Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Supreme Court Building and Bush House: At the Historic Landmarks Commission

The Historic Landmarks Commission meets on Thursday the 19th and they've got a couple of items of interest on the agenda. Most interesting is a full draft (though the pagination is totally scrambled!) of the formal Nomination Form for a National Register listing of the Oregon Supreme Court building. There's also an update on Bush House.

W. C. Knighton's Supreme Court building of 1914

Nearly finished in 1913 here, dedicated in 1914
It was big news! (December 20th, 1913)
This new listing reminds us that the framework of the National Register and historic preservation deserves a reappreaisal and revision, now that it's 50 years old.

Elisabeth Walton Potter
on the National Historic Preservation Act
Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2016
Here it has seemed obvious that action for Historic Districts is too often informed with NIMBY impulses and towards those ends writes and leverages a fictive sense of unity and "historic integrity." Once created the Districts work against any change at all, effectively trying to preserve in amber, and they are often unhistorical in the way they deliberately misunderstand historical change.

Historic District Fail:
The site of Pietro Belluschi's First National Bank
from back in March. They finally drained it for the summer.
But will the new fall rains fill it up again?
And yet, they don't do enough: Our downtown District was not enough to hinder demolition of the First National Bank by Pietro Belluschi.

This has seemed like a strong argument that we should designate fewer buildings as historically significant; but once we've decided they were important, we should devote more resources to supporting them: Less quantity and more quality.

Consequently, action for individual buildings or "resources" has seemed less problematic than action for districts, and if there was an open call for new candidates in Salem, surely the Supreme Court building would be at the top. As the oldest building in our Capitol complex, one associated with a notable architect and one that is both lovely and stylistically interesting, and one that is the home for a tremendously important government institution, it checks all the boxes for historical significance.

About the style of the building, the Nomination says that it is an interesting synthesis:
it was one of [Knighton's] first projects with the state, as original drawings date to 1913. The building emblemizes the Beaux Arts style....

The style was adapted in the United States in the late nineteenth century via American architects trained in Europe. Implementing its use was encouraged in design competitions through the Tarsney Act, which allowed private architects to compete in the design of Federal buildings. The goal was to optimize on the nation's talent, rendering buildings that represented the United States and which rivaled the "old Greeks and Romans." Its use extended to state and local governments but was also seen in private villas for the wealthy. Its popularity spanned between 1890 and 1920. Towards the end of this period in the United States, the Beaux Arts style was simplified, paving way for a boom in the Classical Revival at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was within this context that Knighton employed the Beaux Arts style for the Oregon Supreme Court Building.

The blur between Beaux Arts and Classical Revival is evident in the Supreme Court Building. Beaux Arts is known for its elaborate ornament, and exterior features at the Supreme Court building that fall under this style include the round arched entrances with engaged pilasters, decorative brackets, and draped garland above. Window openings are decorated with detailed hoods — some incorporating Knighton's signature shields — and additional garland ornament. Other details are more characteristically Classical Revival, including the prominent engaged colonnade with two-story ionic order columns, as well as the Roman lettering relief at the frieze.

The overall massing of the Supreme Court Building blends the two styles. The projecting terra cotta belt course above the first floor results in a massing that represents a Greek temple. Both the Beaux Arts and Classical Revival incorporated a rusticated or smooth stone base. Typical of Knighton, he strayed from the norm, employing terra cotta at the Supreme Court Building's elevations, and grounding the whole building in smooth granite at the water table and foundation.
William Christmas Knighton married the sister of a mayor, designed Deepwood, and, especially as State Architect, was involved in many other projects around Salem. He's on the short list of most significant architects in Oregon.

Here are some notes here and elsewhere that touch on Knighton and his activities in Salem:
And more tangentially, on Frank J. and Arthur Moore, sons of Frank A. Moore, Supreme Court Justice:
The listing for the Supreme Court building has been talked about for the better part of this decade, and it will be very nice to see it completed. This should be a slam dunk.

Bush House Update

Also on the agenda is "Bush House Museum presentation from Bush House Museum Director Ross Sutherland."

Maybe the HLC is not the place for critical history, but some time we are going to have to grapple more seriously with the unattractive side of Asahel Bush and his legacy in Salem. You might remember that a bunch of letters to Bush had been digitized recently, but at that time the Bush side of the correspondence was not made public.

Since then, the letters appear to have been pulled from the web, and may no longer be publicly available in this form. The Mill's reference to them is struck through now, and searches yield dead links. The HLC should consider asking about this.

The letters may no longer be available
But there is more yet to do, even if the older project, just simply as it was, is republished. We still need Bush's side of the correspondence - we should have both sides published - and we need to be able to talk about him without hagiography in our public history. Our public history too often is fawning, too anodyne.

Here's an especially ugly moment in Bush's letters with Matthew Deady, excerpted in Egbert Oliver's article,  "Obed Dickinson and the 'Negro Question' in Salem," (Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 1, Spring, 1991). Sure it's a private moment, and he modulated his public presentation of self as everyone does - but it's the quiet part out loud. As something that must be obvious in our current politics is that the quiet part has power and effect, and is worth study. His banking and investing activities almost certainly reflected these private sentiments and made them visible in that way. We need more study of Asahel Bush, all of him, and he is ripe for a reappraisal as well. The Bush House Museum should be a part of it and the HLC could encourage this.

Bush was racist, and a pro-slavery Unionist
Previously see notes on Asahel Bush here.

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