Salem Buildings…

K. Williams Brown quoted me in a column in the SJ Sunday , and we had a thoughtful conversation Friday about Salem architecture.  The columnist, only here two years…from the south originally, was wanting to write about the “new brutalist” nature of public buildings, and lamenting that Oregonians don’t appreciate good architecture.  Over the weekend I thought a lot about what we said…the columnist’s comments, my responses, my 40 years in Salem…some of that time working to save and safeguard Salem’s built environment.  Losses, successes.

I’ve come to think that the real problem here is that people don’t value Salem enough.  We ARE the second city…for culture, for shopping, for food.  The REAL city, in many minds, is Portland.  And that is true, Portland is a real and wonderful city.  But Salem has history, fun, music, art, good buildings, good food, terrific parks, bike trails, even really good (if not always beautiful) coffee.  All that stuff.  Maybe we just don’t have “critical mass”…a large enough population that includes proponents for all these things in real numbers.

Take the U.S. National Bank of Oregon.  A beautiful 1940-41 building…a landmark building…a building splicing traditional materials with modernist design ideas including sheer glass window walls

and adorned with a wonderful set of Frederick Littman reliefs.

(Inside were a terrific set of Leroy Setziol wood sculptures, but the Portland Art Museum has those now…somebody in Oregon appreciates the good stuff.)

This mid-century building was designed by the internationally famous OREGON architect Pietro Belluschi.  It was built seven years before his very famous Equitable Assurance building in Portland, the very first tall, international style building in the world.  And our building contains the same set of ideas as the Portland building.  But our building is not valued, and indeed is disliked in Salem…many would love to see it disappear.  Imagine.  This treasure right down town.  It sits empty.  If it were in Portland it would be on a second life, a hip life of some sort.  And that is the sadness of living in Salem.

But give it another look…this lovely little TRULY modern building, orphaned in a post-modern world…before it’s gone.


  1. It’s good to talk about the building! I’m less a fan of it than you, though – it’s awfully bunker-like and isolated from the streetscape. For the right new building, a quality mixed-use kind of development, or a single-use building of singular design, I might not miss it much.

    A question – the Equitable/Commonwealth dates from 1948, and the bank building is from 1947, I think, so are you sure about the seven years? Also, say more about the design features they share! The Equitable is tall and sortof transparent; the bank is squat and opaque.

  2. I so agree with you Bonnie. I once testified before City Council in regard to the potential viability of a conference center, which took years and years to come to fruition. I noted that Salem had an inferiorty complex and that was why we were so negative about any proposed creative and somewhat risky project. The mere idea that a State Capitol city couldn’t support a meeting place just confounded me.

    Then, of course, there is my favorite building, the Capitol–truly a one of a kind in the nation. Now that State Parks has taken over the grounds, it is even more beautiful. The latest project of reinstalling the skylights over the stairwells is going to be a fabulous enhancement. It is worth a before and after look.


  3. Our bank building dates from 1940-41 and I think the comments from Capital Taps and from Frankie are making me think that the bank was a commercial architectural response to our new state capitol building, built 1938. Marble, white, relief sculptures on the front (Belluschi often worked with Littman but the ones on the state building are by Leo Friedlander) BUT…with this wonderful wall of large north-facing windows clad in aluminum…the hallmark of the Equitable building…a building which by 1948 has become ALL windows. (Frankie by the way, like David Duniway, has fought the good fight…let me say here.) Capital Taps…I have heard over and over again through the years about the “bunker-like” aspect of this building but I don’t see that at all. The interior is fairly soaring with all the windows…I used to bank there years ago…first interstate maybe…

  4. With my love of architecture I read Ms. Brown’s column on Sunday with great interest, although disagreeing at times with her opinion. Salem is full of lovely and interesting buildings. We do have our share of state and municipal buildings… but even those have their positive qualities. The US Bank building is gorgeous (imho) I’m in awe of the beautiful granite stone and marble reliefs…. When I pass by I always walk a little slower and gawk at the beauty. I think of our Salem buildings the same as I consider people, some are a little quirkier or homely than another… but they all have endearing, funtional and sometimes historic beauty.

  5. Thank you for writing about this building, I really enjoyed finding out more about it and I don’t understand why it isn’t being used. There must be some great light coming in from those north facing windows. Alex and I walked by it the other day and she said how much she liked the “paintings” on the building. She was referring not to those wonderful sculptures, but to the patterns in the dark stone walls (I want to write marble but I’m not sure what it is). Very much like some abstract paintings and I think much prettier than a few other newer downtown buildings.

    I agree, we need to value our local treasures and history more.

  6. Well, it doesn’t affect the discussion of the aesthetic merits or other value of the building, of course, but I’m pretty sure the building is later than 1940-41.

    The Sanborn map shows the bank as completed in 1946 and the downtown historic district nomination form reads that “In 1947, the First National Bank moved to a newly constructed building in downtown Salem. This modern building was designed by the renowned Portland architect, Pietro Belluschi.”

    Is there a different source for a 1940-41 date?

    For fans of the building, what kind of business do you think would do well in it?

    I find the lack of street-level windows problematic and a barrier to other commercial uses. The building is sortof interesting considered abstractly as sculpture, but how would you actually use it in a commercially viable and ongoing way? It would be a great thought-experiment to brainstorm a use for it! What do you think?

    1. I’ve only been in the US Bank building a few times… the last time being in the 1980’s. I remember it being very open and cavernous…I think a mixed use would be great, if there were some small and unique types of businesses all co existing, but separated. that is what I would love to see there. I worked in such a building many, many years ago. In a small Chinese restaurant…. with very limited seating, there was a florist, a type of convenience store, and a gift boutique type of business. all catering to the business lunch crowd in busy NW Portland. … a mini mall of local small businesses would be great and if successful ( that is the big question) ,it could be an asset to downtown.

  7. I’m pretty sure I’ve read this before, but it’s always a nice reminder of some of the features that make Salem what it is! Every time I drive into downtown, I find something worth noticing.

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