Historic Architecture in Salem, Oregon | Embracing Heritage through New Technology

By Kirsten Straus ::

A map of the SESNA Neighborhood in Salem. Each of the green dots represents a basic survey done of the building using images from GoogleMaps. Information collected includes address, style of home, build date if known, and integrity in terms of whether it would contribute to a potential historic district.

Last year, the South East Salem Neighborhood Association (SESNA) was designated as a “Heritage Neighborhood” in Salem, Oregon. The designation comes with money earmarked for projects that celebrate the history of the neighborhood. SESNA decided on several uses of the money: a calendar with pictures of neighborhood landmarks, signage denoting historic areas of interest, and an Reconnaissance Level Survey (RLS).

An RLS is a basic “sweep” of the neighborhood to see where there is potential for historic designation and is usually done on foot. In light of new technology and the difficulty in creating a standard set of data when enlisting many (often untrained) volunteers, we decided to try something new. We used Google Maps Streetview and GIS Mapping software to complete as much of the survey as we could. Another intern and I went through the Google Maps Streetview of every house or business in the neighborhood, and using City data, compiled a database of information that included address, style, year built, historic integrity, and a screenshot of the building from Maps. We were both familiar with the process of RLS as we had done an on-foot one for the Grant Neighborhood in Salem the year before.

Google Streetview of W.T. Grant Co. Store

This was the first time the city had attempted to use satellite imagery to complete this kind of survey and it went very well, all things considered! Since my partner and I were already trained, there were no paper records, and it was very fast, we were able to have a standardized, computerized, accessible database in the matter of a few working weeks. There were some buildings that we could not see from Google Streetview and those are marked as yellow on the above map. The plan is to ask members of the neighborhood to download an app to their phone/tablet that will allow them to pull up the above SENSA map, click the yellow dots, go to that address, and then add a picture of it right from their phone. If they know their architecture, they will be able to add more detail to the data point right there, and if not, someone who is trained can double check. I would be surprised if this was not the way RLS surveys are completed by many organizations in the future.

In addition to the RLS, I also worked a bit on the calendar project, did some background research for Historic Landmarks Commission reports, and am in the process of completing a National Historic Register Nomination for the Oregon State Supreme Court Building. One example is the building located at 260 Liberty Street in Salem. It was going up for a historic design review and I was tasked with finding more about its past in Salem. This article in the Oregon Statesman from 1955 is about the grand opening of the new building and provided some historical context for its modern design review.

Article in the Oregon Statesman from 1955

As for the Supreme Court Historic Register Nomination, it is currently in the editing process after I took up the half-completed project from a former intern. As long as there are no snags in its acceptance, the building should be on the National Register in the next year or so! This project allowed me to learn not only about the founding of Oregon government, but also about the progression of Oregon’s legal system. One of the most interesting cases was Muller v. Oregon (1908). Appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, this case was the first to nationally limit women’s working hours based on perceived “scientific” differences between the sexes. It was later overturned by another Oregon case, Bunting v. Oregon (1917). The architect of the building, William C. Knighton, was Oregon’s State Architect for many years and also designed the nationally recognized Deepwood Estates in Salem and the Sentinel Hotel (originally The Seward then The Governor Hotel) in Portland.