Today, there is only one building left at the former Oregon State School for the Blind; the Boys Dormitory (1923-24) known as Howard Hall on South Church Street, designed by one of the foremost architects of the 20th century in Oregon, John V. Bennes.
Howard Hall, the architecturally-important building associated with the School for the Blind, whose future remains uncertain, has had a vibrant past. Just as it has been in the news recently, so it was more than eighty years ago.
It was four days before Christmas in 1928. Salem was very different then. The population was 26,000 and R. M. Miller had declared at the Realty Board that Salem was strategically located “to become a great City.”
Our mayor that year was the “Hops King” Thomas A. Livesley. He was the largest grower of hops in the world. “T. A.” had just built Salem’s only skyscraper — First National Bank — today known as the Capitol Tower. The most elegant theater south of Seattle, the Elsinore, had opened two years earlier on High Street.
McKinley School was no longer a hospital. The Great Flu Epidemic was over. A new junior high school had opened on Howard Street. Trains ran from downtown Salem to Portland 33 times a day. The majestic Corinthian columns of the State Capitol faced west to downtown Salem.
In another part of town, Conde McCullough, the genius Master Bridge Builder was playing baseball in the summer with his young son, John, on South Church Street. McCullough had helped to design nearly 600 bridges in Oregon, but when he went home to his small bungalow, he loved to toss a baseball around. John McCullough remembered, “Dad used to take me out…when we lived on Church Street, he’d get the catcher’s mitt and pitch to me. He loved baseball…For a while, Salem had a pretty good pro team…we used to go to the night games.”
Meanwhile, R. A. Furrow was designing a new bridge with cascading steps into the park on South Church Street, lined with eight Mabelite lamp posts; Roman arch panel railings, bush-hammered inset panels, fluted piers and a balcony overlooking the confluence of Pringle and Mill Creeks.
That was the year when Babe Ruth came to town. The “Babe” went to see the students at the Oregon State School for the Blind on South Church Street, and “passed out a liberal supply of Babe Ruth candy.” The day before he did, the Capitol Journal sports page reported “Ruth, Gehrig High Run Men 1928 Season.”
Babe and Lou headed the American League, each responsible for 142 runs, taking the Yankees to the pennant and the world championship. Ruth also led the league in the number of times he was awarded – “a free ticket” to first base – “a tribute to his ability as a slugger.” The Babe received 135 passes from opposing pitchers in 154 games.
In 2014, Salem has changed, brick by brick and signpost by signpost, Salem Hospital is proposing to demolish Howard Hall. The American Council for the Blind has requested the landmark not be demolished.
The future for Howard Hall is still not settled. It stands today, a marker from a bygone time.