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Mount Tabor Park Reservoirs Historic District

The reservoirs in Mount Tabor Park were nominated and listed in the National Register of Historic Places in January, 2004. Volunteers of the Friends of the Reservoirs with assistance from other members of the public, prepared the nominations not only for the three Mount Tabor Park reservoirs but also the two located in Washington Park. The names of the nominations are: Mount Tabor Park Reservoirs Historic District and the Washington Park Reservoirs Historic District. The National Register of Historic Places is administered by the National Park Service. They may be reached at: http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/index.htm

In lieu of a local process, the City of Portland uses a listing in the National Register of Historic Places to identify those resources eligible for a Type III land use review, the most in-depth review, when certain changes are being considered. A Type III review requires a public hearing and the Neighborhood Association must be contacted. For more information on the City of Portland's Historic Design Review, see the Bureau of Developmental Services (BDS) at: http://www.portlandonline.com/bds/index.cfm?a=74223&c=37424. Properties on the National Register should be marked with a dot "." on zoning maps, although the historic reservoir districts have not been marked to date.


Historical Significance of the Reservoirs

Portland's reservoirs were created to be more than utilities and were constructed as park amenities in both Mount Tabor Park and Washington Park (formerly City Park). Both sites were chosen for the reservoirs due to their geographical significance with elevations suitable for supplying gravity fed water to the City. Although the section of City Park where the reservoirs reside predated the construction of the Washington Park reservoirs, Mount Tabor Park's development was strongly influenced by the siting of the reservoirs.

The south and demolished reservoir in Mount Tabor Park, along with the two in Washington Park, were constructed in 1894 as receptacles for Bull Run watershed mountain drinking water. The Bull Run area was one of the first federally protected regions in the country. This water was delivered solely by gravity to the reservoirs that were designed to also work with gravity. The creation of this first municipal service heralded Portland's place as a major West Coast city and allowed for rapid growth to occur. The system was modeled after earlier systems in Boston and New York.

Portland's visionary engineers designed lovely reservoirs and gatehouses complete with finely crafted wrought iron fencing and electric light features (with electricity to be delivered via hydroelectric generated by the drop between reservoirs) and unique romantic Romanesque concrete gatehouses. Concrete construction was rare in that time. The oldest, oval gatehouses bear the patent of a famous concrete craftsman and are examples of some of the earliest reinforced concrete buildings in the nation. They are also graced with a pain-staking, hand-embellished finish to give them the appearance of natural, rough hewn rock. The deep basins provide the parks with grand vista areas, and give Mount Tabor Park views now preserved in the City's Scenic Resource Protection Plan. Water sounds are provided at the inlets without the use of electricity. The reservoirs achieved the goal of the City Beautiful movement's precepts of their era: to embody beauty with utility, providing grand interfaces between high quality mountain water with the citizens it served. The reservoirs, still provide some of the best water in the nation and the quality of their craftsmanship and design stand as a testimony to the potential of civic vision coupled with good engineering.

Out of over 5,000 sites reviewed in the last inventory (1980's) of the City's historic resources, the reservoirs at both Mount Tabor and Washington Park comprised 6 of the 52 resources given a Rank One, the highest possible rating. Resources with this ranking were expected to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places but the City did not follow through on the National Register process. In the 1990's, one of the reservoirs at S.E. 60th and Division was demolished and sold to a private enterprise. As a mitigation, the gatehouse was placed on the National Register and was sold separately as a private residence.

The Future of the Reservoirs

Community objection to the Reservoir Replacement Project (2002), including a City appointed review panel, derailed a large project that would have had not only an adverse effect on the reservoirs but on a large portion of Mount Tabor Park, including a new access road for heavy construction machinery. The Reservoir Replacement Project, with cost estimates nearing $100 million, would have demolished the reservoirs at Mount Tabor. Plans called for replacing them with giant tanks buried 2-3 feet under ground, and would have placed synthetic floating covers on the Washington Park reservoirs until their eventual demolition. The project contract with the engineering firm was terminated by City Council in July, 2004.

The chief costs of the reservoirs, at this time, is the fee paid by the Water Bureau to the Bureau of Environmental Services (sewage treatment) for dumping the water from the reservoirs when they are cleaned. This seems an unsustainable way to dispose of this water but is apparently required due to the residual chlorine compounds that may not flow directly into the river. The reservoirs, like many other components of the water system, are in need of maintenance that has been long deferred. Because the reservoirs are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and are public resources, some maintenance may be eligible for grant money.

Despite the fact that the reservoirs have been classified in good condition by recent evaluations, as well as providing low cost water storage and delivery via gravity, the City would like to move forward on demolition and replacement of the reservoirs. This would dovetail into other construction projects at various sites, such as a large 5-acre membrane filtration plant, and an U.V. radiation treatment facility. Costs would exceed $300 million significantly increasing water rates and impart debt to the City. Because of Portland's protected water shed, the City's water meets or exceeds all regulatory parameters without these projects.

The community remains on alert over high-priced, controversial changes to Portland's water system. If new regulations for water quality are promulgated, Portland can join in the national conversation to choose protection of source water over expensive engineering projects based on, what could appear to be, industry-led research.

For More Information

Documents
The 3 reservoirs in Mount Tabor Park were placed in the National Register of Historic Places on January 15, 2004. Here is the electronic version (Adobe PDF) of the official nomination entitled Mount Tabor Park Reservoirs Historic District:

Paper copies of this nomination may be viewed at the Multnomah County Central Library. For more information about this nomination, contact: Cascade Anderson Geller, cag@easystreet.com.

The Friends of the Reservoirs have led the grass-root efforts at helping the community to understand the reservoir and other water projects as well as spearheaded the historic nomination process. They will remain vigilant. For more information, go to:

Friends of the Reservoirs, http://friendsofreservoirs.org/

State Historic Preservation Office, http://www.hcd.state.or.us/shpo/

National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/