In 1851 the territorial legislature convened in Oregon City to select a capital. Salem, which had been founded in 1840 by New England missionary Jason Lee, got the nod but not everyone was pleased with the selection. The governor, two members of the territorial supreme court and a good chunk of the legislature refused to go. When the government grudgingly arrived in Salem they found a handful of families and scant accommodations; their first session was held in a resident’s home. it didn’t take long for the legislature to vote to move the capital to Corvallis but they trudged back to Salem after one session because Congress had appropriated money to construct buildings here. Even Asahael Bush, editor of the Oregon Statesman who was the leading champion for the move to Salem lobbied for the name to be changed back to its original handle, Chemeketa, a name derived from the native Kalapuya Indian language that translated to “place of rest.”

Salem weathered the early disgruntlement and when Oregon was admitted to the Union as the 33rd state in 1859 Salem continued as the capital and has served as such ever since. Government has been the driving industry in Salem during that time but also developed as a business hub for the rich lowlands of the Willamette Valley; it was estimated at one time that 1/3 of all the fruits and vegetables were processed in Salem’s canneries.   

Our walking tour of Salem will start in the shadow of the state capitol and gradually work back in time as enter downtown, encountering century-old buildings from the Victorian Age and earlier, not so much different than what William Wilson envisioned when he laid out the town...

Willson Park
West End Capitol Grounds between Court and State streets

This park is a souvenir of the legacy of Salem founder William Holden Willson, comprising land that was at the center of his 640-acre claim. The New Hampshire-born Willson came to Oregon to work in the Willamette Mission in 1837 when he was 32 years old and fresh off a three-year whale hunt at sea. Trained as a ship’s carpenter, Willson picked up doctoring skills and served the territory as a preacher and physician. He dabbled in politics as well, working as the first treasurer for the Oregon provisional government and ran unsuccessfully for United States Congress. After drawing up the original street plat for Salem, measuring thirteen blocks by five blocks, Willson opened the town’s first apothecary. He and his wife Chloe donated these blocks between the Oregon State Capitol and the Marion County Courthouse for a public square which formally became Willson Park, filled with several hundred varieties of shade and ornamental trees, many grown from cuttings of historic American trees. In 1965 the park was officially made part of the Capitol Grounds. The Walk of Flags, installed in 2005, honors each of the 50 states.


Oregon State Capitol
Court Street at Capitol Mall

This is the third building to house the Oregon government; its two ancestors were each destroyed by fire, once in 1855 and again in 1935. The current statehouse, dressed in white Danby Vermont marble, is dominated by a fluted cylindrical dome. The capitol is surmounted by the Oregon Pioneer, a work by Ulric Ellerhusen. The 23-foot tall, hollow bronze statue is sheathed in gold leaf and can be accessed by 121 steps through the tower. Under the rotunda in the interior the walls are finished in Travertine Rose, a marble-like stone quarried in Montana. Four large murals on the upper walls of the rotunda relate key historic moments in Oregon history. The building was designed by Francis Keally out of the New York shop of Trowbridge & Livingston. When it was dedicated on October 1, 1938 the price tag was $2.5 million. In 1977 another $12.5 million was invested to add two wings to the rear and sides. Fire continues to curse the Oregon capitol - an early morning blaze erupted on August 30, 2008 on a second-floor terrace that caused smoke and water damage. 


Public Service Building
255 Capitol Street NE - east side of Capitol Mall

The marble quarries of Vermont were tapped once again in 1950 for this government building to match the Capitol. It is trimmed in bronze and outfitted with panels of Bois Jordan marble in the lobby.


Oregon State Library
250 Winter Street NE - west side of Capitol Mall

The library collection began when Oregon was a territory and the Oregon Library Commission was officially established in 1905. The fires that plagued the capitol building wreaked havoc on the collection and in 1939 the State Library got its own building. the first to be constructed on the Capitol Mall. Portland architects Morris Whitehouse and Walter Church designed the three-story building to complement the new capitol, dressing their creation in white Georgia marble and using Montana travertine on the interior. Broad steps rise to the main entrance where the three doors were each topped by a marble plaque depicting events in Oregon history.


St Joseph Church
721 Chemeketa St. NE at northwest corner of Winter Street

The Catholic church in Oregon began in 1853 two blocks away at the corner of Chemeketa and Church streets in rented space in a former Masonic lodge. It later became Sacred Heart Convent in 1863 when it was purchased by the Canadian teaching institute, The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. The first Catholic church, St. John’s, was constructed in 1864 with space for 300 congregants. The first St. Joseph Church was raised in 1889 at the corner of Chemeketa and Cottage streets; it was replaced by this brick house of worship in 1953. 

First Presbyterian Church
770 Chemeketa St NE at southwest corner of Winter Street

The congregation traces its roots back to 1869; its first meetinghouse was a simple chapel two blocks away on Church Street in 1871. It was the United Church then and in the early 1900s the parish embraced the members of the disbanded Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The present Colonial-style church with octagonal spire was completed in 1929, fashioned of Willamette brick and trimmed in fir.


Salem Family YMCA
685 Court Street NE

Founded in 1844 in London, England, by George Williams, the Young Men’s Christian Association quickly grew in the United States; Salem’s branch began on May 4, 1892. After several moves in rented space the YMCA got its first building on the corner of Chemeketa and Commercial streets. The indoor pool was Salem’s first and a gym and meeting rooms filled the rest of the space. When larger accommodations were needed in 1925 the organization, buoyed by a $200,000 building fund, moved here.   

Federal Building
Church Street between Court and State streets 

When this building was erected in 1937 it was the only marble post office in the United States west of Denver. It handled the town’s mail until the 1970s. J. B. McClane operated the first Salem post office out of his general store in 1850 and over the next half-century Salem residents had to track down their mail in eight different locations around downtown. This building replaced a granite-and-sandstone structure from 1903 that now functions as Gatke Hall on the Willamette University campus.

Marion County Courthouse
High Street between Court and State streets

This has always been the location of the county courthouse, ever since it was Block 6 of W.H. Willson’s plan for the town. First things first, in 1852 a jailhouse was raised here and two years later it was joined by a wooden frame house of justice. In 1871 it was moved away to make room for a grand Victorian pile that dominated the Salem streetscape and served until 1953 when it was razed for the current structure, whose clean, modern lines were dressed in marble panels to conform with all of Salem’s capitol-inspired government buildings.     

Grande Theater and Odd Fellows Lodge
195 High Street at southwest corner of Court Street

The Middle Ages in Great Britain saw the banding together of tradesmen into guilds to promote business and fellowship. The carpenters had their own guild, the bricklayers had their own guild and so on. Trades that did not have a large number of practitioners welded into hodgepodge guilds known as Odd Fellows. In 19th century America an International Order of Odd Fellows lodge building, usually exuberantly ornate, could be found in virtually every town. Salem’s Chemeketa Lodge No. 1 of the Independent Oregon of Odd Fellows started in 1852 and was the first lodge in the Pacific Northwest. The fraternal organization was at this location beginning in 1867 and in this Romanesque-flavored building since 1900. Designed by Walter Pugh and John Gray, the lodge originally featured a tower that was crumbled in a heavy 1937 snowstorm. The Odd Fellows sold the Hall in 1995 after doing additional duty as a theater, a wrestling arena, travelers’ inn, bus station and offices.

Reed Opera House
189 Liberty Street NE at southwest corner of Court Street

This is the last grand relic of the 19th century remaining in downtown Salem, built by General Cyrus A. Reed. Although trained as a military man, Reed possessed the soul of an artist and he painted the interior scenes on the walls of his Opera House, which opened on October 9, 1869 with a staging of “The Female Gambler.” Architect G.W. Rhodes provided the Italianate design for the brick structure that also included a hotel. The 1,500-seat auditorium was on the second floor and that flight of steps was given responsibility for the downfall of the Reed Opera House when the more “convenient” Grand Theater Opera House opened in the Odd Fellows Lodge in 1900. By that time Cyrus Reed was long gone, having relocated to Portland to pursue art. He died in 1910 at the age of 85 by which time his opera house had been converted into a department store for Joseph Meyers and Sons.

Christopher Paulus Building
355-357 Court Street NE

This two-story commercial building was erected as rental property by contractor Christopher Paulus in 1907, a time when Salem was transitioning from a town of wooden structures to more fire-resistant masonry. The Paulus Building replaced two one-story wooden structures that housed a Chinese laundry and store. When the Great Depression brought on a period of vacancy in the 1930s Paulus divided his building into two smaller shops, tiled the storefronts and installed bronze-framed windows. The western side would be occupied by Doughton’s Hardware from 1934 until 1991.

Enright-Halik Building/Steeves Building
339 Court Street NE/347 Court Street NE

In the early 1900s Olive and John Enright owned several properties in this block and constructed this two-story building in 1905 for their tailor shop and living quarters. They also owned the property to the east. In the 1920s the Enrights sold this building to Frank Halik who ran an electric company here until going out of business during the Great Depression. The adjoining property was sold to one-time mayor B.L. Steeves who developed the space in 1929. Dairyman Glen Morris opened the Court Street Dairy at that time and his family helmed the food business until 1994, laying claim to the title of Salem’s oldest continuously operating restaurant.

New Breyman Block
340 Court Street NE

Like many of his fellow countrymen in the middle of the 20th century Werner Breyman left his native Germany and emigrated to the United States midwest, in his case Wisconsin in 1846. He traveled overland to Oregon in 1850 and was joined three years later by his brother Eugene, who came by way of the Isthmus of Panama. The Breymans began their Pacific Northwest business career with a general store in Lafayette but were in Salem by 1863. In 1874 they began building their “White Corner” on the southeast plot of Commerical and Court streets that grew into four wooden buildings that was the largest general merchandise store in Oregon outside of Portland.

Pearce Building
305-321 Court Street NE at northeast corner of Commercial Street 

George A. Pearce began clerking in the agricultural implement store of Robert M. Wade in 1871; by 1885 he was president of the newly incorporated business. This two-story brick building from 1869 was used to showcase agricultural and household items. In 1918 two Pearce sisters, Dorothy, a pianist, and Helen, a professor of English at Willamette University, purchased the property. The current Art Moderne appearance came along during the early 1950s; the building was sold out of the family in 1960.


Bush and Brey Building
195 Commercial Street NE at southwest corner of Court Street

In his twenties Asahel Bush relocated from Massachusetts to Oregon. The year was 1850 and Bush would go on to become president of the Ladd and Bush Bank, founder of the Oregon Statesman and the prime organizer of Salem’s Democratic Party. In 1889 he teamed with Mortiz Brey, a cabinetmaker whose son was the bookkeeper at the Ladd & Bush bank, to develop this commercial block. Go-to Salem Victorian architect Walter D. Pugh was hired to design the building and George Collins, whose brickyard churned out more than a half-million bricks during Salem’s construction boom, supplied the building blocks. In 1918 Pugh was called back to expand the building down most of Commercial Street and he replicated the Italianate-flavored facade as best he could. Part of the block was razed for a parking lot after a 1960 fire but a single cast iron column was left standing.

Capital National Building
129 Commercial Street NE

Architect C.S. McNally, a Canadian who did much to shape the Salem streetscape, applied his talents to this eclectic building in 1892, transforming the 1880-building into a replica of a work by Philadelphia’s great Victorian architect, Frank Furness. McNally alternated bands of red Utah sandstone with gray Tenino sandstone to create this composition for the Capital National Bank which handled money here until the 1920s. In 1950 the ground floor was modernized but the upper facade was kept intact, requiring steel beams to be inserted to support the estimated 100 tons of stone above.   

United States National/Pioneer Trust Building
109 Commercial Street NE at northwest corner of State Street

The five-story Commercial Style corner building was constructed in 1909 with concrete and steel and is the first fireproof structure in Salem. The architect was J.P. Rogers, the client the United States National Bank. Its arrival was heralded by the Oregon Statesman that gushed, “In constructing this splendid building, the stockholders of the United States National Bank have given expression of their confidence in the solidity of Salem and their faith in the unparalleled resources and bright future of the Willamette Valley.”  

Watkins-Dearborn Building
110 Commercial Street NE 

This two-story Italianate-styled brick building dates to about 1870. It boasts such hallmarks of the style as ached windows, window hoods fashioned from brick and a stepped parapet on the roof. The checkerboard tile is a much later addition, probably from the 1840s. W.H. Watkins bankrolled its construction and he sold the premises to Richard H. Dearborn who crafted leather harnesses here. Its neighbor on the corner may also harken back as far as 1870. 

Ladd & Bush Bank
302 State Street at southeast corner of Commercial Street

Cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material in the Victorian Age following the Civil War. A cast iron facade was inexpensive, quick to erect and could easily be molded into the ornate styles of the day. This building from 1869 boasts a fine Italianate cast iron facade but it is not original - in the 1960s the bank received a complete makeover and the decorative cast-iron from from the demolished Ladd and Tilton Bank in Portland was hauled here and applied to the U.S. Bank of Oregon which resided here at the time. Both the Salem and Portland banks were associated with William Sargent Ladd, a Vermonter who met an old classmate, Charles E. Tilton, in San Francisco during the Gold Rush days. Tilton was working in a mercantile concern and Ladd tried to persuade him to strike out for the wide open Oregon Territory instead. Tilton refused and Ladd went alone in 1851 to sell wine and liquor supplied by Tilton’s company. Ladd would erect the town’s first brick building and serve two terms as mayor before Tilton would arrive in Portland to help launch the town’s first bank. In 1869 he joined with Asahel Bush to start Salem’s first bank as well.  


J.K. Gill Building
356 State Street

If there was a standard issue commercial building in the United States in the 1860s this two-story Italianate brick building would be it. It was constructed in 1868 for J.K. Gill, who would run one of the most successful bookstores in the Pacific Northwest here.  The next year, on April 15, the First Presbyterian Church of Salem held its organizational meetings upstairs. Gill, who also dabbled in publishing, would relocate to Portland and the building became a saloon in 1886. Most of its contemporary Italianate-styled neighbors have been demolished or altered beyond recognition.

Adolph Block
360-372 State Street

Fire swept through this block in 1880, burning three wooden buildings on the south side of State Street. German immigrant Samuel Adolph, who came to Salem to brew beer in 1867 after an eight-year stint in the U.S. Army, bought up the property and raised this Italianate-style brick block, distinguished by exuberant window surrounds. 

Pomeroy Building
379-383 State Street

This commercial building was raised in 1860 as a boarding house. It is most associated with the Pomeroy family jewelers; Charles T. Pomeroy purchased it in 1925 with A. A. Keene and operated here into the1990s.

Gray Building
105 Liberty Street NE at northwest corner of State Street

The brothers Charles A., George B., and William T. Gray had their fingers in much of Salem commerce in the fading years of the 19th century, including the Salem Street Railway Company where Charles was superintendent. In 1891 they bankrolled this two-story Italianate commercial building from which George and William sold hardware. The cast iron columns were fabricated in Albany, Oregon. According to historical records all three Gray brothers left Salem around 1907.   

First National Bank, Old Capitol Tower Building
388 State Street at southwest corner of Liberty Street

Here is Salem’s only skyscraper, an eleven-story tower raised in 1926. Portland architect L.L. Dougan designed the building in the traditional style of early high-rises to resemble a classical column with a base (the oversized ground floors), a shaft (the orderly assemblage of the middle floors) and a capital (the ornate upper floors. Thomas A. Lively, whose father in Wisconsin is said to have imported the first hops from England, and who ran one of the largest hops farms in the Pacific Northwest himself, provided the financing. 

McGilchrist Building
102 Liberty Street NE at northeast corner of State Street

The family of William McGilchrist sailed to Portland from Scotland in the 1890s and opened a meat market and grocery. After a few years they traded in that life for a fruit orchard south of Salem. In 1908 the family was in town running the White House Restaurant on State Street. The next generation of McGilchrists had diverse business interests including a furniture business, real estate in Albany and Salem and this commercial block constructed in 1916.

Masonic Temple
101 High Street NE State Street at northwest corner of State Street

Massachusetts-born and -trained Ellis F. Lawrence, the founder and dean of the University of Oregon School of Architecture, was a busy man on this corner in the 1910s. This six-story low-rise structure was built in 1912 and marked one of the first times in Salem that terra cotta was used to decorate a building. Lawrence tapped the eclectic Venetian Gothic style for the building that imaginatively employs light brown brick.  

Hubbard Building/Oregon Building
494 State Street at southwest corner of High Street

This is another creation of Ellis F. Lawrence, who designed over 500 buildings in his career and teamed here with W.P. Dawson and Matt Flanagan. Completed in 1913 it also features fanciful brickwork and terra cotta decoration in the form of diamonds at the roofline. This was the original depot for the Oregon Electric Railway, whose tracks ran down High Street south to Eugene and north to Portland. The building also housed the Globe Theater until 1915 and the Oregon Theater for another dozen years after that. The project was paid for by Fannie E. Hubbard who sold the property in 1918. 


Elsinore Theatre
170 High Street SE

The Elsinore was designed for both the stage and motion pictures and opened on May 28, 1926 with a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Volga Boatman. George Guthrie was the impresario who converted the site of an old livery into Salem’s premiere movie palace. Ellis Lawrence contributed the Tudor Gothic design that was budgeted at $100,000 and wound up costing more like $250,000. In the 1980s the Elsinore dodged the wrecking ball and with a $3.2 million makeover in 2002 has been restored to its original grandeur. 


Bligh Building/Pacific Building
524 State Street at southeast corner of High Street

Thomas G. Bligh brought his family from Nova Scotia, Canada to Oregon in 1904, first to Portland and then to Salem in 1908. With his son Frank he built the Bligh Hotel and Bligh Theater across the street next to the Masonic Building in 1912. In 1926 Frank Bligh moved the family hotel and theater business here, opening the Salem Hotel and the Capitol Theater. The Blighs kept the properties until 1945.

First United Methodist Church
600 State Street NE at southeast corner of Church Street

This is Salem’s tallest building, measured from sea level, rising to an elevation 341.8 feet to the top of the steeple cross. That is 22.6 feet higher than the top of the highest antenna on the Capitol Tower and 4.3 feet above the head of the Golden Pioneer atop the Capitol Building. The actual height from the curb of the First United Methodist Church, however, is 153.4 feet, less than the other two contenders that are two blocks away in both directions. The church building dates to 1878 although the steeple was replaced in 1984. The Methodists dispatched missionaries to Oregon in 1833, setting up activities ten miles north of Salem in what is today Willamette Mission State Park. Reverend Jason Lee, who would go on to co-found Willamette University, was at the head of the pioneering party.

Elks Lodge/MICAH (Methodist Inner-city Community Activities House) Building
680 State Street at southwest corner of Cottage Street

Owned by the Methodist Church since 1992, this Colonial Revival building began life in 1925 as the lodge for the the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks. The Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. Lodge #336 in Salem organized in 1896. Before the Elks moved in, this corner contained the 1860s mansion of Werner Breyman that was pulled around the corner and converted into apartments before being demolished.

Hallie Ford Museum of Art
700 State Street at southeast corner of Cottage Street

Hallie Brown was born in 1905 in Red Fork, Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory. She began teaching there before moving with her parents to Oregon in the 1930s where she met and married Kenneth Ford in 1935. The couple started the Roseburg Forest Products company that remains family held today with 3,000 employees and over $800 million in revenue. Before Hallie Ford died in 2007 at the age of 102 she donated funds to many causes around Oregon, including this art museum. The building, designed in the International Style by Salem architect James L. Payne, was built in 1965 as a Pacific Northwest Bell office. The conversion to museum space took place in 1998. 

Public Library
790 State Street at southwest corner of Winter Street

The first books were lent in Salem in 1904 through the efforts of volunteers from the Salem Women’s Club from the corner of a room in the City Council Chambers. About that time Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie was selling his steel company for $400 million and becoming the world’s richest man. He then set out to give away all his money and one of his pet projects was public libraries. He funded over 2,500 of them around the world including 31 in Oregon. The Carnegie foundation provided $27,500 for the construction of this library, which opened on September 12, 1912 and served the town for sixty years.