Perched atop a hill but somewhat hidden on the corner of Pioneer and 10th, the old College of Philomath building represents a peek into the city’s past. A local nonprofit organization believes it can breathe new life into the aging structure to serve the community well into the future.
Scott Ramsey, who has been holding on to a vision for the building’s revitalization since his involvement began two decades ago, said this week that the project is about to ramp up again now that the loan will likely be paid off in a little over two years.
“We applied for a nonprofit in 2003 and now it’s 2023, so it’s been exactly 20 years,” Ramsey said. “In the last year, our board has doubled from four board members to eight and there is lots of new enthusiasm. I have gone from feeling like I was on a never-ending, go-nowhere project to now all of the sudden realizing I might actually live to see the end of this.”
The College of Philomath Community Corporation was organized in 2003 and its bylaws have not changed over the years with the building to be used as a community center, learning center and senior center.
The 6,368-square-foot building sits on a half-acre city lot in the residential zone. Four tenants currently occupy the space with apartments on the top two floors. A fifth apartment had been occupied in the daylight basement space but needed to be vacated for repairs and to provide access to project engineers. Asbestos was also discovered in the basement’s flooring, which was originally used as the college’s administrative office.
The building was constructed in 1909 by the College of Philomath, the rival religious-based educational institution to the long-established Philomath College. Originally it was called Barkley Hall in honor of Bishop H.L. Barkley, the man who led fundraising efforts and supervised the building’s construction.
Just four years after it had been built, the College of Philomath closed its doors because of financial problems.
Philomath College purchased the building in the early 1920s and used it as a music conservatory. Financial difficulties took a toll, however, and Philomath College shut down in 1929. A lack of enrollment and poor financial management were cited as reasons for the shutdown.
In the 1930s, the Philomath School District leased the building and used the space for first- through third-grade classrooms. Known as Hill School, it remained in use well into the 1940s until students started going to a new Philomath Elementary in the fall of 1948.
In the following years, the classrooms were transformed into apartments.
“One of the nice things about it is when they made it into apartments, they just took the two classrooms downstairs and made each one of those into an apartment,” Ramsey said. “Then they took the large banquet room upstairs, they put a wall down the middle and put an apartment on each side.”
The simplistic approach to transforming the space into apartments means some of the original components of the building remained in place.
“Right in the middle of the hallway, there’s an access panel that you can push up right in front of the belltower,” Ramsey said. “You can get up and look in there and there’s these old chandeliers from when it was a college building.”
Twenty years ago, Ramsey, who was a Philomath city councilor at the time, led an effort to restore the building and work toward National Register of Historic Places status. The vision was to use the structure as a senior center and office space for nonprofits. At the time, the Philomath Montessori School had interest in renting space if the project materialized.
Philanthropist Andrew Martin became interested in the possibilities and stepped in to personally guarantee a loan to purchase the building. Originally, the arrangement with the College of Philomath Community Corporation was a five-year loan with a balloon payment.
“We all thought, ‘oh, this building is so grantable’ … there just seemed like there were lots of avenues where we could apply for grants,” Ramsey said. “Everybody was all gung-ho on it.”
Ramsey said the organization wrote nine different grants from various angles — senior center, historic preservation, education and community center. But none were awarded.
“They all basically said the same thing — that you guys have no equity in this,” Ramsey said. “I mean, I get it now, that people don’t want to invest in a project that might get taken over by a bank or if I just walk away from it.”
The organization rebuilt the bell tower in 2005 — locals may remember the crane lowering it down onto the building — in a $75,000 project funded through the Ford Family Foundation’s Ford Institute Leadership Program. But without any significant grant funding for the overall project, the balloon payment was not going to happen. Martin reinvested his interest in the long-term project and in 2005 extended the loan with low interest over 20 years.
“We had nine to 11 board members and within a year or two, we were down to something like three because everybody was looking at this as a 20-year project,” Ramsey said. “So we just ended up being a rental company, just renting out apartments.”
In the years since, the group has been meeting quarterly to discuss things like tenants, rent, hot water heaters, furnace repairs and insurance.
“Currently, the building is appraised for $750,000 and we owe less than $60,000, so we owe less than 10% of what the building is currently worth,” Ramsey said. “We feel that we are close enough now that with a few good fundraisers, the building could finally be paid off and we would be eligible for lots of grants that we did not qualify for in the past.”
There’s much work to be done to bring the building back to its original appearance plus add in modern necessities, including a commercial kitchen and a four-stop elevator. Rebuilding the structure’s front staircase is on the list of priorities and the building needs a seismic retrofit.
“My opinion on the board is the first thing I think we should do is the seismic upgrade,” Ramsey said. “Because all of this can be lost if a big earthquake hits and the building will probably end up down on 10th Street somewhere. There’s nothing at all that we found anywhere that shows the framing is actually attached to the foundation other than just the weight of the building.”
A 114-year-old foundation, by the way, that is still in top shape with no cracks in it, Ramsey said.
The application to be put on the national register has been sitting idle for years but that effort is beginning to pick up steam. Years ago, an Oregon State student completed research that evaluates the historical and architectural significance of the building and the nonprofit’s board hired an individual who specializes in national register applications. Ramsey hopes to soon be making a presentation to the State Historic Preservation Office.
“We’re hoping right around the first of the year to be applying to get the building on the national registry and that will also make us eligible for more grants,” Ramsey said.
Once that becomes a reality, the long-awaited College of Philomath building project may see everything fall into place. Perhaps one day, the community’s seniors will be socializing over a meal or a local service club might choose to hold its monthly meetings within those walls. Maybe even a local yoga instructor will be leading a class in the basement.
Those are the types of things Ramsey wants to see happen. A lover of local history — he lives in the George W. Bethers House, which is on the national register — Ramsey shows a deep appreciation for the College of Philomath building’s connection to the city’s past.
The senior center has been a particular area of interest for Ramsey from the project’s inception 20 years ago — creating a meeting place in the building where many of those same people attended classes as a youngster at Hill School.
“Those people have all gone now,” he said. “I just want to get it done so I can use it.”