Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Brick's Corner and the Strangeness of Benjamin Brick

You may recall that there is an on-going project with the restoration of the Gray Block, the 1891 building on the northwest corner of State and Liberty, and home to Salem institution and bar, "The Brick."

The name, "The Brick," has always seemed something of a mystery. Perhaps if you are a regular, you will know more about this. From the outside, the name has seemed random and untethered from any historical or social fact. Could it really refer only to the brick veneer applied to the columns and base below the windows? There had to be more behind the name!

So it was very interesting to learn about a store across the street in the 19-teens.

Brick Bros., across the Street, April 3rd, 1916
Brick Bros. and "Brick's Corner" occupied a building demolished a decade later for the Livesley Tower across the street on the southwest corner of the intersection.

So here's a hypothesis, what might just be wishful thinking and coincidence, or maybe something more durable: The word "Brick" became identified with this intersection, even when people forgot about the reason why, and the current bar name represents a survival and vestigial memory of that place name.

Without committing ourselves to asserting this is the truth, let's just accept it provisionally and tentatively, and venture a little in the history as if it were true. Even if Brick's Corner did not give its name to the bar, it's an odd and interesting story and worth sketching out. That story, in fact, turns out to connect with an huge scandal from a century ago, and might be the most interesting part. (If we learn one way or the other on the origins of the bar's name, we'll update and revise as appropriate!)

Announcing the purchase, November 16th, 1914
In the early 1910s there was a store called The Plymouth at this location. Benjamin Brick came to manage it, and in 1914 there was a bit of a tussle over ownership and management.

Competing narratives - June 22nd, 1914
It is difficult to see more detail here than a certain defensiveness in the PR efforts and message control, but something was odd and propriety seemed to be contested. It was odd enough, in fact, that things came to fisticuffs!
Benjamin Brick brought suit in the circuit court today asking that an injunction be granted preventing John F. Enright or Olive S. Enright from interfering with him as manager of the Plymouth clothing store or from refusing him access to the books of the company. It is alleged in the complaint that Brick was hired as manager of the store when they took over the stock of Oscar Johnson. He claims he was to have the entire management of the store but that recently the Enrights have been interfering with his management. An altercation between Mr. Brick and Mr. Enright on August 22 resulted in Mr. Enright paying a fine for $10 for assault in the justice court. In addition to the injunction, Mr. Brick asks for $100 damages. [August 26th, 1914]
By that November ad, a few months later it was sorted out. Periodically they referred to the storefront and building as "Brick's Corner."

July 9th, 1917
Benjamin Brick himself seems like a curious and complicated fellow. According to a story from July 9th, 1917, he was involved in the Portland Vice Scandal of 1912.
Mr. Brick's hobby appeared to be to keep the boys from going to the state reform school, by having worthy boys paroled in his care. About four years ago Mr. Brick made a national reputation for himself as a reformer, when he cleaned Portland of its so-called vice clique. This was a sensational affair and in the net were many of Portland's prominent citizens. But without fear or favor Mr. Brick did his duty without compensation.
About the Vice Scandal, with origins in a mixture of activities today we would find innocent and some we still find criminal and vicious, the Oregon Encyclopedia says
On November 8, 1912, Portland police arrested nineteen-year-old Benjamin Trout for a minor offense. In the course of his interrogation, the man revealed what were considered sensational details about local homosexual activity and gathering places, a component of the city that most people knew nothing about. Portland was not unusual in this regard. At the turn of the twentieth century, gay subcultures were just beginning to appear in larger cities, and most Portlanders first learned about local homosexuals as a result of the young man’s confession....Over the next weeks, police probed deeper into local vice conditions and apprehended dozens of men and youths for crimes ranging from so-called indecent acts to sodomy. As the scandal broadened, related arrests were made and investigations were conducted in neighboring states and in British Columbia.
In his book Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, Peter Boag writes
Benjamin Brick, a citizen officer with the local police, who claimed to have been the first to uncover vice there [at the YMCA], reported that his initial tip came from an elevator boy and it led him directly "into the YMCA building."
It's hard to know how exactly to read Brick's involvement in all this. The evidence is a little ambiguous, all the more so with Brick moving all the time as we will see, and it would not be useful to speculate carelessly. Still, it seems almost certain there is more to the story than this brief historical recitation.

Our story is here in Salem, though, and Brick got involved in the local boosterism and business development. In April of 1916 it was announced
Benjamin Brick is the new director for the tourist, publicity and convention department of the Commercial club, his election being almost unanimous at the meeting held last evening. He will take charge of the work of this department along with the other six directors, June 7, and one of first big things that will need immediate attention will be the annual Cherry fair.
September 14th, 1916
But not everything was copacetic! Just a few months later he resigned his position on the board of the Commercial Club, saying
I regret to be compelled to take this step, and wish to assure you that when ever your body shows a tendency to wards progress without fearing to antagonize this, that or the other party, at the expense of the public good, that you will always find me at your side doing my share for the welfare of the Commercial club and the city of Salem.
The downtown in-fighting sounds familiar! But perhaps, with the previous "altercation" in 1914, it is also evidence that Brick was a difficult character in one way or another.

In July of 1917, Benjamin bought out his brother Isadore, who moved away. They'd tried to dissolve the partnership for about a year and it finally got unwound.

Brick: A "Live Wire" - Tacoma Times, March 1st, 1918
For whatever combination of reasons, Benjamin Brick and the store didn't seem to prosper, and in early 1918, not even a year later, he closed up shop and moved to Tacoma. In July of 1918, a notice announced that he'd established a the new store.
Benjamin Brick, formerly In the clothing business in Salem, is now a merchant of Tacoma and takes the time to write to friends here that he is still a good Moose. In fact, at the recent state convention in Tacoma Mr. Brick was a delegate and was given the honor of crowning the Goddess of liberty and of delivering a patriotic Moose address on the same occasion. He writes that he is deeply interested in Salem and that he would be glad to give the regular program for the semi-weekly band concerts here. He expects to take his annual vacation beginning about July 5 and will spend it at Venice, California the famous bathing resort.
So, was Brick's Corner directly or indirectly the source of the bar's name?

Hard to say. (Do you know?)

But the real story seems instead to be Benjamin Brick!

Whether Brick's Corner supplied the name of our modern bar, and completely independent of any dependency in naming, Brick is a fascinating character. In his hoopla and ballyhoo he expresses an early 20th century mode of sales and marketing. He's a type of self-promoter and ad man. (Maybe even a little bit of a grifter.) He seems to have played an important role in some early 20th century social history. And his constant mobility is a bit of a flag, suggesting there might be much more to the whole story.

(So maybe there will be more to say in another post.)

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