Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Staff Recommends Approval for Remodel on old Alessandro's Building Downtown

The Historic Landmarks Commission meets tomorrow the 16th, and the Staff Report recommends approval for the remodel on 120 Commercial St NE, the old Alessandro's/Spaghetti Warehouse building.

Proposal to add patio seating, firepit, and open the front porch
(from the Staff Report)
Even though parts of the building may be quite old, the building has been so remodeled over the years that the whole of it is formally identified as "non-contributing" in the Downtown Historic District. So further remodeling is not much regarded as harming anything and it just has to be generally friendly with its more historic neighbors. The Staff Report finds that the proposal is reasonable and does this. So there's not much of interest to say about that. The outdoor seating, recessed from the sidewalk a little, and sheltered by a roof, looks like a very nice addition, and it's hard to quibble with anything.

But in the historic discussion there's a little bit of new information! Some of it is just new here, but some of it might be new more generally.

The building site, you might recall, has been a frequent source of confusion. It's almost like a "Bermuda Triangle" for misidentification!

The first building on the site was apparently a livery barn and stables. The caption in the Library's photo collection says 1895, but this is plainly in error. The Staff Report cites a newspaper article from 1947 that dates the image to January, 1862.

A livery stable from the 1860s, not 1895
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
From the Staff Report:
The Durbin Brothers (Solomon and C.J., and later Isaac) had a livery at this corner as early as 1853. In 1867, the livery burned down and the brothers elected to build a new one at the same spot. They built a whole brick block, including a new livery, which the local newspaper referred to as Durbin's Block.
That new brick block appears to be captured in a couple of images from horse fairs in the early 1880s. One photo seems to be taken in sun, the other under overcast skies, so it's not clear they were taken in the same session. But they can be spliced together to give a sense for the larger context at State and Commercial.

State & Commercial looking northeast, 1880s
(Composited from two "Horse Fair" images from the 1880s.
The north one on left is low-res, the south one is very high-res.
Salem Library Historic Photos)
If you click through the higher resolution image, you can see the Adolph Block under the eyeglasses as well as the First Methodist spire.

The brick block was remodeled for the first time:
In the 1890s, the livery moved and the building housed a hardware store. In 1892, the YMCA raised the roofline and remodeled the top portion of the old livery as rooms. In the remodel, the facade of the building was drastically altered.
Pre-1892 and post-1892 remodel - from Staff Report
This first transition from three window bays to five window bays as well as raising the roof has largely been unremarked and maybe even unrecorded until now. So that was interesting to learn about.

Errantly identified with the Greenbaum building
(248 is a red herring!),
this is in fact 120 Commercial St NE,
not 248 or 298 Commercial St NE.
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
The five bay version has created more confusion. You may recall that the address change of 1904 has caused some over the years to identify the building with Greenbaum's and the Eldridge block, even though Greenbaum's has a seven-bay facade.

That version was remodeled in 1946, but the building that we know today mostly came from a third remodel in 1962, and freshened up in 1990 with the Willamette Brew Pub -  which was too early for Salem, but would fit nicely in our pub and brewery market today.

So with very little remaining from the 19th or early 20th century, you can see why the building is regarded as "non-contributing."

At the same time, the rhetoric of "drastically altered" is a little bit of an appeal to a static notion of history, and to a notion of pristine origins whose character might have been preserved and which generally we should want to preserve. This at least partially denies the value of a building's evolution in history.

We should instead appreciate that the building was not just demolished but has been able to adapt to many different needs, ranging from the stable to the YMCA to a furniture store and so on. The building has enjoyed a varied life and contributed to a number of different commercial enterprises. That it has been so remodeled is not merely a loss. It is considerably more nuanced and ambivalent with positive value as well.

We used to have a whole, intact block here.
See notes on Safeway, bike dealers Shipp & Hauser,
and on the 1913 Moose Carnival Panorama.
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
The real loss to history and to the life of a city is demolition and the resulting surface parking lot. Our current preservation framework is dismissive of standing but modified buildings. It focuses too much on the aesthetics and visual sense of older buildings, and not enough on the urban fabric and on disruptions wrought by our autoism. It is itself a product of autoism and blind to the historicity of our current autoist phase.

Three buildings demolished
and now surface parking lot (detail)
Even "remuddled" and "non-contributing," the current instance of 120 Commercial Street actually contributes more to downtown than the void of the demolished buildings' footprints.

The Historic Landmarks Commission meets Thursday the 16th at 5:30pm in Council Chambers at City Hall.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this article. I enjoy reading your take on the historical reflections in Salem!

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Staff Report was accepted straight-up and the proposal received an equally straight-up approval.