|Touch Up for an Aging Beauty
With the dedication of the new State of Oregon Law Library this month, Oregon’s legal community will have a library it can truly call its own.
Formerly known as the Oregon Supreme Court Library, the newly elegant space restores the luster of its original 1913 design but adds modern electronic touches to keep consistent with its purposes in 2002 and beyond.
Since the Oregon Supreme Court heard its first case in the building on Feb. 14, 1914, countless law students, law clerks, attorneys and judges have employed the space’s resources. Many prepared oral arguments there, or cooled their heels nervously waiting to argue a case.
According to library employees present and past, the room had become both dated and unattractive. 'It had gotten really shabby,' says Julie Bouché, who was a library assistant there for five years before becoming judicial assistant to Justice R. William Riggs.
A big reason was money. 'We went through a very bad period a few years ago, because the budget stayed the same for three bienniums,' says Joe K. Stephens, law librarian since 1994. During that same time, legal publishers raised prices of legal materials more than 30 percent annually, he adds. Four years ago, 'budget cuts had been so severe,' the library faced closing its doors, says Justice Susan M. Leeson, who chairs the library committee.
But because the library houses the major legal resources for the state, proponents of saving it successfully made the case that state agencies should all kick in to help pay for running it, Stephens explains. The library committee then got consultation from an architectural firm and prepared a master plan for renovating the antiquated space.
Prior to Stephens’ tenure, the library had undergone little change, in appearance or in the way it was run, for some 50 years, he says. Justice Robert D. Durham, who clerked at the Oregon Supreme Court from 1972 to 1974, remembers well when the library was under the direction of Ray Stringham. When Durham arrived, the venerable Stringham was well past normal retirement age; he spent about 30 years leading the library.
Fastidious and exacting, Stringham was always aware of comings and goings and what went on in his domain. 'We immediately came under his gaze when (Stringham noted) that we were removing books from the shelf and they were placed on the table,' recalls Durham. As far as the head of the library was concerned, the room was intended for members of the Oregon Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and lesser entities such as law clerks 'were regarded as interlopers,' he says. Should clerks leave the room even momentarily, they would return to find that the books had been returned to their proper place in the shelves.
The Supreme Court Library was decidedly a place for books, not electronic gadgets. 'Mr. Stringham was not comfortable with telephones,' recalls Durham. A single phone on the exterior wall of a large, boxy office in the center of the library was his only concession to modernity. It was placed on the outside of the office purposely, to spare his staff from having to deal with such an intrusion. Furthermore, firm time limits were in place for anyone who dared use the phone.
'The operation was an extension of his personality,' Durham says. Stringham was 'unapologetic about keeping (the library) in full working order for the justices of the Supreme Court' and judges of the Court of Appeals. 'He was very protective of the library and the judges,' says Durham, who remembers Stringham as 'a wise gentleman' and a prolific writer.
After Stringham’s tenure, Roger Andrus, who Durham says was a former military man, served as librarian for the next 20 years. Andrus had been Stringham’s assistant, and Bouché notes that he faced the same dilemma the library has for years: Whenever budgets need to be cut, the library often was the first place singled out for reductions.
'The history of the library is that it did not change much for about 50 years,' summarizes current librarian Stephens. 'During all those years, the library did things the same way while the world changed. What we are celebrating is bringing the library into the 20th century, if not the 21st.'
Once money could be found for a renovation, planners were mindful of two objectives, according to Leeson: to make the library 'technologically appropriate,' which meant it must accommodate primarily off-site users; and to maintain the integrity of the 1913 building. Stephens says they could not afford to follow the architects’ exact recommendations, but nonetheless were able to find local contractors 'who love that space as much as we did,' as Leeson puts it.
'The library obviously (was) intended to be a quite lovely space,' says Stephens. 'It was modified in ways over the years that made it ugly. We’ve tried to bring it back to what it looked like then.' Remodelers replaced the 'early harvest gold' paint and tried to match the lobby’s fine, Carrara marble with a dignified gray for the walls. They also installed new furniture, including 'standard law library carrels, but done in the mission style of the early 20th century,' he explains. Workers put in new lighting while still using period-compatible fixtures, and replaced much of the old, narrow shelving with sleek, dark new bookcases. On the technical side, the library got a facelift that included wiring and outlets, computers and a shared — with Willamette University and the state library — electronic catalog.
'The remodeling has been really faithful to the age and character of the building,' observes Lisa Norris-Lampe, a law clerk to the chief justice. 'It is a lot better on the eye, and more consistent with the role of the building.' She adds that the room still contains an old-fashioned check-in area and two balconies. 'They retained all that, which I really liked.' Leeson agrees: 'We kept it simple. It maintains the original integrity of the library.'
Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr. was particularly concerned about the building’s historical roots. His grandfather, John A. Carson, was a state senator who introduced legislation in 1911 to build a free-standing supreme court building. The bill appropriated $150,000 to construct 'a modern, fireproof building,' Carson reads from the original wording. The chief justice points out that, fortunately, legislators didn’t follow an initial proposal to make the building a wing of the existing capitol — which burned down in 1935.
Carson personally has used the library since 1959, beginning as a law student, then as a law clerk to his family’s firm, later as a practicing attorney, legislator and judge, and now as chief justice. The renovation 'was a wonderful group effort,' says Carson, who will speak at the May 22 dedication, which is at 3 p.m. at the building, at the corner of 12th and State streets in Salem. 'We’re all very pleased with it.'
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a Portland-area free-lance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2002 Cliff Collins