Diving suit 2

An antique diving suit at the Oregon Historical Society.

ON A BITING January night, two hundred people have crammed into the Kennedy School theater on NE 33rd Avenue, sipping wine and IPA. As slides of vibrantly colored murals blink on the big screen, a trio of sexagenarian artists—Jenny Harada Allen, Henry Frison, and Chonitia Henderson Smith—tell how, in the winter of 1977 and 1978, they created 20-by-20-foot paintings on buildings only a few blocks away, depicting moments in local and national African American history, from the earliest pioneers and cowboys to the many blacks who lost their homes in the Vanport flood. The Albina Mural Project may be long gone, but hearing the unrehearsed remarks of these three friends, reunited here for the first time in 20 years, brings the idealistic visions of their youth poignantly back to life.

This is History Pub. In the summer of 2008, Karen Kinzey of the Holy Names Heritage Center, the Lake Oswego branch of the national Catholic women’s group, approached OHS and McMenamins about fusing free historical discussions with beer, emulating the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s popular Science Pub nights. Nearly three years later, the program is an unqualified success: on the last Monday of every month, up to 400 people show up to tipple and learn the history of everything from homosexuality in the Northwest to the landmark brewpub legislation of the 1980s.

Hunger for such Oregon stories is growing. The Dill Pickle Club, a two-year-old nonprofit, has led historical tours of Portland’s Chinatown and taken groups out to logging and timber sites. It recently began publishing the popular (and engaging) Oregon History Comics series, tapping a rich artery of often-little-known stories like the Vanport Flood, the Portland alt-music breeding ground the X-Ray Café, and the death of certain Portland highways—all on a budget of $30,000. Bosco-Milligan, an architectural history organization founded 24 years ago with a cache of old house parts gathered by two collectors, has grown into a $300,000-per-year institution, serving an annual audience of 50,000 and housed in a $2 million historic building on SE Grand Avenue. And over the past 28 years, well before History Pub, the McMenamin brothers have built a veritable empire on mixing history with beer and food, festooning their collection of renovated landmarks with old photos and interpretive stories. The company even employs a full-time historian—that’s one more than OHS.

Theater booth 2

A ticket booth from the 1908 Fox Theatre.

Over the same period that all of these efforts grew—much of it during the largest economic boom in decades, which fertilized major growth spurts for many a Portland cultural organization—OHS has slowly stumbled and often plummeted downhill.

In many ways, the institution still lies in the long shadow cast by its first executive director, Tom Vaughan, who ran the society from 1954 to 1989. Vaughan’s motto was simple: “History can be sold,” he once confidently assured the Portland City Club.

The trained historian and charismatic organizer and fundraiser walked his talk, securing an average $1 million a year (in 2010 dollars) in funding from the Legislature and building the 57,000-square-foot brutalist architectural landmark on the South Park Blocks that now serves as the society’s home. As the economic downturns in the 1970s and ’80s came and went, he imported blockbuster exhibits like the original Magna Carta, instituted an oral history program, and oversaw cutting-edge preservation efforts of its burgeoning historical film acquisitions.

Shoes that big are hard to fill. Vaughan’s retirement in 1989 prompted a series of weak attempts: historians like Bill Tramposch from Williamsburg, Virginia, who clashed with staff and board; former Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus, who facilitated a major renovation of the Park Blocks building but failed to fill it with people; and, most recently, Vogt, who arrived from Delaware’s Hagley Museum and Library just in time for the Great Recession.