Ashland Architecture

After posting my review of the performance of Equivocation that I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year, I’d like to share some photos of and reflections on my time in Ashland last year.

The Elizabethan Theatre is reminiscent of outdoor theatres in England, such as the Fortune and the Globe, clearly referring to the importance of Shakespeare and his times to Ashland.

This picture shows the outside of the theatre. Entrances are beside the lampposts nearest the ivy covered wall, which runs around the entire back of the theatre, towards our left in this picture. We learned that this wall, the ivy covered one, marked the back wall of the original ampitheatre at the site that housed travelling Chautauqua troupes before the Shakespeare festival started in 1935.

“America’s First Elizabethan Theatre”: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a long history on this site, dating back to 1935. There have been three Elizabethan style theatres on this site that the Festival has built.

This picture shows the Elizabethan Theatre’s stage, set up for Much Ado About Nothing. As a repertory theatre, plays are performed in rotation, with two plays usually trading places on the stage on consecutive nights. Only evening performances are possible on this stage, because of the heat; during our back stage tour, we stood on the stage for a few moments – it was sweltering in the almost desert like conditions of an Ashland afternoon. Henry VIII, the other play we say there, had a larger balcony, a prominent staircase, and projections on the white walls at the sides. It was amazing to see how quickly the crews could completely transform the stage. A flag is run up the flag pole about five minutes before each performance, by an actor leaning out the centre top window, to add to the festive atmosphere of the experience. All three levels are usable for acting, although the actor who gave us our backstage tour said that they usually only use the stage level and the one above it.

In this picture, you can see part of the balcony and most of the ground level seats in the Elizabethan Theatre. The theatre is incredibly well designed to create excellent sight lines; there are no bad seats in the theatre. However, because it is an outdoor theatre, some of the dialogue was difficult to hear. Two sets of stairs provide access to the balcony, coming up from the courtyard in the space between the theatre and the ivy covered wall pictured earlier.

This is the only interior shot I got of the Angus Bowmer theatre, before an usher chastised me for taking photos inside the theatre – they take their rule against doing so very seriously. This is a magnificent lobby: the glass wall overlooks the courtyard between the Angus Bower and Elizabethan stages, towards the administration building; its ceiling is made up of sloping cedar beams connected by cedar paneling. It’s reminiscent of Arthur Erickson’s architectural style, without the concrete.

The theatre space itself is amazing. The audience is placed in long curving rows, without a centre aisle; the result is that there are no bad seats – perfect sight lines in every direction. It is also almost acoustically perfect for spoken dramas; whispers are audible in virtually all circumstances. The sound system, however, was not designed properly for musicals, so watching The Music Man in that space wasn’t as nice as in other theatres that I’ve had the pleasure of watching from.

The stage in the Bowmer is also incredible. They put on two shows a day in there, so set changes have to be done in only a few hours. During the backstage tour, we saw a time lapse video which showed the highly choreographed and oft rehearsed process of changing between two productions – the crew can do a full set change in under two hours! Hydraulic lifts and large backstage areas help make the crew’s magic possible.

Every night, before the evening shows, there’s a free “Green Show” in the courtyard between the theatres. Traveling performers audition to play during the Festival; a large variety of acts come to show their stuff. This picture shows two of the five members of Anai, which is a Ghanaian drumming group. I didn’t catch their names.

This is a picture of the beautiful Art Deco movie theatre in Ashland, the Varsity. One night while we were there, with no theatre shows to attend, we saw Away We Go on one of the four tiny screens. Both the exterior and interior feature well preserved examples of its Art Deco heritage, including the neon accents outside and wood detailing inside.

I wish we taken more photos of the hotel we stayed in – The Columbia Hotel is a beautiful old building, with lots of original details. The service there was excellent. The location perfect, being in easy walking distance to all the tourist attractions and well connected to bus routes. As long as you can handle shared bathrooms and steep stairs (pictured here – beautiful wood), this is a great place to stay in Ashland.

One of the most delightful parts of our trip was how dog friendly Ashland is. This was the only dog bar we found during our frequent walks through the picturesque town, but we saw lots of dogs. A tourist town that is so dog friendly that you can’t help but come across two or three a block is quite impressive. I use it as an informal measure of a place’s livability; if there are lots of dogs around:

  • A person’s “best friend” is a welcome feature of the community, leading to good mental and physical health on average.
  • There are lots of people out walking their dogs, at many different times of day, creating lots of “eyes on the street.”
  • Because there are lots of “eyes on the street,” there’s a greater tendency to create good pedestrian and park infrastructure, in ways that encourage other people to use public spaces.
  • In helping to generate diverse uses by diverse people, dogs help to create the kind of city that Jane Jacobs envisioned in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Francesca and I will hopefully return to Ashland next year. If and when we do, I will provide a more critical commentary on the city and the dangers associated with becoming a “tourist town.”

This entry was posted in Architecture, Historic Sites, Pedestrians, Pets, Public Space, Theatre, Travel, U.S.A.. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ashland Architecture

  1. Just came across your fine blog when I looked for a photo of the Bowmer Theatre for my blog. Your post here is a really fine description of the theatres in Ashland , with great photos. Thanks also for including the Varsity, and my favorite hotel, the Columbia (by the way, if you use the back door, on the alley, there aren’t so many stairs). You might have heard about the sudden closing of the Bowmer to repair a damaged beam. Here’s another blogger’s account of how OSF is dealing with the problem – and the OSF press release .

  2. Thanks for your fine post and photos! A great summary of two of the OSF theatres (hope you’ll cover the New Theatre next time you come to OSF) – and the Green Show (I think I saw that same performance), the Varsity, and the Columbia Hotel (by the way, the back entrance, off the alley, only has a few stairs). As an Ashland resident I’ll be interested to see your promised perspective, as a visitor, on the dangers of becoming a tourist town.

    (I came across your blog while looking for a photo of the Bowmer. In case it isn’t headline news where you are, you might be interested to see the current story of its temporary closing – see and )

    • vincentgornall says:

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, Francesca and I didn’t make it back to Ashland this year, but hope to do so in the future.

      One of the main features of the “critical commentary” I vaguely promised last year was a discussion of housing prices. The cab driver who picked us up at the airport in Medford complained that many young people, actors and festival staff, and even university staff and faculty, were being priced out of the local housing market because Ashland had become a destination city where land values were inflated by people buying vacation homes that they did not occupy year round. I haven’t verified his claims through further reading. Is this something you have direct experience with?

      There are also other dangers associated with being a tourist city, but since I’m not sure if they apply Ashland, I won’t mention them unless I have a chance to do further research.

  3. Sorry about the double comment! I always have a hard time figuring out the comment function on WordPress and couldn’t tell if my first attempt succeeded (obviously) – thought it didn’t and tried again and then gave up. And now there are two. Argh!

    Yes, housing prices are a real problem here. The city is trying to deal with it, encouraging some green and affordable housing where they can, so people who work here can also afford to live here, but there are political divisions over that. Mostly it’s a very progressive town (how many US cities vote for extra taxes so they can keep libraries open? not many) but once people own here they only want to see prices go up. This might be changing now that the bubble has burst and people are discovering other priorities such as sustainability. Also, property taxes are extremely high here (Oregon has no sales tax). There are much more affordable places to live nearby, just a few miles outside town, but Ashland itself is lacking a really healthy mix of income levels.

    Besides part-time residents, the other groups blamed for driving up housing prices are people from California (at least, before the bubble burst) whose property prices were so inflated that Ashland’s high prices seemed a bargain to them, and retirees (like me) who are willing to trade all they own just to have a small foothold here. OTOH we volunteer a lot!

    The other thing longtime residents complain about is the closing of downtown “home” stores in favor of stores catering to tourists. However, this isn’t really a serious problem; in fact there’s still a drug store in the middle of town and you only have to go a few blocks to “A” street to a hardware store. One of the things Ashland does right is to keep “big box” stores out of town; for those, you can go to Medford; we support locally owned businesses even if they aren’t right on main street anymore. Some people complain of traffic, and parking shortages, but again, these don’t seem like problems to me compared to everyplace else I’ve lived! For me, the influx of tourists is one of the charms of living here. I like being around people who like being here – the more the merrier.

    One worry people had about our tourist economy emerged when the big collapse began, but fears were unfounded, at least so far; the OSF and other festivals (AIFF etc.) have all continued to be strong. But there are more empty storefronts this year, with people going out of business for various reasons. And gallery owners say they’ve had a downturn; tourists still come but don’t buy as many high-end artworks as before.

    That’s about all I can think of at the moment; when you come back for another visit, I’ll be interested to see your take on the question, as you bring more professional expertise and a different perspective.

    Hope this works. I’ll just log in once this time.

    • vincentgornall says:

      I think WordPress’ spam filter caught your first two comments because you had links in them; I had to manually approve them, and was lucky to catch them the day you posted them, since I often don’t check the spam box for weeks at a time! I’m happy I did catch them, because your commentary is excellent.

      What you’ve written about Ashland certainly seems to be true from what I observed. It’s managed to maintain a very charming downtown and avoid the problems caused by big box stores. Since I don’t drive, I didn’t encounter parking or other congestion problems as a driver, but I did notice that the downtown is very walkable and has a lot of traffic calming measures in place to make pedestrians comfortable. I also found the local bus system to be surprisingly good for a small town. Francesca and I were able to get within a fifteen minute walk of a winery near the edge of town; we were also able to get to the Medford airport with a single transfer between routes, something not possible in many bigger cities. (I recently got back from a trip to Quebec City, which doesn’t even provide transit to the airport!)

      Something else that Ashland has managed to avoid is becoming a one industry town. Along with the OSF, there is the university and several nearby wineries. This means that a single industry doesn’t have the political and economic clout to wrest as big zoning and tax concessions from the municipality as it would if there weren’t as much economic diversity. That is an important feature to maintain in the future, especially with the economic downturn.

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