Sep 1 2015

We've all heard the story of how a group of neighbors, alumni, community members and others got together to save Kennedy School from the wrecking ball in the late 1980s and into the early ‘90s.

But here's the story straight from one of the leaders of that quest, historic preservationist and neighborhood resident Melissa Darby, for whom one of our guestrooms at Kennedy is named. Melissa (shown below in Myrna Yoder's painting, at top left in blue) was a passionate, effective lobbyist whose efforts paid off -- the property was preserved and McMenamins took stewardship in 1997. Kennedy School has since become one of Portland's most unique landmarks, cited by preservation groups worldwide as an example of what can be done to rescue and rehabilitate old buildings.

The following excerpts were taken from Melissa's presentation at McMenamins Kennedy School's 10h Anniversary celebration on October 18, 2007:

"In my wildest, wildest dreams, I never would have thought that this school would be what it is now, or that this building would be what it is now."

"I remember when I first arrived in this neighborhood in 1979 and ... the school was being run down more and more, and we knew that it was gonna close, and I got to be friends with Agnes Kennedy White [daughter of the school's namesake J.D. Kennedy], and I said to her, ‘You know, someone really ought to do something about that school, it's really lovely.' ... I pretty much knew it was my turn to do this, especially because I had been working in the field of historic preservation .... So I called up the school district and said, ‘Hey, I think I'm gonna nominate it to the Register, and it'll help bring in developers.' They were not interested, they would not return my calls. ... I requested to the school board, ‘Hey, can we talk about this? Can we get on the agenda?' I would send letters, I got nothing back! I sent flowers to the superintendent with a little note saying, ‘If you get this, would you let me know if you're getting this?' I got nothing! Finally, we got a little action because I had nominated the building to the National Register, and it got some attention from the Oregonian, and it got some attention from the school board. Finally, since they [the school district] were going to be represented at a public meeting, they had to do something."

"In the meantime, things were happening here [at the school]. The friezes in the front were being taken down, and as they were being taken down, I ran in and talked to the crew, and they said that [the superintendent's assistant] wanted them for his office! ... I called up the Landmarks Commission, and they made sure that the friezes were put in storage and repaired." [Note: The four bas relief friezes had been crafted in Boston for the school's 1916 dedication by J.D. Ken­nedy. They are exquisite reproductions of Luca della Robbia's 15th-century masterworks done for the cathedral in Florence, Italy. Because they were rescued in the 1980s, these pieces were able to be restored as part of the school's 1997 renova­tion, and reinstalled in their origi­nal location, high on the wall in the school's foyer, for guests to enjoy today.]

"I started sending letters to the mayor [Bud Clark] and to the school board, and I would copy [the superintendent's assistant], and you know, the way you copy and abbreviate the name ‘Superintendent Assistant' is you write Super, period, Ass, period. And so, on all these letters subsequent to that, I would copy him: SuperAss. He didn't think that was so funny, but I kind of did, and the mayor thought it was funny too."

"In January 1989, Mayor Clark sent a letter to the school board dated December 30th, asking the board to delay any demolition of the Kennedy School for an additional period of 90 days. ... So we were under the axe, I mean, we had this small time to act, and we eventually got another stay and another proposal to reuse the building. But it still languished until about 1991 or '92... [W]e had to do three commission meetings... So, the people that I [recruited to] come to these meetings were some of the alumni -- and, the greatest group that ever was... the past PTA presidents of Kennedy School. I could call one of ‘em, they'd do the phone chain, they'd be at the meeting, and as you know, in public meetings, the more people who showed up, the more the commissioners and those folks would listen to you. ... They held my baby at the time, while I testified, and they were just great."

"And, the last thing I learned, speaking of babies, about this whole process is when you have a six-month old baby, and you're lobbying the county commissioners who, at that time, were mostly women, if you go to the county commission office and the baby's just a little bit cranky, they all come out of their offices, and then you just hand ‘em your baby and you lobby ‘em right there while they're juggling the baby. It really works, so in the future, remember that."

"So, in my wildest dreams, I never knew this [McMenamins Kennedy School] was gonna happen, but I am as happy as a clam."

If not for Melissa's efforts to garner the support of the community, the school alumni, the mayor's office and countless others, all of Kennedy School's remarkable architecture, history, stories and more would have been bulldozed into the ground and buried. We raise a glass to Melissa and her band of supporters who rallied around this school that served thousands of Northeast Portland families from 1915-75 and continues to inspire people on a daily basis.

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