ASTORIA — Twenty-eight years ago, David Fitch lived in Altoona, Washington. He was looking for a way to diversify his income. Vickie Rutherford, of Sunburst Reality, showed him the Utzinger Duplex in Astoria. At the time, Fitch had no real appreciation for historic architecture.
Nevertheless, the well-built and designed structure caught his eye. Now, Fitch has grown to be both an advocate for the building and for the preservation of the community at large.
The duplex was constructed circa 1905. The Utzinger family were its earliest known tenants. Albert and Lillian Utzinger lived in one apartment while Jacob, his wife Anna, and his sister, Marie, lived in the other. Albert and Jacob worked at Utzinger and Son Bookstore, later Utzinger’s Bookstore. Members of the family lived in the duplex through 1946.
Thomas and Marie Thomason were other long-term tenants. He worked in a cabinet and wood working shop, then joined City Lumber Supply Co. where he became a foreman.
The structure remains an excellent example of a multi-family home in the Shively-McClure National Register Historic District.
Often times, historic duplexes are chopped into small studios in order to provide shelter during a housing crisis. Many apartment buildings and homes in the Astoria area were subdivided during World War II. In many cases, providing space — carved from nooks and crannies — trumped aesthetics and a sensible layout.
The Utzinger Duplex remains largely as it was built. In the early 1930s, the southeast corner of its second floor was indeed converted to an additional, professional apartment. Jacques DeNyse, an auditor for the city of Astoria, and his wife, Evelyn, were the first to move in. However, the rest of the building plan remains unencumbered.
Natural light and neighborhood views flow from one space to another. So too does the logical placement from one room to another. The apartment does not have awkward hallways or incompatible uses abutting each other. Nor, do they compete for space.
A segmented arch — perhaps once incorporating pocket doors — divides the living room from the dining room. A large kitchen, with a multitude of cabinetry is just beyond. A bedroom is located adjacent to the living room. It all works to create a pleasant living environment.
Fitch grew to value historic buildings when he purchased, then restored, a vernacular Queen Anne house in Uniontown. He bought the house shortly after taking on the Utzinger Duplex. Then, understanding the importance of retaining the character of Astoria’s neighborhoods, he became a founding member of the board of the Lower Columbia Preservation Society. He also served on the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
Importance of preservation
Fitch acknowledges he was lucky when he purchased the Utzinger Duplex. It was well maintained. Over a span nearly three decades long, he’s replaced the roof and painted the exterior. He’d love to remove the asbestos siding, but its disposal and removal is too daunting. At least, he said, the siding holds paint well.
Between tenants, he paints the interior and refinishes the fir floors as needed. It’s been a good investment. “I just go slowly and keep the historic character,” he said. “The details have mostly been here.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.org.