that revealed issues with existing rules.

Any changes to state law won't affect the Oatfield House, however.

"I process permits per the zoning code section in force at the time of application," Preisz said. "The county can't and won't stop the razing of the dilapidated building."

"Unlike other nearby counties, Clackamas County zoning regulations apparently offer little protection for such historic structures," said Lisa Bentley, an Oak Grove activist. "Additionally, the burden is on the community to be vigilant and the rules allow little time to develop support for saving such a building."