Standing inside an area called ‘The Catacombs,’ EWEB engineer Laura Farthing talks to visitors taking a guided tour of the reservoir, which went into service in 1939. Photo by Bob Keefer.

The Secret Temple of EWEB

Let’s give College Hill Reservoir the splendid musical sendoff it deserves before it falls victim to progress

The eeriest and most resonant public space in all of Eugene, if not in all of Oregon, is about to be demolished before more than a handful of people have ever had the chance to experience it.

That’s because it’s nearly always been under water. No longer.

Stand inside the now-drained 7.5 million gallon north tank at EWEB’s 85-year-old College Hill Reservoir, as I did with a couple dozen other visitors one recent afternoon, and you feel like you’re Indiana Jones stepping into the ancient temple of a long-lost civilization. The space is dark and cool, 20 feet from its concrete floor to concrete ceiling, which is supported by dozens of concrete pillars, all with vaguely Art Deco-looking bases, columns and capitals. The walls, which bear the imprint of lumber used to build forms, are damp, and everything smells vaguely organic without being unpleasant.

Photo by Bob Keefer.

Here’s the best part. Even the slightest sound that anyone makes is picked up, processed, distorted and sent back at you from all directions, hanging in the air for as long as 20 seconds before vanishing. A single hand clap turns into the rumble of a distant truck on the highway, and when a visitor with a clear voice sings a single note and stops, we find ourselves standing inside a giant tuning fork.

Progress has doomed the reservoir. EWEB officials say its 1930s engineering doesn’t pass current muster in terms of seismic safety or overall security, so it’s going to be replaced by a pair of tanks that do. 

Besides the hidden temple, the new construction will eliminate one of the most interesting public spaces in Eugene — what amounts to a 1.3 acre public park, all paved, on the ground-level roof of the old reservoir, which lies between 23rd and 25th avenues and Lincoln and Lawrence streets. In that safely fenced open space, neighborhood children learn to ride their bikes while people dance, pilot drones, fly kites and simply stroll around on nice days. 

There’s even a documentary film — A Public Space — that’s being made about that wonderful off-label use of the College Hill Reservoir roof. You can see a sizzle reel on Vimeo by searching the film’s name

Demolition is scheduled to begin this summer, putting an end to all that magic.

I’ve got a suggestion, EWEB: Before you tear it down, invite half a dozen acoustic music groups in town to perform a Goodbye to the Temple benefit show inside that grand space. I’d pay good money — and sign any kind of liability waiver — to listen to singers from Eugene Concert Choir and Eugene Opera or to the student musicians of OrchestraNext playing excerpts from Kenji Bunch’s new score for Eugene Ballet’s Peter Pan. Imagine Beethoven in that space! 

I’d like to hear what singers such as Siri Vik and Halie Loren could do with such a venue, and I can only imagine the music that organ virtuoso ElRey Stewart Cook could create there on the portable Brombaugh pipe organ owned by the Hult Center. Garage and house show bands like Housekeeping and Mommy could fill the space with sound.

Proceeds to be split between Black Thistle Street Aid and the Lane Arts Council. I guarantee it would be a sellout.

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