Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Lost Towers of Walter D. Pugh

(Image of old City Hall and other images courtesy Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections)

The basic vertical unit of Salem's historic downtown is the two-story brick storefront. The only real exception that comes to mind is the Livesley Building. There are a few three-story buildings like the Reed Opera House and Montgomery Ward buildings on Liberty, but two is the basic meter.

But a steady procession of two is too much like a march. Our predecessors understood this, and in the first half of the twentieth century, one of the elements that gave the Salem skyline rhythm and variety was the clock or bell tower.

We've lost them. The transit mall has one, and I find myself looking to it often (the architect, alas, didn't plan the sightlines from Church street very well). But the really interesting historic ones are gone.

Walter D. Pugh (April 4, 1863 – Nov 23, 1946) has a special place in Salem architecture. Little is known about him. But he's responsible for some of the gems, lost and standing, in Salem architecture. Many of his buildings featured towers.

Towers, of course, weren't uncommon. The Eldridge Block, part of which remains today as Greenbaum's, had a tower called the Parvenue Tower. (You can see Daniel J. Fry's drugstore in the picture - his warehouse is being demolished this month.) The old Marion County Courthouse also had one. Even the Reed Opera House has an ornament to break up the horizontal roof line.

But Pugh had more of them, and his buildings were more integrally a part of Salem's architectural fabric. Consequently, his absence in memory and in stone looms as a greater void.

His obituaries said that
Pugh was born in a small house on the corner of Winter and Union streets, April 4, 1863. He attended Prof. Sellwood’s private school* and Willamette University and received his architectural training while in apprenticeship to McCall and Wickersham, Portland architectural firm. Later he established his own firm in Salem.
His most beloved building is lost. At the corner of Chemeketa and High, where there's a parking lot today, stood the old City Hall. A Romanesque brick structure with a tower, it was started in 1893 and completed in 1896. Efforts to keep it as a museum were unsuccessful and it was demolished in 1972.

Pugh's obituary also mentions the "old Salem high school." Dates are a little confusing. It's possible the school was the 1905 high school built where Meier & Frank's/Macy's stands today (original structure, and with additional wings), but other sources suggest it was an earlier school. The State Hospital National Register nomination form dates a school Pugh designed to 1893.** East or Washington school was erected in 1887 according to photo captions, and it has a tower. I believe the towers are a signature of Pugh's. Here's the old view and a view shortly before demolition.

The most famous of his lost towers was the dome of the old Capitol. It burned in 1935.

Though its tower is lost, one of Pugh's buildings that does remain is the Grand Theatre and Ballroom at High and Court, across from the old Court House. It was originally built as the Odd Fellows Hall. It had a more massive, Italianate and blocky square tower. Without the tower the Grand's facade is more static, a square and imposing box.

Pugh was active elsewhere in the city. His obituary notes that
As state architect under Gov. Penoyer [sic], he designed several state institution building, including Kidder hall at Oregon State college***, Halls at Chemawa Indian school and buildings for the Indian reservation at Phoenix, Ariz., were also part of Pugh’s work.
Another of his institutional works was an addition to the State Hospital. Pugh designed easternmost part of the J Building. That would be the wing called "building 48" and possibly building 47 (both in blue).

These currently house the forensic patients - the maximum security section of the hospital. The building follows the patterning of the original building, and does not appear to offer anything new. It is going to be demolished - though the original part of the J building, which has a tower, will be preserved!

An article celebrating Pugh's 80th birthday in 1943 suggested that "the original building at Fairview home" was one of his. Information on his buildings at Fairview was not readily available to me. Perhaps research at the State Archives would turn up something. Here's a photoset from Fairview, and his buildings must be among them.1

His obituary notes that he had designed many houses, too. The most famous is the Shelton-McMurphey-Johnson House in Eugene. Whether any of his houses remain in Salem is not known.

Buildings that do remain in Salem include the Bush-Breyman-Brey blocks on Commercial and the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill at Mission Mill. The wooden mill had burned in 1895 and Pugh designed the brick mill today standing.

Pugh died at his home in Salem on 18th street just south of Center street.

* It is almost certain that this Sellwood is part of the family who provided the second Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. For the educational situation generally in Salem, and a brief reference to J. W. Sellwood's private school see the Salem Online History article. For more biographical material see this 1901 biography and this 1889 article.

** Here's the National Register of Historic Place Nomination Form (big pdf!) for the State Hospital with a few additional details on Pugh.

*** Kidder Hall was named this only temporarily. It was first Cauthorn, then Fairbanks, then Kidder (but is NOT the structure now known as Kidder Hall!). This OSU alumni association article shows both Fairbanks (1892) and Kidder (1918) Halls. Note the tower on Cauthorn/Fairbanks/Kidder!

I'll try to find some way to link Pugh to beer, I promise! It's just that Pugh seems to have designed an unusually high number of important Salem buildings - and no one remembers him today! I keep coming across his name and he's worth remembering. So it seemed like I should write something.

[Update - here's a couple of other Pugh buildings:
Crook County Courthouse in Prineville
Whitespires Church in Albany]

1Update 2 - LeBreton Hall (1908) is the Pugh building. Here's one image and another.


  1. I'm curious as to why the tower would have been removed from the Grand Theater and Ballroom. Any details as to why?

  2. Apparently it collapsed from the weight of accumulated snow during a winter storm in the '30s!

  3. The answer to the high school question is here. Pugh did the 1905 high school.

    W. C. Knighton was involved in Leslie, Parrish, and North, but there's still uncertainty about the 1883-87 East School.

    The 1893 school date is almost certainly an error for 1883/7.

  4. The PUGHs were a prominent Keizer pioneer family. It's interesting to note how much Salem history they are involved in. One of the original family homes still stands on Verda Lane in Keizer.

  5. Thank you for sharing the history and documentation!