Thursday, March 5, 2009

More on Speakeasies and Starkey-McCully

The Starkey McCully block was great! And the traces of the speakeasy more powerful than I expected.

Unrelated to the speakeasy, but interesting nonetheless, out in front were brass letters set in old concrete: E. S. LAMPOR(T). The T and part of the R had been cut out during some newer sidewalk work. The cast iron was lovely, though my compatriot noted it was painted in a high contrast, a "gay 90s" treatment.

The downstairs space was pretty dull. "Where the Sidewalk Begins" is a gift shop and cafe to fund grants to school teachers and support other educational projects. Noble goals, but the space is awkward. There's a great embossed tin ceiling and interesting moldings, but the offices in back made it essentially a fancy cube farm. The merchandising was utilitarian rather than alluring. The staff seemed indifferent to our presence. No one ever approached us to welcome us - and it was the first night! Do they want business from anyone other than "friends and family"?

But upstairs was a wonderful...doors with peepholes! They were 2 or 3 inches in diameter, and a pivoting cup sealed them over. Yes, full-on artifacts of a speakeasy and the passwords to enter.

We learned the "hooch house" was exterior. I think it might be the alley house, 233 1/2, shown on this 1926 Sanborn. The hooch was delivered to the house and brought upstairs with a pulley. I'll do more research - perhaps the second floor "sign painting" business was the speakeasy front?

You know, come to think of it, the speakeasy is poised for a renaissance. Between the new-school bartending & cocktailing of places like Mint/820 and the eagerly awaited Beaker & Flask, and the Recession (it certainly deserves the uppercase), I think boom & bust-era drinking is getting the soft glowing halo of nostalgia. There's a bar in San Francisco I read about, Bourbon & Branch, that operates as a speakeasy. With your reservation, you get a password!

Salem doesn't need places exactly like those in Portland or San Francisco, of course. And they're too expensive, anyway. Salem needs its own kind of places. But the fact the there's a Downtown Vision 2020 project suggests even the Mayor knows the downtown is missing some vital juice. More of the same isn't right, either. I think the success of Venti's downtstairs shows the need. Although that space is loud, it also has that cloistered speakeasy vibe. It's almost hidden.

The upstairs space in the Starkey McCully block would make a great bar. Maybe once the Boise Redevelopment project gets going (though you wonder how much of a hit the Recession will deliver to its pace), and there's a significantly larger number of people living downtown, more of these historic spaces can be bars or other venues full of character and charm - and that vital juice. Hooch, anyone?

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