40 for 40: Lewis County
Merit Awards in Centralia

By Holly Chaimberlainprevious story | next story | all stories

Bricks and mortar and policy wonkishness were both honored in Centralia in 1988 with Washington Trust Awards of Merit. The city received an award for excellence in rehabilitation of the City Hall, while the Main Street Association was recognized for creation of design guidelines for their downtown business district – a new concept at the time. That Centralia won two awards in one year is a testament to the town’s determination to reclaim, promote, and protect the history of its downtown core.

Centralia, historically a commercial and rail shipping hub for southwest Washington, was founded and platted in 1875 by George Washington, an African American who was the son of a former slave. Boom and bust cycles affected the town’s development but verdant nearby farmland, natural resources, the railroad, and two rivers kept it going and generally growing through the turn of the century and beyond. Substantial civic structures such as the 1921 brick City Hall represented the successful growth and urban solidity. Architect Joseph Wohleb, whose significant Olympia-based practice ranged from Sequim in the north to Kelso in the south, provided an eclectic design. His wide-ranging commissions included a number of public buildings, such as the Shelton City Hall, buildings on the Capitol campus, and fraternal lodges. Work honored by the 1988 Trust award included rehabilitation of the main entrance.

With the construction of Interstate 5, Centralia’s Main Street was bypassed – a story that was repeated throughout the country with the proliferation of freeways. Downtown businesses suffered greatly from the lack of traffic while travelers sped by on the interstate, and general downturns from restrictions on activities such as logging affected the ability of local people to make purchases. Concerned citizens rallied, however, to make the most of their architectural legacy. Part of Centralia’s preservation success can be attributed to the timely and proactive adoption in 1987 of downtown design guidelines. This work, honored by the Trust, included an examination of existing conditions, recommended and not recommended approaches to rehabilitation work, and general suggestions for downtown improvements in signage and lighting, among other information intended to encourage preservation. A 2011 Centralia preservation action plan noted that: “These guidelines, although they reflect a point in time, remain very useful and are still referred to today.”

Washington Trust award programs began around 1986 as a way to recognize and celebrate what was being done right in the preservation world statewide. Reflecting the aim of “by honoring an exemplary few, the Trust hopes to inspire many,” award programs over time recognized exceptional merit for historic preservation and archaeology in regard to projects, individuals, organizations, preservation tools (i.e. guidelines), publications (i.e. walking tour brochures), and journalistic coverage. Other means of celebration and appreciation included the creation and distribution of National Historic Preservation Week posters from 1985 through c. 1989 which highlighted preservation successes and challenges, and Preservation month receptions at the Governor’s Mansion, and the Washington Centennial certificate program created by board member Mona Russell of Tacoma in 1989 to honor territorial properties which predated statehood and were being preserved as “a piece of material history of our state.”

This story is part of a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. This story highlights many of our programs and shows just how much need there is for strong preservation connections across the state. If you would like to support our work and spur more positive outcomes for Washington's historic resources, please consider making a special gift to the Washington Trust to support the advocacy work we do. Continuous stewardship is needed to protect that irreplaceable legacy for future generations – we appreciate and look forward to your ongoing participation and support.

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