ESSAY: An abnormal history for a Normal Gate

UO's Normal Gate (photo by Dillon Pilorget)
UO's Normal Gate (photo by Dillon Pilorget)

Eugene is not regularly characterized as normal, nor is the University of Oregon. But amid the tie-dyed shirts, home-brewed kombucha and unicycling commuters sits the Normal Gate.

A wrought-iron arbor situated somewhat inconspicuously in front of the Miller Theater complex, the gate has outlasted the trials of history.

At the founding of the University in 1876, Deady Hall housed the Normal School. Its curriculum trained teachers as a means of satisfying the overwhelming demand for primary education in developing rural communities throughout the state. Eight years later, enrollment in the Normal School dwindled as dedicated teacher’s colleges began to offer better training. This coupled with an ongoing community resistance to “non-academic” coursework at the university forced the Normal School to close its doors at the end of 1884.

The Normal School’s final graduating class – the class of 1885 – apparently finished its studies at what is now Western Oregon University later that academic year. But before the move, members of the class of 1885 thought it appropriate to commemorate the Normal School and its contribution to the beginnings of the university.

Breaking the tradition of donating trees as class gifts, the normal students commissioned the Normal Gate to be built and placed outside of the then-unfinished Villard Hall, making it – not Villard – the second-oldest structure on campus and the single oldest surviving outdoor relic, outdating both the Pioneer (1918) and Pioneer Mother (1930) statues.

The gate became a popular meeting spot for students throughout the next 62 years. Longtime Theatre Arts Department head Horace Robinson later called it the “Nooky Gate,” alluding to the privacy the vine-covered gate provided for pairs of sneaky romantics. That is, until Robinson himself decided to bury it.

In 1947, construction began on the University Theater, which would later be renamed for Robinson. The theater’s auditorium seating required mass amounts of dirt to be excavated and the grade in front of the theater raised. The dirt had to be moved to where the Normal Gate stood, and, unsure of what else to do, Robinson ultimately called for the gate to be buried where it stood, leaving only its arch above ground so that it may still be partially visible to passersby.

There it sat for over 55 years, perhaps becoming a kissing spot for couples of lovebird earthworms. If the Normal Gate is discreet now, imagine it mostly buried, covered in brush, and masked by several large trees.

The gate remained almost entirely forgotten and unnoticed until 2004, when a group of Historical Preservation students took interest in researching and restoring it.

Early in May of that year, with the help of Campus Operations and preservation faculty, the Associated Students for Historic Preservation took to the gate’s ivy blanket with hand clippers and began the long process of restoration.

The crew worked through the spring to clear the brush and unearth the gate. That summer, they sent it to local blacksmith Martin Gabbert, who repaired the gate, making every effort to maintain historical accuracy in its refurbished form. Missing pieces were recreated using the same type of metal used on the original, worn fasteners were replaced with traditionally styled new ones, and the gate was painted black to mirror the original color of the wrought iron. Bringing the gate back to the precise location it was found – though this time above ground – the team mounted it on pressure treated wood similar to the cedar planks they found buried with the gate.

The following May (2005), a small gathering of crew and community members – including Horace Robinson – participated in the gate’s rededication to the Normal School on the 100-year anniversary of University Day.

The Normal Gate got just over two years of peace before the expansion of the Miller Theatre Complex sent it into Campus Operations storage for another year. Due to the size of the new complex, the gate was replaced about seven feet west from its original location.

But the Normal Gate's turmoil wasn't finished. Despite the 2004 restoration efforts, the wrought iron’s age proved tiresome and the gate’s legs began to buckle. The top of the gate also showed signs of abuse, supposedly a result of people hanging from the crossbars.

A new group of Historic Preservation students connected with Campus Operations and called again on Martin Gabbert to restore and fortify the Normal Gate in 2012. Gabbert brought the gate back to its former shape and added new strips of wrought iron on either side of each leg for increased strength. But these braces would not be enough. After some deliberation, the team ultimately decided that a center post would be the most effective way to keep the gate sturdy and prevent further metal fatigue.

On March 11 of this year, the new preservation team gathered for another rededication ceremony, joined by former Historic Preservation student and leader of the 2004 effort, Chris Bell. The gate now stands tall again, still presented as close to its original form as possible; the center post is painted green to match campus lampposts and signage and to discern itself from the original aspects of the structure.

The Normal Gate is no longer in exactly its original position, it has a somewhat cumbersome post in its center and no paths run directly through it, as must have been originally intended. But the resilience of the gate and those who have worked to preserve it has been noteworthy.

Regardless of the minor alterations it has accrued over its 128 years, that the Normal Gate is standing today represents a preservation success. Here’s hoping that the decades to come are a little easier on this unbreakable piece of campus history.

- by Dillon Pilorget, UO Office of Strategic Communications intern