Ill wind blows good wood for Newport museum

A theater in the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center is being trimmed with old-growth Douglas fir blown down in the 1962 Columbus Day Storm

The Lincoln County Historical Society scored big time in 2004 when it bought a historic, French chateau overlooking the Newport bayfront. The 30,000-square-foot building with gabled roof needed work — one of the reasons the Newport nonprofit was able to buy it at a bargain-basement price — but that view, that setting, the history.

A member of the volunteer team of “old guys” works, sander in hand, at the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center. The rough-sawn wood behind him will be sanded just enough to leave a rough texture to match trim work throughout the building. Photo courtesy: Steve Wyatt

It wasn’t just the historical society that scored, so did the county. In what became the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center, it gained a museum, retained a piece of history, and saved a structure that otherwise might have faced demo crews.

Another layer of history is being added to the story. Wooden finish work is about to begin in the 2,000-square-foot Doerfler Family Theater. This is not just any old wood, but old-growth Douglas fir from trees downed atop Cape Foulweather by the 1962 Columbus Day storm. The trees were recently helicoptered out of the grove and milled at Siletz River Lumber.

Historical Society board member Bud Shoemake knew about the salvage operation and helped broker the deal for the wood. Oregonencyclopedia.org reports that after the storm, during which winds in Newport hit 138 mph, Congress passed special funding to accelerate salvage of the 11 billion to 17 billion board feet of lumber that was blown down so it wouldn’t rot. How this grove survived earlier salvaging or rot is a question to which I haven’t yet found an answer.

“It’s just amazing, gorgeous,” said Steve Wyatt, executive director of the Historical Society, describing the wood. “Just straight grain. There is not a knot of any kind in this beautiful wood.”

The 1,524 board feet of lumber will be used for extensive trim work, wainscoting, door casings, and grid work on the theater ceiling.

“In keeping with this historic property, the finish work will be similar in style to the trim work already completed on the main floor of the museum, only with a higher level of refinement,” Wyatt said.

The museum sits atop a knoll with prime views of Yaquina Bay, home to Newport’s fishing fleet and the iconic Yaquina Bay Bridge. It was built in the 1880s for Dr. James Bayley and his wife, Elizabeth. That house burned in 1923, leaving only the foundation and chimney. The existing structure was built in 1925, and underwent extensive remodeling and expansion in the 1970s and ‘80s, operating as Smuggler’s Cove, a restaurant and nightclub reportedly inhabited by a ghost. The business shut down in 1999.

The Pacific Maritime Heritage Center sits on a hill above Newport’s bayfront.

The facility changed hands a time or two, but always wound up back on the market. And for good reason. It took the historical society nine years of work, repairing the leaky roof and crumbling walls, before it could open the museum. More than once, Wyatt wondered if they’d taken on too much. Then, in 2008, the county came up with a grant to paint the building, and suddenly people took notice and began pitching in. The museum opened to the public in 2013 and has been offering exhibits on the local maritime history and culture since.

The sheetrock work in the Doerfler Family Theater was scheduled to be finished by the end of 2018. Up next comes installation of the extensive wood trim. Photo courtesy: Steve Wyatt

The 124-seat Doerfler Family Theater — named for the family whose generosity helped make the space possible — is expected to open this spring, if not earlier, Wyatt said. On a day-to-day basis, visitors will be able to select from a menu of film clips about Yaquina Bay history. The space will host lectures and programs, film festivals, concerts, and private events.

More work remains to be done, galleries to be built, repairs made. You can help by adopting a theater seat for a $300 donation. The seats will be laser engraved with up to 10 words of your choice. Not a bad way to be a small part of a big piece of Lincoln County history.

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This activity is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

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