Saturday, December 14, 2019

Home Builder Adam Engel Erects Royal Court Apartments in 1927

You might recall this lovely drawing of the Royal Court Apartments on the corner of Capitol and Chemeketa.

Undated sketch of Royal Court Apartments
University of Oregon (but they've removed the link it seems)
At the time I didn't find much information on the architect, Charles Walter Ertz. He was active in Portland and had a number of buildings in Lake Oswego, most notably the amazing Jantzen estate, associated with him.

Just on that alone, though, it appears this was a significant commission for Salem.

The legend on the drawing says the building was "for Adam Engel," who was an even greater mystery.

Now we can fill in some of the blanks.

December 4th, 1927
The apartments were advertised as opening "on or about December 20th" in 1927. The picture is hard to see from the microfilming, but it appears to be the same line drawing from the UO collection.

The ad copy also centers the name of the builder, Adam Engel, as if he were widely known, even something of a "brand," and portrays him as a magnanimous benefactor:
I have been planning to give to the city of Salem an apartment, up to date in every way, and at the same time, in reach of every wage-earner to afford to live in...I came to Salem six years ago. I worked for the people and with the people and tried to satisfy them at the same time. Since that time I have built 186 homes in Salem, the Engel Court Apartments, and now the Royal Court Apartment.
You might also recognize the name "Giese-Powers" from the goose and ghost sign in the "Electric Alley" in between Liberty and Commercial and between Court and Chemeketa. It is formally designated a mural in the City's public art collection.

But what about the Engel Court Apartments and all those houses?

Engel first shows up in Salem newspapers in the Spring of 1922 with a want ad for "6 first class carpenters" and "no union men." The address was for a small cottage on High Street near the future site of South Salem High School. It's not clear if that's what he was building or if that was his office.

By 1924 he was running display ads for his home building activity and with a home office clearly designated.

August 24th, 1924
A little later, in January of 1925, he claimed "In the past two years I have built 75 homes in Salem." The home at 1420 North Fifth Street he lists in both the 1924 and 1925 ads appears little changed and it is still around, just north of Broadway Commons and behind the temporary library site.

1420 Fifth Street NE as it appears today
Half-page ad, January 1st, 1925
In that January paper was a large advertorial also (probably coverage in part purchased with the large ad!). It says - and it is clearly PR puffery, and therefore to be read cautiously and not uncritically - he was born in Canada, worked for the California Home Builders. After six years in California, he decided to return to Canada, but realized he missed California.  "While on his way to California he stopped in Salem to visit a few days and was so impressed with the beauty and the opportunity offered here that he decided to locate...." Maybe. There might have been other things going on also! But for the moment, this is what we have.
Mr. Engle [the spelling shifts throughout] has a thrifty habit which makes paying rent look to him like an almost criminal waste of money when by his plan of home building the householder can buy a home for practically what the rent amounts to. His patrons may select their own lot and their own plans for a home. By making a small payment down on their contract with Mr. Engle he will build the house complete and turn it over to the householder at a nominal monthly payment which puts a good home within the reach of every family which is paying from $40 to $60 a month rent.
It appears this was the model he learned in California and that it may have been novel here. It's not clear whether he had individual investors, if banks were backing him, or whether he had enough wealth of his own to capitalize all this.

When a stranger comes into town and is able to leverage business activity like that, there's always more to the story.

Just a year later, he moved into apartments.

January 1st, 1926

Now the "Capitol Court," formerly Engel Court Apartments
On the corner of Capitol and E Streets, the Engel Court Apartments are still around today, but not much noticed or very distinguished, and with a different name. Perhaps there are hidden charms and distinctions, but it's also possible that it was not so much designed as aggregated, as if it were a cottage court jammed together as a continuous unit. It looks like a pilot rather than finished concept. Or perhaps early motels were the model. It does not appear he worked further in this mode.

A year later Engel was on to something much more ambitious.

Front page news, March 30th, 1927
Engel took out permits for the Royal Court Apartments in late March of 1927. The paper suggests there had been a decline in building activity. Engel had purchased the lot for $15,000, and was going to tear down a frame building that had been on it. The apartment block would have elevator service "in addition to every modern convenience." He hoped to have it open by November 1st.

As we saw, things were delayed a couple of months, but it appears the finished project fulfilled the initial concept.

Six years later, Engel sold the building to William Walton. (See this short biography from January 1967 in a note on a gift to Willamette University and the naming of Walton Hall.)

May 31st, 1933
Today, the Royal Court Apartments do not seem to have registered with the Historic Landmarks Commission. It is omitted from Salem's map of historic buildings and other resources.

Apparently the Royal Court is not regarded as historic
Perhaps this can be corrected. The building is of a type that deserves consideration for historic preservation, perhaps even listing on the National Register. As a gracious midrise apartment block, it's a type that could have enduring value for another century if maintained properly. It represents the kind of density we should embrace for downtown, and still represents the next increment of development intensity for most areas of downtown Salem. It is not something to be demolished carelessly, therefore.

About Engel, there is of course a history to all his single detached homes, and maybe there will be more to say on that another time. Mostly they appeared to be modest cottages, but there was one note about a fancier house very near the current site of Morningside Elementary School, and that might have an interesting story. There's an Adam Engel in Belcrest who seems to be about the right age, and maybe there will be more to say about him also.

But even with those loose ends, it is very nice now to have a history for the Royal Court Apartments.

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

I don't know enough about the history of home financing, but it is at least a little striking that most of the ads in the teens and early 20s I have seen are for real estate firms with new subdivisions. They are selling land. Other ads are for selling houses that have already been lived in.

Financing the construction of new homes on lots someone already owns, and doing this at scale, appears on the surface to be a novel thing. This invites more research!