12/22/2008 -- A Depoe Bay Landmark Is Transformed

A Depoe Bay landmark is transformed

By Niki Price
Oregon Coast Today

The Silver Heron Gallery, on Bay Street just off Hwy. 101 in Depoe Bay, is a two-story space filled with art glass, bronze sculptures and Oregon sunstone jewelry. Aesthetically supported by grand columns and plenty of natural light, the gallery has a baby grand piano and a deck that looks over the Pacific Ocean.

But if those walls could only bark. They would tell visitors that, not so long ago, seals and sea lions offered noisy greetings to the tourists who paid to see and feed them. They'd say that anemones and sea stars lived in the display cases, and that keepers chopped fish in what is now the wine bar. From 1927 to 1998, this building housed this tourist town's first attraction: the Depoe Bay Aquarium.

Its story begins in 1908, when Harvey L. Collins and other Portland area businessmen journeyed overland to the coast, to inspect a rugged, isolated cove owned by the heirs of Charlie and Minerva DePoe. The men decided that when paved highways made their way to Lincoln County, this Depoe bay might become a recreational destination. They formed the Sunset Investment Company, which purchased the 200 acres for $10,000.

Their investment began to pay off in the 1920s, when plans for the Roosevelt Highway and Depoe Bay Bridge were finalized. Collins thought that when the new auto tourists arrived, he would give them a reason to stop. Inspired by a crowd of people staring with curiosity at a dead octopus at the side of the road, he built the Depoe Bay Aquarium. It opened the same year as the highway, in 1927.

For the next six decades, the aquarium was home to a varied collection of marine life. It was well known for its octopus, often donated by local fishermen, as well as its ability to care for injured wildlife. Generations of Oregonians made an annual visit to see the harbor seals and sea lions, and their crowd-pleasing tricks. Among the favorites was a seal named Oscar, who died in 1988 at age 37.

The aquarium was still a popular attraction when entrepreneur John Woodmark purchased it, in 1978. But attendance dropped significantly after the Oregon Coast Aquarium opened in Newport in 1992. The Depoe Bay Aquarium population dwindled to two sea lions and one seal, all more than 20 years old.

John and his wife, Talley Woodmark, decided to close the historic attraction. Thanks to a few connections in U.S. Fish and Wildlife and help from UPS, all three found new homes. Sea lions Sallie and Ringer went to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in Indiana, while the harbor seal Boe went to Sea World in San Diego, Calif. The last resident left on Labor Day 1998.

It was the same weekend that Keiko, the orca whale who became an international celebrity, left the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The journalists in town to cover Keiko also took interest in the closure of the Depoe Bay Aquarium.

so much enjoyment to so many people for so many years. When we got ready to close down, we were the oldest operating aquarium in the world, Talley said. "The story got picked up by national wire services, and articles ran across the United States. People wrote to us from all over, saying they had come here for their honeymoon or anniversary, or had brought their children here, and what it had meant to them."

Anyone who visited the Depoe Bay Aquarium in its last days may find this hard to believe, but when Talley stood between the concrete tanks with cloudy Plexi-glas she thought: high-end gallery. A lifelong art collector and professional interior designer who had worked in Texas and California before she moved to Depoe Bay, she envisioned a vaulted space with columns and a feeling of movement that echoed the ocean outside.

"My husband said, 'I don't know if you want to do this. It's a lot of work,'" Talley said. "I said I thought it was cosmetic, and I can do cosmetic. He said, 'It'll be little more than that.'"

John was right. Contractors jack hammered out the dark rock, full of beach fossils, from the corner building's facade and turned the section that fronts Hwy. 101 into a retail space (now Pirate's Cove Gift Shop). The side displays were left in place - turns out they were critical to the building's structural integrity - but workers used laser cutters to remove 6-foot wide tank walls made of concrete, steel and rebar from the middle of the space. They installed a grand semi-circular staircase, an ocean-view deck and made many other improvements. The project took nearly six years to complete, but the hardest part was yet to come.

On the afternoon of May 24, 2005, the Woodmarks' 20-year-old son Wade was discussing lighting fixtures with Talley inside the nearly finished gallery. Later that evening, Wade was the victim of a fatal, accidental shooting in his Depoe Bay home. Drowning in grief, the Woodmarks didn't even want to see the inside of the gallery, let alone open it to the public. They did their best to maintain their existing businesses, which include the nearby Blue Heron Gallery and Oregon Sunstone mining interests, as they struggled through the year following Wade's death.

Her friends and professional associates encouraged her to complete her Bay Street project. It was opened to private clients in October 2006, and offered regular business hours starting in March 2007.

Talley has thrown her energies into the Wade J. Woodmark Foundation, a non-profit that is renovating the nearby "Wade's House" into a retreat for other families who are suffering from the loss of a child. Some of the artists who exhibit at the Silver Heron Gallery serve on the foundation's board, and many have committed to fill the house with art once it is completed. The Woodmarks donate at least 10 percent of what the Silver Heron Gallery makes to the cause.
The support from the community of Depoe Bay, where Wade lived nearly all his life, has been overwhelming, she said. Now, when she throws wine tastings, art openings and concerts in the gallery, Talley likes to watch her friends and neighbors having relaxed and chatty fun. The seals' barking has faded away, but the walls still bounce with a happy noise.

"It's nice that you can take a space that already has so much joy in it, and continue to make something beautiful," Talley said.

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