ASTORIA — Noel Weber and his sister Anna were visiting Astoria. While here, the two Boise artists discovered an old, underutilized structure in a prime, downtown location. Its bones were good. The structure, a former YMCA, was for sale… oddly enough, by a former Boise resident and artist. The “Y” seemed like a perfect place to create a branch of their family’s design firm, Classic Design Studio.
Now, the Webers are carefully moving through a daunting restoration. In 1989, the building was converted to a private school. The “Y” was significantly altered as to be unrecognizable to anyone who once recreated there. Ceilings were lowered. The floor plan was gutted; small rooms were enlarged into classrooms. The original pool was decked over.
Constructed in 1914, the Young Men’s Christian Association became a magnet for the community’s youth. For generations, Astorians participated in gymnastics, swimming, weight lifting, handball and basketball. To its founders, it was an essential “character building plant.” To others, the “Y” was a second home where hours upon hours were spent after school or on weekends.
That love for the building, and what it represented, was tested shortly after it was constructed.
During the Great Fire of 1922, when Astoria’s downtown was ablaze, the YMCA was threatened. C.A. “Dad” Page, well known to young people as the “Y’s” janitor, organized a bucket brigade. The young people lined up, doused the roof with water from the swimming pool, and saved their beloved “Y.”
In Boise, the Webers’ studio attracts artists who work in type setting, murals, sculpture, photography and enamel. Weber anticipates a diverse group in Astoria, too. Here, visiting artists may find studio space for screen printing, a letterpress, mold-making and model production, ceramics, a wood shop, and audio/video production.
First and foremost, however, it’s a workspace for Weber and his family. Their work includes handcrafted posters, books, lighting, furniture, textiles and traditional signs. An example of one of their most recent signs may be seen on the window of the new Carruthers Restaurant in downtown Astoria. The gold leaf work is outstanding.
Weber said the “Y” might be used to teach workshops or house flex spaces. “We’re keeping all options open,” he explained. For instance, the 4,000 sq. ft. gymnasium could support any number of uses. It is the perfect size for, and has the character of, a community event space. However, Weber said building codes will ultimately determine the function and occupancy.
Beyond code, there are other influences on the “Y’s” revival: its original plan and character.
“The building has revealed itself as we pry (non-historic) materials from the walls and ceiling,” he noted.
The building’s ultimate use will be determined by what they discover. “Everything will funnel into place if we remain true to the history of the building,” said Weber.
In the meantime, restoration of the facade is his top priority.
When the “Y” was converted to a school, original, double-hung, wood windows were removed. In some cases, the window openings were infilled with exterior grade plywood. In other cases, the masonry openings were enlarged, then enclosed with fixed, vinyl windows. Regardless of the treatment, any hope of natural ventilation was lost. And in many cases, natural light was replaced by florescent tubes.
The window treatment also affected the building’s exterior. Much of the “Y’s” stately proportions were covered or eradicated. Weber plans to restore the building’s dignity by reconstructing wood windows within their original openings. He says of all the exterior work to be done, restoring the windows will carry “the biggest price tag.”
The Weber family’s studio emphasizes time-honored, hand crafts. It is appropriate, then, that it be housed within a traditional historic building…one which can benefit from their artistic talents and vision. Restoration, Weber explained, “gives us an opportunity to take something and turn it into something that it was.”
Finally, after 27 years, the former “character building plant” will regain its own.
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.com.