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The Hard Work Behind Preserving Salem's Historic Architecture

Early architecture of Salem, Oregon has survived the test of time.

Ladd and Bush Bank
Ladd and Bush Bank in Salem, Oregon, 1880
Courtesy: Ben Maxwell Collection
The view of the Ladd and Bush Bank exterior on the corner of State and Commercial Street S.E., taken in 1880, also shows the facade of the neighboring building to the east. A boardwalk runs along both sides of the building. On the corner is a street lamp with a ladder propped against it.

(SALEM, Ore.) - Residents of Salem will have noted that its historic architecture has survived the business boom of the past decade.

As OregonLive highlights, the influx of new apartments and businesses into the downtown area have not come at the expense of the area’s history.

While this history is well-preserved, it would be remiss to assume this is done without effort.

To the contrary, the hard work of conservationists and preservationists across the state and country is to thank for the continued benefits that citizens gain from these historic buildings and the iconic character they lend the city.

How preservation works

There’s a lot of mystery behind how conservation is accomplished. Town and city records drag back through years, and this is the job of conservationists and preservationists.

Working in tandem to accomplish the goal of historic preservation, they go through decades and even centuries of records to establish the exact way in which buildings were constructed.

This is for a clear goal - so any preservation work can be conducted in a sensitive and time-appropriate way that doesn’t infringe on the history of the structure in any way.

University Hall was officially dedicated
in October 1867, and in its earliest
days housed the entirety of
Willamette University. In 1912 the
building was renamed Waller Hall.

Photo courtesy:

This can lead to historical goose chases. A recent article in the Salem Reporter highlights the house on 901 Capitol St. NE, built in 1920; as part of conservation efforts, city conservators ended up on a fascinating mystery trail as to the ownership and history of the building.

History at risk

The need for such conservation goes beyond simple re-purposing of buildings. As the Willamette Heritage Center outlines, buildings including the Waller Hall have stood as landmarks in the Oregon skyline for over 150 years.

Just as buildings found to be historic in the process of renovation need preservation, so too do the even obvious landmarks. Without proper repair and upkeep they can, over time, fall into such a state of disrepair that they need to be taken down for public safety. Conservationists prevent this from ever occurring.

Honoring the preservationists

Salem citizens are in good hands when it comes to appreciating history in the city. The City has a very progressive view towards retaining and preserving historic buildings, and in June 2021 released their yearly awards list for dozens of professionals and volunteers in the region who had lend a hand towards ensuring they were kept in the best possible condition.

In many cases, conservation and historic preservation is a task for volunteers or, at best, small city budgets.

It’s done on a shoestring, and often under tough constraints and conflicting public and private interests. Giving that support and protection is more important than perhaps everyday people think.

Preserving the small-town historic nature of Salem will help the city to retain its unique culture. There’s so much to be told from the very look and feel of the city. For current and future generations to continue experiencing that, conservationists must be allowed to continue, completing their work with full support.

Source: Special Features Dept.


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