Friday, February 19, 2021

Mural in Senate Chambers Shows Bennett House in 1859

In the ice storm, observing Oregon's Birthday was a little secondary, but maybe we can circle back a moment. I have sometimes wondered about the "historical" murals at the Capitol, how accurate they might be. Were they just historical confections, freely interpreted and embellished? Or were they closer to a real description of events?

They are also exemplars of the WPA era public art like those pieces discussed in the current show at Hallie Ford, "Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art in the 1930s." They are government investment in the arts. Completed almost a century ago, they were much closer to the people and actions depicted, and stand some kind of chance of preserving actual recollections.

Senate Chambers via Oregon Blue Book online
State Archives and Secretary of State

They are interesting in many ways!

One of the murals, the one in the Senate Chamber, purports to show the news of statehood being delivered.

From the Senate's official page:

The mural in the Senate Chamber is titled "Bringing the News to Salem March 17, 1859." The mural, painted by Frank H. Schwarz in 1938, shows the scene in Salem on March 17, 1859, when news of Oregon's statehood was first announced to the people of Oregon. The details in the mural capture the essence of early Oregonians.

As a Salem scene it is vague about the location of this town square, and the caption is not very helpful.

Does it have any correspondence to a plausible, actual scene in Salem? 

It does!

The Bennett Hotel then and now
at State and High looking west-ish

It's looking across the intersection of State and High from the Courthouse grounds with the Bennett House across the street.

Anachronistic view from 1884 and 1888 Sanborns

Bennett House and City Laundry, 1886
View from S side looking NW to Reed Opera House
(Salem Library Historic Photos, but not identified)

Jan 25th, 1887

We've lost general knowledge of the Bennett House.  It burned down in January of 1887, and what we remember and see today is the 1911 replacement, the Masonic Building. 

Picking up a local news story about the fire in 1887, the Coquille City Herald called it "the Chinese headquarters in Salem." Its place in our Chinatown history may not be fully appreciated yet. And it may be that after the Chemeketa Hotel opened, and Cook's also kitty-corner, the Bennett House may have lost status for whites and become part of Chinatown. There might, then, be a social erasure in the ethnic history of the building's use as well as the physical erasure from the fire. Just the way the news about the fire is told suggests there was more to the story.

Certainly, the fact that its identity was apparently not clear to Ben Maxwell, and was uncaptioned in his photo collection, suggests the history of the Bennett House has been lost a little, and perhaps a lot.

Back to the painting itself, across the street in 1859, from the painting's point of view, the Courthouse would have been the first one. I'm not sure I've seen any picture of it. The 1858 "map" of Salem has a vignette of the Bennett House in the ring around the panorama, but doesn't have anything for the Courthouse, which seems odd. The images we all see as the "old" Courthouse are the second Courthouse. It's interesting that this all parallels the Capitol, with the very first one leaving few traces, and the second one celebrated as the "old" one.

From the Secretary of State's history:

Salem has had 3 county courthouses, all located on the same site. The first was completed in 1854 and replaced in 1873. During the 1930s and 1940s efforts to move the 1873 building and preserve it as a museum failed and it was demolished in 1952. The third and present courthouse was completed in 1954.

From the morning paper, February 18th, 1921, which suggests the first Courthouse was moved and reused until the 1890s:

The contractors were to have the building moved by January 1, 1872...The old court house building became a livery and feed stable, occuped by A. J. Basey...and stood there throughout the seventies and the eighties, and, the writer believes, into the late nineties, when it was torn down to make room for better buildings.

As we consider attitudes to development in the Comprehensive Plan and Climate Plan, it is helpful to remember that nearly everything we celebrate as "historic" and might seek to preserve is itself second- and third-generation redevelopment. Cities are dynamic, not static.

Capt. Chas. Bennett, died 1855 (2014)
in the IOOF Pioneer Cemetery

Captain Bennett is a little shadowy, off the scene before statehood.  With his place in the "Indian wars" and with the hotel becoming a "Chinese headquarters," we might now choose to understand his legacy as more complicated, at the center of a history of constructing and maintaining whiteness. Here are a couple more notes on Captain Bennett.

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