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Roger, McMinnville: Visiting the Evergreen Air & Space Museum

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Although I grew up in McMinnville and as a kid was obsessed with military aircraft and space vehicles, until last Friday I'd never set foot inside the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in my hometown. But with family visiting from out of state, we finally had the excuse to go.
The museum, recently expanded, now consists of three buildings: one for the aviation museum, housing most famously Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose", one for an IMAX theater, and one for the new space museum.

All three buildings are basically huge triangles sitting on a landscape of rolling farmland, along Highway 18 just outside McMinnville. Designed by Scott Edwards architecture of Portland, they also, I'm told, had lots of input from Evergreen founder/owner Delford Smith, who is quite the Howard Hughes figure in his own right. (I worked two summers at Evergreen in college, and the stories about his company and its top-down leadership, however much they may have been small-town myth, were eye-raising: regular drop-of-the-hat employee firings and gun runs to the Nicaraguan 'Contras' for the CIA.) One thing's clear, though: they have a wonderful collection of air and spacecraft. I half expected Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to be playing as they stamped our hands to enter the museum. (I love the smell of tourism in the morning.)

Evergreen museum 043 The buildings slightly resemble the agricultural barns common to the semi-rural Willamette Valley, but also have a strong sense of classical architecture with their meticulous symmetry.I don't love the look of these buildings, but I think they are simple enough to endure somewhat well over the years upon the landscape.

Inside, they are vast open spaces pretty much like airplane hangars. Being there on a hot summer day, we were also surprised to find there wasn't any air conditioning being used (at least in the aviation portion of the museum), despite the massive greenhouse effect from the buildings' glass front and back facades. We were also astonished that Evergreen charges three separate admissions for each of its air, space and IMAX attractions.

But it certainly was a thrill to see the air and space craft on display. As a child, my dad was in the air force, and I had a deep and enduring love for fighter planes. This was the height of the Cold War, so in addition to American F-4 Phantoms and F-15 Eagles, I also loved and memorized the look of the Soviet  MIG-25 Foxbat and the MIG-29 Fulcrum. If you'd have told me as I kid there'd be a MIG-29 parked at Evergreen in 2008, I'd have thought, "I knew it. Red Dawn was right!"

Evergreen museum 024 Having now wound up later in life as an architecture and art critic/journalist, though, I also think that growing up in a small town without an art museum or those kinds of cultural offerings, the look of sports cars and jet planes was my childhood version of sculpture. And let me tell you: the F-4 phantom on display at Evergreen's museum was as awe-inspiring as I imagined it as a child. This was a do-everything plane: an interceptor, a dogfighter, a bomber, and it was one of the loudest the Air Force ever flew. And with its slightly dipped nose, the Phantom looked just a bit like a vulture - only one that created its own meals. The F-4 on display at Evergreen had two red stars painted on its side to represent its Vietnam kills. (A P-38 Mustang from World War II at the museum actually had 48 small Japanese flags on its facade. But it's the Cold War jets that I'll always love.)

Evergreen museum 046 Although the Spruce Goose was indeed incredible to behold, with its unprecedented massiveness that towered over all the other scores of planes at Evergreen, and the many rockets from the golden age of space exploration gave me chills, I was most excited to see another plane: the SR-71 Blackbird. Recently de-commissioned from the US Air Force, this was the fastest plane ever made. It didn't shoot any guns or missiles. The Blackbird was a high-altitude spy plane. During the Vietnam War, my dad analyzed the reconnaissance photos it took, so I've had an almost life-long obsession with this plane. And viewing it in person for the first time all these years later, with the critical view of an adult, it was as astonishing to me as ever: a work of pure engineering that still, more than 40 years after the SR-71 first flew, has never been equaled.

(One other personal aside: All this adulation for military vehicles is tempered by being an anti-war liberal as an adult. I hope for none of this stuff to get used, and less of it to be built.)

Has anyone else reading this been to the Evergreen Air & Space Museum? What do you think of the architecture? The attractions? And more broadly, what other objects besides architecture itself have inspired and amazed you with their look and function?

Oh, and stay tuned to the Evergreen museum's future goings-on if you're a space fan. They might be in line for a de-commissioned space shuttle in a few years.

by Brian Libby, 2008

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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