Oregon City, OR: Illuminate Oregon City

Outdoor elevator tower illuminated at night
Photo by Devin Conroy-Groves

How can a simple project to enhance a public structure become an effort to enhance community dialogue and identity?

One of the main pedestrian connections in the town of Oregon City is a large public elevator, built in the mid-20th century, which moves people between the downtown on the banks of the Willamette River and the McLoughlin Promenade, a popular district perched atop a nearly 100-foot-high bluff. The elevator is iconic to the area, but it was in desperate need of structural upgrades. The town set out to enhance the structure, hoping to attract more people to downtown Oregon City and the residential neighborhood connected by the municipal elevator.


Set in the Willamette Valley, Oregon City has a colorful history: the first federally recognized city west of the Rocky Mountains, it served as the terminus of the Oregon Trail. Just 30 miles south of Portland, the city now has a population of over 30,000, and is becoming a regional destination for business activity. Situated on the banks of the Willamette River, the city has varied topography, including a bluff that rises from the river to higher areas. The downtown area is on the lower level, but the McLoughlin Promenade, an important linear park, runs along the upper level around 100 feet above the downtown and the river. To connect these different districts, the city built a public elevator to connect the upper and lower districts, which now towers over the downtown area. The original elevator was built with wood in the 1910’s and was later reconstructed out of concrete and steel. It remains free to the public to ride and is the only "vertical street" left in North America, and only one of four municipally-owned elevators in the world.


Oregon City supports a growing business district (over 55 businesses have moved downtown in the last four years). Though the city itself has 30,000 residents, it serves as a hub for a broader region that includes stretches of rural and agricultural areas. The regional population numbers near 400,000, so its local “community,” understood broadly, includes not only the city’s residents themselves but also large rural populations dispersed around a 10-mile radius from Oregon City.


Because of the renewed interest, investment, and economic activity in the downtown area, it was important to emphasize the fact that it was a destination for diverse constituents—city residents and rural neighbors alike. To do this, the city sought projects that would reinforce a shared sense of identity. To support an active street life between the two levels of the city, and to promote economic activity between downtown and the McLoughlin Neighborhood overhead, it was imperative to underscore the critical role of the public elevator as both an important pedestrian connection and as an icon of the city.


The city wanted to find a way to visually enhance the public elevator, which was essentially a large concrete silo at the center of the city. The nonprofit organization Main Street Oregon City, Inc. (MSOC), in partnership with the Clackamas County Arts Alliance, issued a call for artist applications to imagine a project that would help to remake the elevator’s visual identity. The group decided on Tiffany Carbonneau, an artist whose work explores the identity of place and the artistic possibilities of familiar structures. With a practice of working with communities to carry out her work, Carbonneau’s experience was well suited for this very civic project. Her vision was to use projected video as a medium to project human forms, nature, and built elements, representing the culture of Oregon City, on the exterior of the elevator structure. The video projection would animate the elevator for several hours every evening, and would allow the entire community to freely appreciate it. They would call the project Illuminate Oregon City.


MSOC led the project management and coordination. The nonprofit organization follows the National Trust’s “Main Street” approach to community renewal, building partnerships that preserve cultural landmarks, celebrate identity, and create a unique sense of place. With a volunteer board led by a professional manager experienced in public art projects, MSOC was able to respond to diverse challenges. The organization worked closely with the City of Oregon City, the steward of the elevator. Rounding out the collaboration, Clackamas County Arts Alliance (CCAA) provided extensive experience in public art management. Metro, the regional government, which has worked with MSOC on the neighborhood, provided technical expertise in executing the project, and Portland State University analyzed and documented the social and economic conditions around the elevator and performed a pre- and post-occupancy study as a way to evaluate the project in quantitative terms.


From the moment the project was first conceived to the phase when it was implemented, the project organizers understood that collaboration would be fundamental. MSOC and the partners created a request-for-proposal artist selection process, which took about three months to complete. Once they selected Carbonneau, organizers assembled a Community Project Design Team comprised of technical professionals and community members that would help with preparing the site and facilitating resources to help execute the project. Community involvement was central to the endeavor, so MSOC organized a multi-tiered public engagement strategy that included design charrettes, focus group meetings, and site-based discussions. To open the project, local businesses and residents planned a launch party, and MSOC orchestrated an outreach campaign in print and on social media.


The project set out to increase the number of visitors to the downtown area, positioning it as a way to increase the district’s economic activity. Currently directed by MSOC and Portland State University, these numbers will be tracked in an evaluation process running from one month before the project to the conclusion of the year-long exhibit. By bringing people to the downtown area, it is anticipated that the installation will help to dispel the perception that the downtown is only a daytime central business district. Organizers also expect to create a broadly accessible and iconic art experience, based on community input, that provides a sense of shared identity.


The project brought out many unexpected and generous supporters to usher the project to fruition. KPFF Engineering, one of those supporters, assisted with the design for a projector pedestal that could withstand the nearly 300 pounds of equipment weight on a 25-foot pole that was safe in high winds and next to the more- than-40 trains passing the projector daily. Also, the public’s interest and support for the project surpassed the organizers’ expectations. For example during a severe snow storm in 2014, the projector was turned off, yet visitors still came to see the installation. While the organizers had no way to communicate with the broad audience, the public found ways to let them know it was not on, acting as true partners and showcasing their level of interest in the project.


Hundreds attend premiere of light show projected on Oregon City's iconic elevator
The Oregonian ()

Illuminate Oregon City
Online home of project collaborator based in Sweden

With a facilities improvement fund, the City of Oregon City provided $100,000 for improvements to the elevator in keeping with the mid-century modern design, which included painting the structure, interior and exterior lighting, and updating signage at the tunnel entrance.

Initially, organizers found it challenging to dialogue with civic leaders about the value of projected light and video, which is both ephemeral and physically intangible. As a historic structure, the tower presented a dynamic canvas for this art form, yet many leaders needed time to understand the opportunity at hand.