Monday, October 18, 2021

What to do with Remnants of State Insurance Building?

The Historic Landmarks Commission has an especially interesting agenda for their meeting this week, Thursday the 21st.

When it was the YMCA (WHC 2014.064.0060)

Even if they don't necessarily intend to get at the question directly, they will have to consider indirectly what exactly is the main purpose of historic preservation. Is the accent on telling better history? Or is the accent on the preservation of old buildings and building parts as much as possible as a defense against development? Is narrative history or anti-growth the engine of historic preservation?

The topic is prompted by a formal request from the Willamette Heritage Center:

[A representative from the Mill] has requested that the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) initiate the local historic resource nomination for the State Insurance Co. Building (1888). While the building dates back to circa 1888, the exterior of the building has gone through significant alterations beginning in 1960 when the upper stories of the building were removed....The building is significant for its association with the State Insurance Company, the Oregon Land Company, the Salem YMCA and former President Herbert Hoover. The original structure was a good example of the commercial Second Empire architectural style for this period.

The Recommendation from the City is negative:

Staff recommends the HLC take no action to initiate the local historic designation of the State Insurance Co. Building because the proposed resource is not eligible for designation due to its lack of historic integrity.

The history of the building's form is even more complicated than the materials from the Mill and the City suggest.

Its very first version was a two-story brick without the Mansarded third floor.

An early two-story version of
State Insurance Building
1887, detail
(Salem Library Historic Photos)

Another view of the two-story version
March 28th, 1931

In the late 1880s it was remodeled by the addition of the third story, and this is the form in which we have mainly remembered it as "historic." (See YMCA postcard at top.)

Then, after about 70 years as a three-story structure, it was decapitated.

from the Staff Report

The resulting, heavily remodeled one-story structure is what we see today.

The Staff Conclusion that "the proposed resource is not eligible for designation due to its lack of historic integrity" is very strong. As we have resolved "integrity" into aesthetic judgement about the retention of wholeness from some imagined original purity, the building is not integral. It's a muddled mess.

Additionally, apart from the aesthetic question, there is a moral question. The City proposes to site some kind of affordable, subsidized housing project on this corner. A theme here is that historic preservation, narrowly construed, has become too often a kind of quasi-zoning scheme used for exclusionary ends. This should be a clear instance where we should not let the nearly unrecognizable remnants of an old, historically significant building interfere with or necessarily raise the cost of new housing.

So if we do not put the accent here on the preservation of old buildings, can we tell better history?

I think we can!

Also on the agenda is consideration of "Demolition, Sale and Mitigation."

Bank vault, ghost signs, old growth timber

In that Staff Report there are picture of neat architectural details like the bank vault door, old ghost signs for the junk stores, and old growth timber.

Any demolition should include a careful deconstruction and salvage of these so they can be repurposed in art or in new construction. With these parts and with appropriate interpretive materials we can still tell the stories of the State Insurance Building, of the Oregon Land Company and its place in Salem development, of Bert Hoover's youth, of the early the YMCA, and of junk shops and the role of Jewish immigrants in Salem. If we focus on the telling of history rather than the preservation of a building, we can in fact offer a better, richer sense of that history.

Ladd and Bush Bank is 20th century construction
May, 1966 (University of Oregon)

We already have a more flexible understanding of historic preservation, but we have swept it under the rug. Our celebrated Ladd & Bush Bank of 1868 is fantastical! It is new construction with the original cast iron detailing applied to the surface. The building as "old" is fake!

But that doesn't bother us.

Similarly, we should be able to take the important details from the State Insurance Building, and more explicitly work them into new construction or into new art to tell stories about 19th and 20th century Salem.

The HLC should not initiate any historical designation for the remnant building, but they should take care to develop a mitigation plan for the demolition and salvaging of key remnant details.

On the block and its wider place in our history, see previously:

Minor Addendum, August 2022

January 7th, 1887

Here is another and clear image of the two-story version. It sounds like the State Insurance Company did not erect the building, and moved into it after it was already built.

From the paper:

...they purchased the brick block on the northwest corner of Commercial and Chemeketa streets in January, 1886, and after handsomely and conveniently fitting it up, the company move into and occupied their new office on the 20th day of April last. This block is one of the handsomest business buildings on commercial street...the entire first floor of this building is occupied by the company in its business, and is nicely finished, and handsomely furnished in bright colors of pleasing designs.


Jeff Schumacher said...

If the HLC were to initiate the local historic resource designation of this building, and if the building's nomination was then approved, what would the end result be? Would the designation prevent its redevelopment entirely or just slow it down?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Sludge. Administrative sludge. As with the Belluschi Bank, designation would not prevent demolition and redevelopment. But it would be more costly in public process, in time, and perhaps in fees. A developer, city or another entity, would lose predictability, and even just an increase in uncertainty would be a cost.

Jeff Schumacher said...

Thank you. Hopefully people interested in this building's history have an opportunity to document whatever is left of it (or in it). And hopefully the building is quickly redeveloped into something which adds to our downtown instead of stagnating in administrative sludge.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

(added another image of the two-story version of the building)