Once Upon A Time

Linda Burton posting from Salem, Oregon – “Once upon a time,” writes Virginia Green, “before shopping malls and giant parking lots….” Remember that? I remember walking to the A & P, Mother sending me off in a rush to pick up something she needed to finish cooking lunch. I remember hanging out at the corner drug store on summer afternoons, cooling off with a cherry coke while I planned my future over Wonder Woman comic books. That’s when I was 10, and rode my bike most everywhere. The good news is – bikes are in vogue again, and if you’re in Salem, Oregon, you can still walk, and shop, downtown. The Salem Downtown Historic District is a vibrant neighborhood today, with many buildings thoughtfully preserved to offer up a taste of the past. It’s tucked between the Riverfront Park and the State Capitol and you can combine shopping with reading – cast-bronze historic markers along the way tell you the building’s original name and when it was constructed and you’ll catch yourself nodding your head over the interesting story that is included too. Add shade trees, benches, and colorful architecture; you’re not just anywhere, you are someplace.

The Salem Downtown Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 – seven blocks roughly bounded by Chemeketa (Chuh-meh’-kuh-tuh), High, Ferry and Front Streets. It is architecturally significant because it shows a variety of commercial architectural styles. And 67% of the 92 buildings contribute to the historic character of the district. The Ladd and Bush Bank Building at 302 State Street was Salem’s first financial institution, founded in 1869. Ashael Bush II was a prominent figure in Salem’s financial and political history. The U S National Bank Building, the first steel and concrete fire-resistant building in Salem, was built by J P Rogers in 1909, and included all the latest banking conveniences.

The Court Street Dairy Lunch was Salem’s first “fast food” restaurant, opened by Glen Morris in 1929; the Bayne building at 335 State Street once housed a bakery and the Little King Restaurant; the O K Barber Shop shared half the building. Also on State Street were the Sam Adolph Saloon, a butcher shop, and a jewelry store. Nice juxtaposition of services. The 1905 Manning Company Building at 210 State Street is a good example of changing times – the original wooden building was occupied by blacksmiths and carriage makers; Salem Seed and Implement Company was there for many years; and then it served as the local Studebaker place.

There’s angle parking on the street for cars today; imagine the streets lined with horses pulling streetcars, once upon a time. It’s said that one horse could produce 40 pounds of manure a day, explaining why the curbs are so high on the Reed Opera House Block. Part of that “once-upon-a-time” we’re not so nostalgic about. I wouldn’t mind time-traveling back to the interurban electric train days however (1908-1933) when 33 trains a day ran between Salem and Portland and the trip cost 25 cents. Downtown was buzzing; visitors were welcomed at the Central Stage Terminal and Hotel and the Senator Hotel; the Elsinore and Capitol theaters were just a few steps away. City Hall, the Courthouse, the Statehouse, the Post Office, and Willson Park were just a block or two this way, or that. 

But wait. As Virginia Green points out, the Salem of those days gone by “was, in fact, the model of current Urban Redevelopment.” More and more cities are revitalizing their urban core with a vision of what was good once upon a time; condos on the upper floors, restaurants and retail below, green spaces for gathering, and convenient transportation options, sans the horse manure. We still have shopping malls and parking lots, but when you want the “other way,” in Salem, you just go downtown.

Thanks to Irene Bernards, Marketing & PR Director, and Barb Cowan, Guest Services and Volunteer Coordinator of Travel Salem, 181 High Street NE, 503-581-4325 for providing me with maps, publications, and personal insights about Salem. Much information in the preceding post was from the Historic Downtown Walking Tour Brochure, with a forward by Virginia Green.

Travel Salem www.TravelSalem.com

Salem Community Development Department www.cityofsalem.net

Willamette Heritage Center www.missionmill.org