If you hear a fifth grader say, “I didn’t know Astoria had so many beautiful buildings,” chances are it’s because John Goodenberger opened their eyes through his “Artist in Residency” program.

John Goodenberger Astoria Teaching
John Goodenberger introduces fifth graders to architecture and history. Photo courtesy: Astoria School Foundation/Lewis and Clark Elementary School

Goodenberger grew up in Astoria. One day, his teacher’s husband, who was an architect, came to their classroom. “He showed us how to do simple drawings and really sparked my imagination,” reminisces Goodenberger. Goodenberger went on to take drafting in junior high and high school, then went to the University of Oregon and got a degree in architecture, with a specialty in historic preservation. After graduation his job took him up and down the Willamette Valley, working on houses, churches and barns built in the 1850s through the 1870s, using tools and methods of the time period.

After looking for work in Portland and Seattle during the recession, he decided it was time to go home. He started working for himself and also started doing historic research and writing about Astoria. He worked on the Elliott Hotel and other commercial buildings until 2008 when the next recession hit.

He then helped start the Historic Preservation and Restoration program at Clatsop Community College. “We are the only community college on the west coast that teaches historic preservation,” he boasts. He spends many weekends working on buildings as part of his classes. “It’s such a great area, there are so many historical buildings,” Goodenberger adds, smiling.

So how did he end up teaching fifth graders? A woman named Marjorie Wintermute was one of three women who were the first women in Oregon to become licensed architects. She began a program in Portland to teach children about architecture. At the time, her son was the fire chief in Astoria and she wanted her grandchildren to learn about the program as well. So she came and trained Goodenberger and others. “She had this big three-ring notebook of curriculum and I tweaked it for Astoria,” explains Goodenberger. That was over 25 years ago now.

John Goodenberger Astoria
Goodenberger (center, cap and grey shirt) working with his college students in Maxville, a former logging camp in Northeastern Oregon, documenting the last building remaining in the camp, a log cabin used by the camp boss. Photo credit: Lucien Swerdloff

“There is a list of topics we cover,” he says. “Things like what does an architect do, what does a preservation person do. We start off learning how to hand-letter. I tell them, ‘I know you’re in fifth grade, but we’re going to learn how to write again,’” he laughs. They talk about how buildings stand up and about structure. Then they hold a building competition where groups of four or five kids build a bridge and see how many health books it will hold when they are stacked on to the bridge. Even though the bridges are built out of card stock paper, the record is over 100 health books. Then they vote for the most beautiful bridge.

The class also includes architectural history and drawing. They start with the pioneer period and learn how to draw a log cabin. “I put a drawing of a cabin on the wall that has a grid going through it. I tell them to draw what they see, not what they think,” explains Goodenberger. Then they move on to the Victorian era, then to Craftsman, and then Colonial Revival houses. That gets them up to the final time where he takes each class and divides it in half. They go on a walking tour and talk about the buildings and do sketches to reinforce what they learned in class.

So what are some of the things the kids say about his class? Goodenberger says they are usually something like “I thought Astoria was a dump and now I see all these beautiful buildings here. I didn’t know they were here.” They can easily miss the buildings if they’re just sitting in a car with their parents driving through town. While they are on their walking tour, Goodenberger explains to them that these houses were built prior to cars or just after, and are meant to be seen at a slow pace. “They need to slow down and look,” he says. “They understand and appreciate their surroundings then.”

“One of the great things about architecture is that virtually everyone around here has an association with a beautiful house,” continues Goodenberger. “Either they live in one or they know someone who does. It’s something everyone can relate to.”

John Goodenberger Astoria Bridge Contest
Kids always remember the fun they had doing the bridge contest for Goodenberger’s class. Photo courtesy: Astoria School Foundation/Lewis and Clark Elementary School

Whenever he sees a former student they always bring up the bridge competition, remembering the fun. But they also express an appreciation for having been exposed to what a wonderful town it is and seeing the things they hadn’t seen before.

Goodenberger plans to continue teaching kids. “It’s something I really enjoy,” he says. “I love fifth grade because they are old enough so that you can have a real conversation with them. They are eager to learn and they haven’t become cynical yet. They’re sponges and really absorb it. And when they raise their hand and start talking, you have no idea what they might say.” He laughs heartily.

It’s obvious that it’s not just the children that enjoy these architecture lessons – both the students and teacher are building new perceptions of our historic town, while the students are learning skills that just might build them a bright future.

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