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State board could decide Carman House's fate

Preservationists file appeal to keep site as historic landmark


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Carman House of Lake Oswego was built in 1855 by Waters Carman, a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Here, the house is shown as it is today.The Carman House, the most historic home in Lake Oswego, seems destined to become the subject of a historic decision that could greatly affect historical preservation in Oregon.

The Lake Oswego Preservation Society filed an appeal with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals on Tuesday to overturn a decision by the Lake Oswego City Council to have the historic landmark designation removed from the Carman House, which was built in 1855.

Removing the designation would allow the 1.25-acre property on Carman Drive to be sold for housing development by the current owner, the Mary Cadwell Wilmot Trust. This appeal will likely end any chance for compromise on the house between Lake Oswego historical preservationists and the Wilmot trust, according to Marylou Colver, director and founder of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

Colver’s group has taken the stand that removal of the landmark designation goes against Oregon law. The society has already spent $10,000 in legal fees in its campaign to maintain the house and surrounding property as a historic site. The opposing side is bolstered by the city council decision.

“It’s not over yet,” Colver said. “LUBA will interpret the state statute. It will either agree with the city council decision or else overturn it. This part of the owner consent law has never been interpreted before, so this is an important case. This will stand as the test.

“My understanding of the law is that if the original property owner objects to the historic designation, then it will be removed. Our interpretation is that right dies with the owner. The way the city council interpreted it is that the right for any future owner to de-list a historical site goes on forever.”

Chuck Kobeck, attorney for the owner, contended that historical preservationists have had plenty of time to buy the Carman House and guarantee its standing as a historic landmark.

“The Carman House has been on the historic landmark list since 1990, and no one has stepped up to say, ‘I want to buy the property,’” Kobeck said. “My client is sitting on a valuable piece of property, and he does not want to give it away.”

Kobeck said the lone concession possible is to allow the house structure to be moved away from the site and placed at another location.

“We’ve stated numerous times that if a group wanted to move the house we would consider it,” Kobeck said, “if it could be done safely and efficiently and not take too long. We have had no requests from anyone to come onto the property to look at it. If they have a proposal, we’re willing to listen.”

Colver said taking the Carman House to another location would be hugely expensive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would diminish the actual historic value of the house.

“Moving the house would cause it to lose a lot of benefits,” Colver said, “like making it ineligible to be placed on the national historic register.”

Any prospect for negotiations seems dismal. But there is one outpost of optimism for a compromise at the Oswego Heritage Council. Jude Graham, executive director of the OHC, makes it plain the historic value of the Carman House to Lake Oswego is immense.

“A building like the Carman House gives character to a town. It gives a town soul,” Graham said. “It is our direct link to the founding of this state.”

Fine historian that she is, Graham found that original owner Waters Carman was a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. In fact, in 1831 Honest Abe once saved Carman’s life while he was hanging from a tree branch over an onrushing river by swimming out to his friend and giving him a rope. With no Waters Carman there may have been no Lake Oswego.

With a history like this to preserve, Graham said she strongly hopes that a compromise can be reached. But she says it would also be practical to avoid a costly legal battle.

“There has got to be some way the property could be sold to someone who wants to save it,” Graham said. “I’m sure the owner of the house is tired of this situation.”

If there is no compromise soon, the decision on the Carman House could be made by LUBA. Under state time-frame requirements, the ruling on whether the city council’s decision can stand must come within about 77 days.

“This is the most significant historic site in Lake Oswego,” Colver said. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to save it.”

Cliff Newell can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 105.