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Land Swap

Ask Eugene Skinner?

The small in statue but large in stature bronzed man who sits on the log outside the Eugene Public Library was a generous man. He and pioneer partner, Charnelton Mulligan, each donated 40 acres of land to be used to build our county seat.  

Their legal legacy was the requirement that four acres of that land be reserved as a permanent public square with a county courthouse at its center. Lane County Commissioners in response set aside a 400 ft. by 400 ft. square of land, half taken from each donation, to create our downtown public square.  

Strictly speaking, 400 by 400 wasn’t quite four acres, but Eugene Skinner was a reasonable man, reasonable as well as generous, and that reasonableness with respect to the evolution of our central downtown square has been put to the test many times over in the years since its origins in 1854. 

Now, 163 years later, it is before us again as we contemplate swapping city and county land to build a new city hall and a new and much larger county courthouse.

But, you might wonder, how did our town square turn into the Park Blocks, and what happened to the first courthouse that was duly built at its center in 1855?

Eugene Skinner, who died in 1864, didn’t live to see the east-west extension of 8th Avenue and the north-south extension of Oak Street that cut through his square, dividing it into four public blocks, and that moved its central courthouse off to one side. There was never any question that the relocated courthouse remained central to the county’s business.  It was just no longer at the geographic center of the square. And so the new configuration remained unchanged until 1898 when the courthouse was once more enlarged and rebuilt. A suit challenging the quartering of Skinner’s original square and the requirement of a centrally located courthouse was belatedly raised at this rebuilding but defeated in court in 1899.  

The 1898 Lane County Courthouse was a grand and stately brick building and a significant piece of our architectural history that is still sorely missed, except perhaps by the people who could no longer fit the county’s business into it.  It was torn down and replaced to the north just outside the square in 1959. And at the same time the northwest Park Block was turned into what we now refer to as the “butterfly” parking garage because of its uplifted ends.

It helps to comprehend how much time and change has taken place downtown since the original Skinner-Mulligan land donation if we can imagine asking Eugene Skinner if he approved of using his park block as a parking garage. And hear Skinner reply, “What’s a parking garage?” Or ask whether he’d prefer our building a new nine-story courthouse that covered the butterfly block or getting this park block restored by building on the whole city hall block that is now available next door? And get this response, “What’s a nine-story building?”

For some years now, it’s been Harris Hall that has become the nerve center of our county seat. The Harris Hall entrance to the Public Service Building, which still sits on the original square, connects to the off-square courthouse to the north and until recently connected via Otto Poticha’s Blue Bridge across Pearl Street to the City Hall. 

If we build the new courthouse on the old City Hall block, Harris Hall would then connect to an off-square courthouse to the east rather than to the north. The site for a new City Hall at the north end of the butterfly garage was never a part of the Skinner Square. The county had to reacquire a half block of property north of the square to stretch the parking garage to 7th Avenue.

There have been so many changes to the original Skinner project, from the dicing of the square into blocks, to the migration off-square of the courthouse, to the modern size and conception of a courthouse and a county seat, that it makes one wonder why we are — after a year of lawyering — still doing the land swap two-step. Such hand-wringing lends itself too easily to such bad lawyer jokes as: What is the difference between poor corporate lawyers and rich corporate lawyers?  And the answer:

Poor corporate lawyers drag these matters out for years, whereas rich corporate lawyers drag them out forever.

Jerry Diethelm is an architect, landscape architect and a planning and urban design consultant as well as professor emeritus of Landscape Architecture and Community Service at the University of Oregon.