Museum Showcases Oregon Maritime History

Barn-like building serves as a beacon for change along Coos Bay waterfront.

The 15,000-sq.-ft. Coos History Museum and Maritime Collection building houses more than 250,000 photographs and artifacts representing the Oregon Coast’s agrarian, maritime, and cultural history.

The Coos History Museum and Maritime Collection (CHMC) organization and building were founded by Oregon’s oldest historical society. The building now houses more than 250,000 photographs and artifacts representing the Oregon Coast’s agrarian, maritime, and cultural history. Located on the historic wharf at the gateway to Coos Bay in Oregon, the museum bridges the history of the region to the present through stories of the Coos and Coquille Tribes, coal miners, loggers, farmers, and shipbuilders who constitute the history of the region.

The museum had long outgrown the facility it occupied since 1950 and a grant in 2000 initiated a search for a new home. The grant stipulated that the new museum be located on Highway 101 to provide a development catalyst for the long-abandoned historic wharf at Coos Bay.

Seattle-based Miller Hull Partnership joined the project during the height of the 2010 economic downturn with Mark Johnson (now principal of Signal Architecture + Research, Seattle) leading the team as project manager and architect. Realizing that austerity would save the project, Mark led the team through scale and programming efforts to reduce budget while protecting the museum’s vision.

“Designing a museum means designing for conflicting interests. Curators want a repository, administration wants earned income, and the public wants entertainment and a convening space. Not only that, but the particular Coos Bay environment means designing for regular gales and potential earthquakes. The Coos History Museum, under Signal and Mark Johnson’s vision, made all of those things possible in a compact but dramatic 15,000-sq.-ft. space. Their ability to find common ground through design allowed those voices to come together and make a museum,” said Frank Smoot, former museum director.

Ground-floor spaces in the Coos Museum are primarily public or commercial, with a gift shop and multi-purpose gathering space supporting the large gallery. Photo courtesy Logic Exhibit System

The goal barn-like building form was to pay tribute to the past, drawing reference to historic wharf structures, while serving as a beacon for change along the historic waterfront. With historical docks on the east, a cove to the south, and a historical roadway to the west—and future development to the north—the building had four key elevations, each with independent programming goals. One such goal was exhibitory-framed exterior spaces that create outdoor rooms to extend museum programing beyond the walls.

The building interprets the massing of waterfront industrial facilities in form and material, while providing the interior programming suitable to a museum. A light well pierces the barn-shaped volume, providing a visual cue for circulation, stairs, and a central focal point from Highway 101. Ground-floor spaces are primarily public or commercial, with a gift shop and multi-purpose gathering space supporting the large gallery. Second-floor programming is primarily dedicated to staff and volunteer offices, boardrooms, archives, and a travelling-gallery mezzanine. A stair tower serves as a repository for tall exhibits, such as canoes, pulleys, or other suspended elements that require the 40-ft. clear exhibit space.

Coos Museum siting pays tribute to the bay, historical road, and ruins of long-ago-active wharfs.

The building expression portrays historical net-shed, mill, and cannery structures using a modern form that matches historical district guidelines with visual landmark and cultural catalyst goals. As a gathering place for small to large groups, the site connects the Coos Bay Wharf Trail to historical docks that will once again host the tall ships of the Pacific Northwest.

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