Thursday, July 18, 2019

With Marion Car Park's Demolition, let's Revisit Otto J. Wilson's Garage

100 years ago last month, Otto J. Wilson became Mayor of Salem. He'd served temporarily in that capacity before, and this was poised to be a longer term, finishing the year-and-a-half on Mayor Albin's after he'd resigned.

Otto J. Wilson garage, May 1952.  Image courtesy of John Wilson
With the demolition of the Marion Car Park, and any claim it might have to historic significance, let's look at something more important. It's a bee in the bonnet here that Otto J. Wilson's downtown garage on Commercial and Center is by almost any measure more directly historically significant than the Car Park, whose significance is mainly indirect.

June 17th, 1919

June 17th, 1919
About the Marion Car Park, the Downtown Historic District says:
The Marion Car Rental and Park, built in 1950, is a contributing property in the Salem commercial district because of its association with the tremendous impact of the automobile on downtown commercial districts across the county, including Salem's. From the 1920s onward and especially following World War II, the nearly universal ownership of automobiles gave rise to the growing popularity of shopping centers away from central business districts that offered ample car parking. Efforts to accommodate cars in the downtown encouraged the removal of numerous older buildings and, in their place, the construction of car parking, maintenance, and rental facilities.
At the time the Historic District's nomination was written and the District created, the Marion Car Park's ties to Pietro Belluschi had been lost. The significance of the structure was more generic than specific to Salem or to any historical figures. More than anything, it was the tie to David Duniway's inability to preserve the Holman Building from demolition and the concomitant creation of the Marion County Historical Society in 1950, that made the Car Park significant.

It's all borrowed glory, really. (Not to mention great loss from autoism's appetite: "efforts to accommodate cars...encouraged the remove of numerous older buildings...")

By contrast, the Otto J. Wilson garage has much stronger and more specific ties to Salem's history. You will recall his association with the Salem Cyclery from about 1896 to 1900. Then he went out on his own. And in 1903 he had Salem's first automobile and was elected to City Council, still primarily identified as a bike dealer. A few years later he shifted from bikes to cars and built the garage, where Santiam Bicycle is today. Later he served at the Legislature.

A sole propretor on April 2nd, 1902
By national standards he might not have been very early on any of these transportation trends, but for Salem he was very early and pivotal at key moments in transportation history. And he had a significant political career as well.

In 1919 already looking back with an "olden times" narrative.
Note also the "graduation" scheme of progress from bikes to cars.
 January 1st, 1919

An ad from January 1, 1919
Unlike the Car Park, which really was structured around negative valences, the loss of the Holman Building and the void that is created by a parking lot, the Wilson garage is a positive space, first the site of significant commerce during its car dealership and then leaving a building other businesses have found useful in reuse. If we decide that we need to recognize material traces from Salem's early- and mid-century autoist phases, this building is one of the strongest candidates. And since it is not a high-style anything, it is a building we should be ok with alteration, not fetishizing any "original integrity" that must be preserved unaltered. We should know the building's history, and we should welcome the building's continued evolution. It does not need to be frozen in amber.

As the utility wrap project develops, there's also opportunity to highlight more about Wilson, who just gets passing mention on this State Street wrap in SESNA. He should have one nearer his garage!

Wilson deserves more ink!


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

And in the context of the UGM move, here's a note ranging a little more widely on the auto dealers clustered at this intersection, "Soil Contamination and Monitoring Wells Point to History of UGM Site."

Aron said...

I'm not at all sad to see the car park go. Hopefully the hotel actually gets built.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Salem Reporter has a piece, "Utility box panels give passersby a chance meeting with local history" on the downtown wraps.