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Tearing Down Houses, Tearing Down History

They don’t look like much to the unknowing eye, but the 12 cottages at UO’s Columbia Terrace Houses have a history that experts say dates back to WWII. That history marks big changes for Oregon, and that’s why preservation advocates say they shouldn’t be torn down or moved to make way for UO Housing’s new central kitchen.

“We kind of think of WWII as having happened in Europe,” says George Kramer, who wrote a book about Camp White and WWII. “People don’t understand how much Oregon changed as a result of WWII.”

During WWII, Oregon’s second-largest city wasn’t Eugene or Salem — it was, technically, either Camp White in Jackson County or Camp Adair north of Corvallis, where soldiers came for boot camp. Kramer says the architecture and arrangement of the cottages makes it obvious that one of the camps was the source.

“These little buildings, as simple as they are, are part of a tangible effort,” Kramer says, and were probably used as mess halls or officers’ quarters. After the war, UO’s enrollment boomed, and it was able to purchase the buildings from the government. The cottages were sorely needed because during the war, building materials were all devoted to the war effort, and then UO’s post-war enrollment boomed with the GI Bill.

Christine Thompson, who works in campus planning, says that there’s no record of the origins of the buildings, but they and many other buildings were installed in 1946. UO purchased the cottages in 1963. She says that they’ve been altered with vinyl siding and in other ways, and they’ve been designated as “not contributing” as historic resources. 

“The only physical expression at the UO that probably survives and really relates to the changes was the way they scrambled to house those soldiers,” Kramer says. “We look at those buildings and think, ‘Wow, they’re not much.’ Those guys looked at those buildings and thought, ‘There’s a ticket to a new life.’”

Michael Griffel, UO’s director of housing, says the university will attempt to find new places for the cottages, but it will be a challenge because of the way they’re built into a concrete slab. “The properties are in very poor condition and in need of substantial investment,” he adds. The original plan was to demolish the buildings in the summer of 2013, but Griffel says the bids UO received were too high, so they’re going through the bidding process again. He says whether the cottages are torn down or moved will ultimately be decided by the firm UO contracts with.

Kramer says that as far as he’s aware, the cottages at UO are the last publicly owned WWII camp buildings standing in Lane County.