Monday, December 12, 2011

Lost Glories: Old City Hall - Knighton Perfects, Pugh Struggles with Concrete

With news about the Police Station's growth and the seismic instability of New City Hall, maybe it's time to revisit Old City Hall.

Sue Bell writes:
Nothing remains now to mark its presence but a stone shaft and plaque on the southwest corner of Chemeketa and High Streets. Erected in 1989, the monument was installed 17 years after demolition of the original City Hall building when the Civic Center Complex was completed in 1972....

The remaining salvageable material was carted off by wrecking contractor E.S. Ritter to dispose of as he saw fit.

Though the property is now bank parking lot, in a corner which stands the easily overlooked stone shaft commemorating Old City Hall, there are still bits and pieces of the venerable municipal structure scattered throughout the City. In these traces, the memory lives on.
It's a little lonely here.

Not long after it was built it looked like this. Chemeketa is not yet paved here.

Bell continues:
On the 19th of January, 1893, Mayor Gatch and the City Council received recommendations from the Committee on Fire and Water to begin the process of acquiring new City Hall property in order to consolidate all the municipal offices in one central area. An amendment to the City Charter was called for to allow bonding to float a $10,000 indebtedness to the City, which would be added to the $20,000 proceeds from sales of current City property. By April, the Building Committee had completed specifications on the City Hall and were ready to entertain bids on the new construction.

The plans for a "High Victorian Gothic" edifice submitted by Walter D. Pugh were accepted by the Council on April 20th. Pugh's compensation was to be 4% of the contract price for the construction. However, one change in the specifications was recommended at the Council meeting: the clock tower would be 136 feet high, rather than the 156 feet in Pugh's plan.
Here's a much larger image from more recent times, complete with parking meters - be sure to click to enlarge!

One detail that seems have been lost to history is the role William C. Knighton had in the design. According to an article from 1894, just before he was finishing up the Deepwood project (though it didn't get that name until well into the 20th century), Knighton's
first work was to perfect a set for plans for the Salem City hall now under construction.
It would be interesting to know just what this "perfecting" involved! Was it detail work a draftsman might undertake? Was it structural engineering, perhaps for the tower? Was it what we'd today call "value engineering"?

In February 1895, a list of warrants shows that Knighton was still working with C. S. McNally and that Charles Burggraf also had his fingers in the cookie jar!

In any case, in the same report as the list of warrants there was apparent confusion in authority between the superintending architect Pugh and construction superintendent Harrild, and within a few months it had blossomed into a full reprimand over - wait for it! - concrete and masonry:

The report listed several problems with structural concrete, masonry, and iron, and concluded
Architect Pugh has exceeded his authority and has violated the spirit of his contract with the city and laid himself open to just criticism and reprimand by the council.
Maybe it's no wonder the tower on the Grand Theater collapsed in a snow storm! (A correspondent has mentioned another problem tower associated with Pugh, but we couldn't find the reference - we'll update if we can.)

Today the early 70s brutalism of New City Hall probably looks ugly and useless in the same way the chunky Romanesque Gothic of Old City Hall looked in 1972. So that's a cautionary tale about the vagaries of fashion and about probable folly in rushing to vacate and demolish the Civic Center. It's also a little alarming that Salem seems to have a problem with public buildings and their concrete!

But more than anything, it's sad that nothing better than a parking lot has replaced the Old City Hall. That's real ugliness.

(Images: Old City Hall late 1890s and Old City Hall with Parking Meters from Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collection. It has lots of other images in the collection.)


  1. Great post! Thanks. But why are you being so kind about our hideously ugly City Hall? Do you really think that it will strike anyone as attractive in decades to come? I doubt it. Troy, New York, just tore down their ugly brutalist City Hall. We will need to do the same sooner or later. In the meantime why does the city allow black moss to grow all over it and make it even uglier? Have we no pride? I noticed that the brutalist fire station has gotten a coat of paint, which makes it look a little less ugly. I suggest the City do the same for the City Hall and Library. They are both terrible eyesores and embarrassments.

  2. Well, you may be right! Still, reuse is often better - and almost always greener - than demolition and new construction, isn't it? And perhaps it can be repurposed as a open air farmer's market or a climbing gym and athletic club or something even stranger and more wonderful.

    (A better library, nearer transit and the downtown core, would be swell, too!)

    A coat of paint or a cleaning - and what about the Capitol's own dingy patina? - would be nice!

  3. Another example in town of a ugly brutalist building with a new paint job is Salem Hospital (the older part on the W. side of Winter was painted to match the new part on the E. side). It is a big improvement. The idea of brutalism was to be "honest" about the building materials (i.e., concrete). Trouble is, it's ugly as sin. A coat of paint is a good relatively cheap solution to the problem.

  4. Here's an image of the old Deaconess Hospital adjacent to the new brutalist wing. The two styles are quite the rhyme for the styles of Old and New City Hall! You're right about the paint job - though it's still lipstick on a pig...

  5. And here's more on the mysterious Superintendent Harrild...

    From the National Register nomination of the Judge Hamilton House in Roseburg (pix here):

    "The house was commissioned to the architect William C. Knighton, presumably after J.W. Hamilton viewed the newly constructed home of Dr. Luke A. Port in 1894, also known as Deepwood Estate, on one of Hamilton's numerous visits to Salem. Hamilton, Port and Knighton were all associated with the Masonic Lodge and the I.O.O.F., which may have been a source of this connection. However, Hamilton may also have been acquainted with Judge Murphy, another Knighton client.There is no documentation to support either connection. Hamilton acquired the services of others associated with Deepwood Estate, including the contractors, Harrild & Olinger.

    Henry Harrild and Alton Olinger, both of Salem, were the proprietors of the contracting firm, historically located at 338 Trade Street in Salem. Harrild and Olinger are also noted for the construction of the Murphy Mansion on Court Street in Salem, which was later demolished."

    So if Knighton was doing some additional work on the plans for City Hall, and a contractor with whom he often worked was the construction superintendent, it seems like things were ripe for conflict!

    Here are two views of the Murphy house.

    Deepwood, the Murphy house, and the Hamilton house are all of a piece.

  6. The Atlantic has a piece making the case for saving "ugly buildings," principally brutalist ones!