When the manager and staff of the Eugene Water and Electric Board in November recommended decommissioning the Leaburg Dam on the McKenzie River, and the board unanimously voted Jan. 3 to accept the recommendation, the discussion revolved around power, salmon and, of course, water. But no one brought up art.
They should have, because that’s one of the proposed dam removal’s unresolved questions: What will happen to a nearly century-old sculpture by a once nationally prominent artist that is part of the Art Deco-inspired Leaburg Powerhouse?
The sculpture in question is by Harry Poole Camden Jr., who taught art briefly at the University of Oregon in the late 1920s. His work for the Leaburg Powerhouse, which sits just downstream from the dam, is a series of three cast-concrete outdoor friezes, visible from Highway 126, depicting classical-style figures titled “Power,” “Heat” and “Light.”
Camden was never exactly a household name, but he made his mark in the world of sculpture. After getting his bachelor’s degree in art from Yale University in 1924, he entered an international competition and won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which came with a three-year fellowship to study art in Rome. Camden then taught at the UO from 1927 to 1929, during which time he designed the Leaburg friezes.
In 1929 he was hired to teach art at Cornell University. While there, he won an international competition to design two 36-foot-tall sculptures, titled “Unity” and “Peace,” for the United States Federal Building at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. Nearly all the fair buildings were demolished after the fair closed in fall 1940.
EWEB has not decided what will become of Camden’s art if Leaburg Dam is demolished. It’s not even clear whether the art was discussed before Eugene Weekly asked about it.
“We recognize the historic and artistic value of the WPA-era sculptures on the Leaburg powerhouse,” EWEB spokesman Aaron Orlowski says in an email. “In the event that the Leaburg Hydroelectric Project is decommissioned, we want to do what we can to preserve them.”
The Art Deco-style building that houses the dam’s power generators is itself a work of art. The architect who designed the powerhouse was Ellis Lawrence (1879-1946). The first dean of the UO School of Architecture, Lawrence designed a number of buildings on campus or nearby, including the Knight Library, McArthur Court, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and the Egyptian-revival Hope Abbey Mausoleum. He also designed dozens of private homes in Portland and Salem, perhaps most notably Salem’s Mahonia Hall, Oregon’s official governor’s mansion.
The Leaburg Powerhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. According to the Oregon Historic Sites Database, the building is “an important example of Art Deco architecture as used in an industrial setting in Oregon.”
The Art Deco movement grew out of early 20th century hope of progress through invention and industry; it got its name from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. Its modernist visual elements can be seen in Eugene in such buildings as the downtown post office and the WOW Hall.
In his Nov. 30 report to the utility’s board of directors, EWEB’s CEO and General Manager Frank Lawson recommends decommissioning the dam and removing it. His 649-page report mentions neither Camden nor Lawrence and doesn’t discuss the artistic or architectural importance of the powerhouse, though it does note that the facility is on the National Register.
Lawson’s report does make it clear that art and history are not top priorities for the utility. “EWEB’s mission does not directly prioritize creating or managing recreational facilities, transportation assets, or other non-electricity or drinking water activities,” it says.