Saturday, August 25, 2018

1870s Nesmith Block, Bell Tower Brothel, City Laundry Mystery: Errata and Addenda

A couple of photos posted to social media deserve some comment, and chasing down one of them turned up information about a third. These are mainly just footnotes and some commentary along the way.

The Nesmith Block Update: Smith's Brick

Two views of Nesmith Building Smith's Brick
1870s and 1955
(State Archives FB and Salem Library Historic Photos)

Over on FB State Archives posted an interesting image of old Salem. About the image, which seems to be sourced from State Fair archives, State Archives doesn't have much to say, and they may not in fact know its location:
Our historic image of the day shows Main Street in Salem Oregon circa 1875....

Orrin Atchinson 'Atch' Waller, as O.A. Waller was familiarly known, was the son of Rev. Alvin F. Waller after whom Waller hall at Willamette university was named. Born at Oregon City August 9, 1843, he came to Salem when he was still a boy, and for the space of two generations was prominent in the life of the city.

He was a gunsmith by trade, considered a master in that calling at a time when the use of guns meant gaining the necessaries of life and the protection of it from actual and threatened Indian invasions. In his generation 'Atch' Waller was one of the most popular residents of the capital city. Mr. Waller January 19, 1856, married Mary L. Chamberlain, daughter of a pioneer Methodist missionary. She died March 7, 1924.
We can do better than "Main Street" - which is likely just a generic label, though it could be an earlier name for Commercial Street. (The 1876 Birds Eye map as well as the map in the 1870 Directory both label it "Commercial," not "Main" Street, however, and if there was a name change, it had to have been very early.)

It's pretty clearly an old view of the Nesmith Building Smith's Brick on the southwest corner of Ferry and Commercial, currently the Umpqua Bank site across from the Conference Center. At some point the building became known as the Smith Block, and in the 1870s the State Library was in it. In the 1850s the Territorial Legislature met in it, and other state functions were housed in it also over the years. Later the WCTA, Capital Journal, and Oregon Statesman had offices in it. Directly across from the Chemeketa Hotel, it was an important building in Salem history.

via 1870 City Directory

The photo's too fuzzy to read more than the bit on Waller and a second sign that says "Job Printing." The 1870 Directory listed the State Printer in the Griswold Block (one block north on State and Commercial) and didn't list any printers in this building, so it's hard to say who it might be. If the original is better, maybe a better scan will turn up.

(Update: See here for a discussion of the error on the Nesmith Building and affirmation that it was always Smith's Brick.)

Bell Tower Brothel?

via Facebook
This image of the alley by the Book Bin is circulating quite a bit right now and, shoot, there's a significant, though perhaps unintended, error being spread about any Bell Tower Brothel. It's a little pedantic to point this out, but this "telephone game" is a way bad history spreads and grows.

October 24th, 1916
There is no existing building that was any part of a Bell Tower brothel. Indeed, the evidence for a Bell Tower Brothel is not very secure.

The Book Bin's building is masonry and built in 1916/1917. It has no direct relation to anything going on in the 1890s.

But it has its own relation to history. Major Percy Willis (he retired as Colonel), who erected the Book Bin's building, was the son of Colonel Leonidas Willis, CSA, who fought in General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. Forrest was the first leader of the first KKK, and someone we probably should consider a domestic terrorist.

The building itself has a very interesting origin! There is no need to drape it with any salaciousness from a nearby brothel.

Any house used as brothel there would have been a wooden structure likely demolished when Chinatown was "cleansed" in January of 1903. It's possible that it was one of the "venerable shacks," but not likely. Those most likely of the houses for any brothel here was on Liberty Street, not on Court Street, and in the footprint where Bo & Vine, the French Unicorn, and the Metropolitan building are today.

Either way, the Willis building was part of the transition here from wood-framed to masonry buildings and the loss of our small Chinatown. It's a development story that's also shaped by racism. (The fire bell of the bell tower still exists and can be seen in front of the downtown fire station. See here for more on the bell.)

We think know about the Bell Tower Brothel mainly because Ben Maxwell wrote about it in the paper and for the Marion County Historical society. His writing is sensationalized and participates in a kind of casual racism. Though he is an important source, its tone and emphasis should no longer be authoritative. This account from the site is mostly from Maxwell's article "The Chinese In Salem," Marion County History, Volume 7, and you can see how it leads us into errant, bad, or unfair history:
October 5th, 1895
Salem’s Chinatown was in downtown Salem. It was located on the east side of Liberty Street between State and Court Streets. In the 1880s Salem’s Chinatown consisted of hovels abandoned by white tenants and located where such housing existed. The east side of Liberty Street between Court and State was a Chinese settlement of evil repute. Bell Tower, a bawdy house with very sinister reputation was located there as was another place or two with similar reputation but catering to Oriental patronage. A Chinese prostitute was stabbed to death in 1895. Other Chinese occupied rookeries on Ferry Street and tumble down structures at Commercial and Trade owned by Ed Hirsch. The corner of State and Liberty also housed another Chinese den. Rents charged Chinese tenants were excessive. Property owners were reluctant to raze sagging, out-moded buildings occupied by Chinese because of the high return from a very modest investment. In way of improvements and repairs the Chinese demanded little and got less.
We need to rewrite this history.

Toyo Watanabe is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery and though she was not Chinese, her burial may yet be a part of the history and legacy of the recently rediscovered shrine. The paper noted that "the funeral was largely attended by the Chinese and Japanese of this city" and that "those who contributed toward the funeral expenses were part Chinamen and the remainder Japs." Hopefully a better history of Chinatown will come out of the research on the shrine and its place in a social context of friends and family and businesses.

Maxwell's claim about the brothel itself may result from misreading a label and caption on a diagram of the murder site in the Oregon Statesman. While there was certainly prostitution in Salem at this time, this particular case is unclear and the evidence ambiguous. Maxwell also appears to have written much from memory rather than from notes, and he is not always a reliable guide to Salem history. (See this longer discussion for more on the evidence for prostitution and a brothel.)

What is certain is a case of violence against a woman. At the very least, Watanabe's story is nuanced and complicated, and we should not flatten things out with sensationalized narratives. Even if she was working as a prostitute, she did not deserve to be killed, and she would not have been only a prostitute. (But look still at how much difficulty we have with the interior life and other interests of someone like Stormy Daniels. She is not only "a porn star," but we reduce her story to this one dimension. We mine slut-shaming for laughs and amusement, or recoil in moral censure, all too often.) According to a later story, she had been engaged to "young Hepburn," who "lived with her for some time in Salem." He might have been a client. It is all very ambiguous and difficult to interpret. The Capital Journal account does not mention prostitution, either out of a genteel silence or because it was not actually happening there. The Oregon Statesman, on the contrary, presses the assertion she was a "courtesan." It could have been a racist slur rather than neutral description of sex work. She could have been trafficked also. It is hard to know what was actually going on. She had not spoken in her own voice to us, and even well-intentioned older secondary sources who try to speak fairly still omit and distort much.

As local color and myth a "Bell Tower Brothel" is a great story. But as any actual history, it's much more complicated, and parts of it are likely very wrong.

An early 2000s piece republished in 2015 on Percy Willis
We should also remember that much of the alley work was done in the 1980s, but it is only now with more people and with new businesses downtown that people are finally noticing what a resource they are. This may be more seeing things with new eyes than seeing new things. (See more here and here.)

Salem downtown alley improvements from the mid-80s

Mystery of City Laundry Solved

Bennett Hotel and City Laundry, 1886
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
About this photo, the Library says
Although this photo is identified as being on State Street no record could be found in city directories of a City Laundry, or any laundry, at that address in Salem, Oregon. The building in the background is the Reed Opera House which would fit with that address though. The three-horse team is pulling a wagon with American flags on the front of it and 6 men with hunting rifles in it. They are identified as being A.S. Huntley, John Singleton, Ed Keller, Lela A. Jones & Frank Welsh. The date was June 11, 1886.
In addition to the location of the bell tower, the 1884 Sanborn Fire map shows a laundry and hotel on the corner of State and High, and the sight line across the block and across Liberty Street to the Reed Opera House is just what you'd expect from the photo. (Too bad the top's cut off, as it might have showed the bell tower itself!)

1884 Sanborn Fire map shows Reed Opera House, Liberty St,
Bell Tower on alley, early Chinese dwellings,
and Bennett Hotel with City Laundry

Reed at left, Bell Tower in center, Courthouse at Right
Court & State, Liberty & High Streets
(Library of Congress, 1876 Birds Eye map)
In the 1876 Birds Eye map, you can see the "L" shape of the laundry and Hotel just below the mass of the Courthouse. The tower with the fire bell is also very clear (just to the left of the letter B on High Street).


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Corrected Nesmith Building name to Smith's Brick)

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Salem Library Historic Photos has two scans of the older photo of a part of Smiths' Block (the sepia toned one), but the captions add little new information.

This one dated clearly wrongly to 1903-

And this one to 1885, which seems early still, but may be supported by info with the negative or from Ben Maxwell-