Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Smith's Brick, not Nesmith Building, was Home of the WCTU Ramp Memorial Hall

In looking into the WCTU Ramp Memorial Hall, it was difficult to find references to the hall as inside the Nesmith Building, which had been the name, as I understood it, for the building.

Not the Nesmith Building, in 1955
(Salem Library Historic Photos)

It turned out there was a very good reason for the difficulty. 

This building has been misidentified in much of our current history. The attribution, that this building is the Nesmith Building, is everywhere. See for example the entry for 1862 in the SHINE historical digest. In the Salem online history (via the internet archive since all the historical essays seem to have been scrubbed from earlier this year) they said:

For the next twenty years [after the 1855 fire], which included the transition to Statehood in 1859, the Oregon Legislature convened in rented rooms in commercial buildings near the Salem riverfront. The primary locations were the Nesmith Building and the Holman Building located at the southwest and northwest corners, respectively, of the intersection of Commercial and Ferry streets. Neither building stands today.

There was a consensus this was the Nesmith Building, that various Legislative bodies had met there and it was a part of our Capitol history. In 2010 historians even installed an interpretive panel on the stairwell landing at the Conference Center overlooking Ferry and Commercial with photos and captions about the Nesmith and Holman buildings on the two corners. There was no real reason to question the source of that, it seemed very reliable, and there were plenty of other things to investigate in Salem history. 

Well, here we are. The WCTU Ramp Memorial Hall was an interesting thing to investigate.

There is, it turns out, a recent common source that is almost certainly the origin and main source for the error in our current histories of the Capitol and of Salem. 

I did not go back far enough to find or confirm the original source of the misattribution, and it's very possible there are multiple sources who misidentify the building. (Maybe once libraries open again, we'll come back and dig further.)

via the State Library

This pamphlet, "Historic Capitols of Oregon, an illustrated chronology," is very likely the parent of the error. It states that the Territorial Legislature met several times in the 1850s in the "Nesmith-Wilson Building, on the southwest corner of Commercial and Ferry Streets." Oregon's admission to the Union was supposedly announced in this building. It showed a photo of the building in 1894, and truncated the name to simply "Nesmith Building."

Also not the Nesmith Building
from "Historic Capitols of Oregon"

But that is not the Nesmith Building. 

One of the footnotes in "Historic Capitols" points to a 1901 article in the Oregon Native Son magazine.

Oregon Native Son, March 1901

That citation suggests a different location, different building material, and a fiery end for the Nesmith Building.

A history column from 1904 suggests the Nesmith Building was on Trade Street, not on Ferry Street, was moved in 1860, and burned down shortly after. A location on Trade Street would be "opposite" the flouring mills and is consistent with the magazine piece. (Since Trade Street there was vacated for the Pulp & Paper Mill, it is harder to visualize today.)

April 12th, 1904

A generation later, the Bitsman, R.J. Hendricks, in his ongoing column, Bits for Breakfast, echoes this again, saying the Nesmith Building "was of wood."

June 24th, 1932

Since it burned, Nesmith Building would not still be around in 1894 or 1955 for those photos.

The parking lot is on the old Trade St alignment
and opposite the old flouring mills

I regard this as pretty secure. (But it also means the misattribution arose between the 1930s and 1987 when "Historic Capitols" came out, and it is possible that "Historic Capitols" is in fact the original source of the error.)

The building on Ferry Street and built of brick, which we have been calling the Nesmith Building, was likely first known as Smith's Brick, and was built in the later 1860s. It was also known as Grover and Miller's Brick and, two generations later, as the Statesman Building. The Legislature does not seem to have met in it, but other State functions did live in it for a while.

June 25th, 1932

Here is the directory listing the Bitsman references. It is inconsistent, however, in one place calling the building "Grover & Miller's brick," and in another place "Smiths' Brick." Maybe it didn't have an especially stable name, and was known instead by the businesses inside it. We'll probably call it Smith's Brick here, since that seems to be the earliest name.

1871 Salem Directory

Joseph S. Smith had purchased the lot from William Willson, and sold the building in 1869. So he didn't own it for more than a few years, less than a decade.

June 26th, 1932

Today we remember the Smith name more for the Smith-Fry House, at the top of Gaiety Hill on High Street at Oak Street.

Smith-Fry House of 1859
1878 Marion County Atlas

The proper identification of the real Nesmith Building and of Smith's Brick, both of which are long gone, is really only a footnote. It does not alter any greater sweep of Salem history, and it's not that important. But now we know.


Interestingly, the Downtown Historic District nomination has some information on the real Nesmith Building. It describes "a two-story frame house owned by J. W. Nesmith on the corner of Front and Trade," but says only that the paper had moved into it, and not that the Legislature ever met in it. (On the corner would put it about where the railroad is rather than in the parking lot.)

It also identifies what appears to be Smith's Brick as built in 1858 and by W. K. Smith not J. S. Smith.

from the Downtown Historic District form

The Gaiety Hill Bush Park historic district nomination mentions J. S. Smith, but does not link him to the Smith Brick.

From the Gaiety Hill Bush Park historic district form

Mostly this is consistent on the Nesmith Building, but it also points out ways that we lack a good, consensus history of early Salem. There are plenty of small details yet to discover, contest, debate, and confirm.

1 comment:

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(Added a couple of clips from the downtown and Gaiety Hill Bush Park historic district nominations.)