Monday, September 12, 2011

Homes for the Lost and the Living: Mid-Century Funeral Architecture

Walking around town you'll doubtless have seen the mural of Theda Bara as Cleopatra.

It was painted in 1984 by Jim Mattingly. Perhaps for naive and sentimental reasons, we find ourselves drawn to his landscapes more than his portrait busts. At least two of them are on essentially permanent display around town.

One of them, Stump's View, was given to Willamette by Elisabeth Walton Potter, who was in the news recently, in memory of Henry and Ellen Fawk, who built the lovely house in the Fairmount neighborhood.

Another, Airlie Autumn, is in the Salem Conference Center's permanent collection, purchased as the winner in the Oregon Artist Series, Mayor's Invitational 2008.

The paintings are conventionally pretty, and they might not show absolutely distinctive landscape features like Mt. Hood or the Three Sisters - and yet they show the there there. A genius loci presides over them and Mattingly's act of painting.

While thinking about St. Mark's, walking around downtown, and staring at Cleopatra, we realized that Salem has some other interesting mid-century buildings. They aren't fancy or even perhaps all that lovely, we're not talking grand architecture, but in an unobtrusive, even subtle, way they are odd and interesting. They have some charm, an element of minor beauty. And they don't seem to be tiring as quickly as some moderne or googie buildings.

Maybe you pass by them and don't really see them? Because of the businesses they house, almost certainly they are by design a little quiet.

(So we read these buildings as expressing a quiet taste. But how did contemporaries read them? Were they regarded as dull and boring when built? Or did they represent leading and innovative architectural fashion for Salem? Our speculation may be ahistorical and off-base!)

The Barrick Funeral home is a hatbox. It has the most amazing basketweave wrap on its brow - like a lid a hatbox! Or bangs on a face. Otherwise it's just a square box - with a sagging roof on an older parking structure.

The building is so quiet - even sleepy - but the basketweave makes it texturally alive. That one detail elevates it.

The Barricks you may recognize from North High's baseball field and the historic photo cards.

Across the street from the library is the Virgil T. Golden Funeral Home.

Its massing looks like it's built of legos or building blocks! But then you see that many of the corners are rounded and filled with translucent glass! So there's this dynamic interplay of square and round, and opaque and translucent. And then there's the green oak tree, growing up and out over the horizontal and beige mass of the building. It's a large sphere over the rectangular blocks. The essential vocabulary is simple, very basic, but it might actually be one of the most dynamic buildings in the city, shimmering with these subtle contrasts, all the more expressive because of its simplicity.

The funeral homes might wish to be wallflowers, inconspicuous in the urban fabric. Death is pretty much always an unwelcome guest. In the face of that, these buildings offer unexpected charm. We don't want to overstate their brilliance, but at the same time, they are lively and odd and interesting - lovely in their own way.


  1. Nice to know I'm not the only one who has quietly admired both of these buildings. As you note, the giant oak sets off the Virgil T. Golden building. Without it, I'm not sure I give it a second glance.

  2. I have wondered if funeral homes tend to not update their exteriors often because they wish to be seen as timeless and solid. You can trust them, they seem to say. Do you wish to entrust your loved ones to something cutting edge, or to something that has stood the test of time? But I wonder (I don't think you are off-base!) what people thought of these when they were built. Maybe they wanted death to be clean, modern, streamlined?

  3. Glad you liked the note, Mike! Here's one, if you hadn't seen it, on the corner of State and Commercial, and the building that preceded the furniture store. You had remarked on the new development proposed there. Glad the new proposal is on your radar!

    Ann, if we can find a contemporary news piece about the buildings, we'll certainly post an excerpt and revisit the topic!

  4. I know I'm late to the party here, but just wanted to let folks know that if you're interested in midcentury architecture in Salem, we've started a group on just that subject! More info on, look for Salem MCM.

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