Sunday, December 6, 2009

Arcata Plaza

I started taking Spanish last summer – not because I am planning a trip to Mexico, but because I thought it would be good for the “little gray cells”, as Poirot would say. I’m not sure that it is working, but I am enjoying the class and other students. Learning a new language, or at least new vocabulary, is actually something we all do whenever we pursue a new job or hobby. Knitting, car mechanics, and bird watching – they all have their own language. Doing HALS work requires learning the language of the National Park Service (NPS), who has established the methodology for documenting cultural landscapes. It is important that everyone involved in this work use the same terms and definitions – so there is consistency throughout the country when we write about our national heritage properties.

Integrity is one of words that has special meaning. It is defined as, “the ability of a property to convey its significance.” To be listed on the National Register of Historic Places a site must have significance and it must retain integrity. The National Register criteria recognizes seven aspects or qualities of integrity, which are: location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association. When evaluating a site’s integrity one considers each of these qualities and makes a judgment about whether or not it retains integrity.

Integrity is an issue I thought about when we visited Arcata Plaza during our May 2009 HALS vacation. While many of the features of Arcata Plaza have been altered, I feel it retains sufficient integrity to qualify as a historic site. Note: the top photo by A.W. Ericson was part of a display in the Hotel Arcata.

Historic Features That Remain:
The plaza occupies one full city block and is surrounded by commercial and retail businesses housed in buildings of two and three stories. These businesses include small specialty shops; not chain stores. Diagonal parking surrounds the plaza on all four sides. The plaza continues to function as the hub of a thriving retail district.

The plaza retains most of its original formal layout – walks enter the center of the plaza from each corner. There are also mid-block walks on each street leading to the center of the plaza. There is a historic fountain, dated 1912, at the mid-block entrance on H Street. At the center of the plaza there is a circular paved plaza with a full size bronze statue of President William McKinley mounted on a pedestal at the center. Much of the plaza is planted in lawn. There are two remaining Canary Island Date Palms that match a pair visible in historic photos.

The plaza has undergone several renovations. Non-historic improvements include:
The circular walk that had been added by 1914 has been removed. Raised concrete planters have been added at the corner entry points and surrounding the central plaza. A raised planter now surrounds the bronze sculpture and a portion of the base has been buried. The paving for the corner and midblock walks has been replaced with exposed aggregate paving, and on some corners concrete pads with benches have been appended to the walk. New period-style light posts and period-style benches and other site furniture have been added.

Plaza History
Arcata Plaza was laid out by the Union Company in 1850, along with the surrounding blocks of commercial buildings. The plaza was known as the Commons. It became a parade ground, where a citizen’s military company drilled. The plaza was also used for grazing cows until 1901. The Plaza was the only place in town where bars and liquor stores could be located and accordingly women were not allowed until 1870.

Through the years, the Plaza served as the nucleus of community events. It was used as a ball park, a gathering place for town and national celebrations, the scene of huge 4th of July bonfires, of bicycle races, parades, Easter egg hunts, concerts, theatrical performances, fairs and an annual salmon bake.

By 1855, a railroad brought supplies to the southwest corner of the plaza to construct the businesses located around the plaza, and to support mining camps in the vicinity. An 1897 photograph shows the plaza with a similar configuration – mostly lawn, the diagonal paths, and wood plank sidewalk on all four sides.

In 1895 Arcata resident Charles Murdock though the plaza should be improved. He wrote, “The Plaza should be a thing of beauty and a center of life and interest. No building should rest upon it, but green sword, and well kept walks, a fountain, shrubs, and trees should be so attractive that it would be the pride of every citizen.” This led to the establishment of the Plaza Improvement Committee. A center bandstand was completed in 1901. In 1906, it was removed and the statue of McKinley was installed. By 1903 roses, boxwood hedges and the palms and other trees were planted. Murdock suggested the pattern of radiating sidewalks, which were completed in 1910.

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