Sunday, October 7, 2012

State Insurance Building: Not Lost, but Hidden and Hardly Recognizable

They call them "re-muddles," remodels so bad the resulting building is a random jumble, often super ugly.

You may recognize this building on the corner of Commercial and Chemeketa. It was offices for the Union Gospel Mission and at one time a record store.

Recently, RC pointed out a few interesting architectural details.

Here's a mysterious chimney poking out of what otherwise seemed to be a low-slung storefront from the 70s or 80s.

Underneath it was an arched window and maybe some cast iron detailing.

Both window and chimney suggested a building of some antiquity - at least by Salem standards.

State Insurance Building - Corner of Commercial and Chemeketa
Salem Library Historic Photo Collection
And sure enough, the window details and window placement matches those in some old photos.  Even the chimney's still in the same place.  (Here's a color image from 1954.)

It's the State Insurance building, once home to the YMCA! The remnant first floor, anyway.

We always thought this building had been leveled and lost.  Most sources are silent or suggest the authors consider the building demolished.*  Writing about the year 1891, Virginia Green says,
The YMCA moved out of the building in the following year [1906] and the building itself (the State Insurance Building) was demolished before 1948.
Though later, writing about 1946, she says "This venerable building lasted until at least 1981."

And it looks like it's still there! The upper two stories were just amputated and the storefront got a big awning.  It's almost totally unrecognizable. It might as well have been demolished.  No wonder there has been uncertainty and confusion.

(And in fact the whole block face got remuddled.)

The building's age seems uncertain, but it goes back longer than to 1891 (the State library has two 19th century images here). An ad for the Oregon Land Company from 1889 shows it as an established building. As Ann points out in a comment, the date on the central tower reads 1888.

In 1890 Bert Hoover attends
a wedding in Highland
Copy in other ads suggest the Oregon Land Company was in the State Insurance building at least as far back as 1888. The State Insurance Company seems to have been incorporated in early 1884, with newspaper advertising starting in April of that year. (We'll have to look around some more to see if we can find a building date!)

And there's more than a little bit of interesting history associated with the building.

Many others have noted that Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964) worked for his uncle, Henry John Minthorn, at the Oregon Land Company in this building between 1888 and 1891.  (Apparently, everything Hoover touched in Salem has been ruined or remuddled.  His house during these years, the Minthorn house on Hazel in the Highland neighborhood, is also unrecognizable.) 

According to Ben Maxwell, the State Insurance building was also apparently the "downtown terminal" for the first horse-drawn streetcar on Commercial and State streets, connecting to the old Capitol. Additional track to the Fairgrounds and the Train depot followed shortly.

The Oregon Land Company was a principal investor in the streetcar, always seeking ways to improve land values farther from the center of Salem, and Hoover also worked occasionally as a streetcar conductor. According to the Maxwell compilation, by the late 1890s, the streetcar reached the Highland neighborhood, where Minthorn was very active in real estate.

Later it was home to Saffron Supply and a pawn shop, Star Exchange.

Without knowing more about the condition of the upper stories, it is not possible to say that the building should have been preserved.  Perhaps it was badly deteriorating.  Still, it would be nice for the first floor storefront system to be restored somewhat, the awnings removed, and some interpretive signage to remember this as part of the local Y's history as well as the trivia-question answers about Herbert Hoover's activities.   Maybe a new tenant will be interested in this.  We think there might be rehabilitation grants and loans available for this sort of thing.

In any case, we can say that the State Insurance Building remains, severely compromised and altered though it may be.

* These include the Arcadia Publishing picture book on historic Salem, the Statesman Journal's A Pictorial History of the Willamette Valley, Harry Stein's Salem: A Pictorial History of Oregon's Capital, and the City of Salem's Historic Salem: An Inventory of Historic Places (1987)

Confusion extends to the date and location of the first basketball game in Salem. Al Jones said that it was reported in the paper on a date the paper wasn't printed: But no Capital Journal was printed on Sunday, January 10th, 1892! A photo caption in his piece identifies the State Insurance building as the location, and this shows up in other sources, but a separate history of the Y says the YMCA didn't move into the building until 1901. This date is more believable because the State Insurance Company had gone under in the depression that followed the Panic of 1893, and much of the building would have been available.


  1. Hey CT, if you zoom in on the pic from the library collection, it appears "1888" is carved on the front of the building. Mystery solved.

  2. Someone else has seen this! Ann pointed us towards Castinirony, which has links to CII's thesis and which briefly discusses the State Insurance Building.

    Even more, there's terrific detail about lots of cast iron faces and vestigial pilasters.

    Why is this stuff so much a secret???

  3. Today April 30, 2017 we celebrated our church's 65th anniversary. Peoples Church, which is now on Lancaster Drive. I was so surprised to see that this State Insurance building was where our Peoples Church had it's first services. It had another name back then, but they showed us a picture of this building with a banner reading Assembly of God in a video about our church history. I was just looking at this picture of it on Pinterest a few days ago, and had no idea that it had a part in our church history.