December 2001 FEATURES The Multnomah Village Post 9:15

Oregon History and Architecture Meet in Cotton's Illustrations

By K.C. Cowan

The Multnomah Village Post

If you think you have to travel to distant lands to see diverse architecture, Alice Cotton would like to tell you to think again. This illustrator/artist has compiled a book detailing some of the most interesting homes and buildings in the state, and it’s sure to find its way under more than one Christmas tree!

When Buildings Speak: Stories Told by Oregon's Historical Architecture, is the result of a math class Cotton was teaching that combined the arts with academics.

"I called the class ‘Artistic Expressions of Mathematical Ideas,’" said Cotton. "Architecture is a real natural place for this type of learning, so I started looking for buildings in Oregon that would be inspiring architecturally."

Cotton has been an illustrative artist for years, using the pen and ink technique. She draws both private homes and office buildings, but says she tries to give the owners more than just an outline.

"There's illustration and then there's the fine arts and I do both," said Cotton. "Sometimes I embellish [the drawings] with a little watercolor, but people really like the black and white. It has texture that you can't get with a paintbrush."

Cotton's book takes the reader from the Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island, to the Tillamook Bay Coast Guard Station, to the Hollywood Theatre in NE Portland. Buildings you've probably driven past and admired many times.

Now, you can learn about the history of these structures, thanks to the research by Cotton. Sometimes she spoke to owners, but mostly, she had to do some archival digging.

"All of the houses in the book are in the National Register of Properties," she said. "So I can go down to Salem and the preservation office and they have all the nomination files of the buildings, so I can read about them that way.

It might surprise you to see how many different styles of architecture Oregon features. Cotton said her research made her feel that the Northwest was really the new world of the new world where people came searching for new opportunities, but brought old favorites with them.

"There are details and elements on historical buildings that date back to Greek and Roman times. And so, I realize that when I look at particular kinds of columns or entablature or detail, I'm not just looking at something designed 100 years ago, but that was designed a thousand years ago."
Cotton not only includes the history of each structure, but also a short description of how she discovered it, and personal anecdotes about her experience in drawing it.

For example, to photograph Mahonia Hall, the Governor's mansion in Salem, Cotton crawled through the bushes by the fence to get a dear shot. Of course, a security guard noticed her, but fortunately let her finish taking her pictures.

Cotton includes a lot of detail on architecture, making the book an educational one, but she says it holds appeal for a lot of people.
"People who love architecture, people who own historic buildings, people who are tourists and want to know something about Oregon," Cotton said. "People who attend museums and are into history and particularly regional history."

"And art lovers," she added. "Because it is an art book for people who love pen and ink."

As you leaf through the book, you'll see many buildings that look familiar, and others that will be new to you. Each drawing has an amazing amount of detail, inviting you to linger over them. And just as Cotton creates an artistic rendering of a home, she sees each building as a work of art in itself.

"Just as we preserve any work of art, that's what these buildings represent," said Cotton. "Historians see them as artifacts, but I see them as works of art. Three dimensional works of art."

Clearly, the beautiful architecture and design of these homes and offices speaks to Cotton. "When Buildings Speak” may well have something to say to you, too.

Alice Cotton will talk about her book at Annie Bloom's Books on Wednesday, December 5th, at 7:30 p.m. mvp