The future of Howard Hall – demolition or preservation – will not be known for some months to come. It is possible, according to a City of Salem attorney, that it might even be decided by the Oregon Supreme Court.
On June 17, the City of Salem’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) denied Salem Hospital’s proposal to demolish Howard Hall, the former dormitory at the Oregon School for the Blind. It was a unanimous vote with one abstention. The Commission stated that Salem Hospital had complied with only one of the four criteria that was required by Salem law (SRC Chapter 230.090 – Demolition) to meet, in order for it to legally tear the historic building down.
However, the fate of Howard Hall, designed by architect John V. Bennes in 1923, is still unknown. Also unknown is the body that will make the ultimate determination.
The city describes the HLC as the committee which “advises the council on matters pertaining to historic sites and structures in Salem.”
Federal requirements specify that a majority of the HLC should be comprised of professionals in the fields of history, archeology, anthropology, architecture, conservation & curating, engineering, historic preservation and landscape architecture. To make its decision, the HLC reviewed scores of letters, documents and testimony from every position for several months, asking for more information on several occasions.
Its June 17 decision stated that Salem Hospital, or any “aggrieved party,” had until July 2 to file an appeal. However, at the June 19 HLC meeting, Salem’s Assistant City Attorney Maja Haium told the body that “our understanding is that [Salem City] Council will be calling that decision up” – even though Salem Hospital had not appealed the decision.
Haium was correct, because at the Salem City Council meeting on June 23, councilor Laura Tesler moved to call up the matter so council could review the decision. Council voted unanimously to do just that.
Two categories of people hope that Howard Hall might remain in existence; those who admire the important Pacific Northwest architect, John V. Bennes, who designed it and those who celebrate the building as a final critical representative of the School for the Blind that was open from 1873 through 2009 and a marker of the history of blind education.
Howard Hall is the only example of Bennes work in Salem. Italian Renaissance Revival in style, it is singularly located on the edge of Salem’s National Historic District and, in 2009, it was determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Larry Landis, Director of Special Collections and Archives for Oregon State University, has been a Bennes scholar for 18 years (and speaks because of his academic interest, not on behalf OSU). Landis calls Bennes an architect “of amazing versatility” and argues that when Salem Hospital was looking for uses for Howard Hall it might have overlooked how the building might make a “short stay facility” for people whose relatives are in Salem Hospital “instead of making the facility a new building from the ground up.”
Though he hasn’t seen the engineering reports, Landis says, “Taking the existing Howard Hall structure and remodeling it could possibly be more cost effective… I’m just not sure all the options have been considered.”
One advocate who argues that Howard Hall has a unique association with the history of the blind in Oregon is Kim Charlson, President of the American Council for the Blind. Charlson wrote on April 11, “Historic recognition of Howard Hall… is recognition of the diverse history of the education of people who are blind in Oregon and respecting that history and honoring Oregon’s great past.”
Dr. Patrick Schwab, an educator who is Secretary of the Willamette Chapter of the American Council for the Blind, says, “If city council allows testimony, the blind community will show up and express that they want that building to stay standing… For the blind, architecture is a tactile experience. For them, the tactile experience of a building creates a cognitive map that means they can fully understand the nature of where they are. It’s not to color of the walls, but how the entire environment feels.”
Salem Hospital, however, which owns the land on which Howard Hall sits, argues that these arguments may be compelling, but they are impractical in the real world. The building has been used for storage most recently and has not been maintained. For any future use at all, “Engineers told us the building would require seismic upgrades, extensive electrical and mechanical improvements,” says Sherryll Hoar of Salem ospital, “as well as structural changes to accommodate disability access.”
Hoar argues that the hospital has worked tirelessly with “neighbors and the neighborhood association,” and other stakeholders trying to reach a collaborative decision on how to handle the building – to no avail.
When it found that it didn’t have a use for the building itself, Salem Hospital put out a Request for Proposals,“for someone else to come up with ideas to reuse the building,” says Hoar. “We… advertised it well, and got no responses. It’s interesting to note that when the state was putting the School for the Blind property up for sale, [it] hired a real estate broker specializing in historic properties to market the property for its historic value and got no takers either.”
Hoar says that those who received the invitation from the hospital “told us the main reasons no one submitted a proposal were that the building was too small and would be too costly to renovate.”
The next developments for Howard Hall will be that Salem City Council will discuss the matter at a hearing meeting on July 14th. This will be a public hearing, involving public testimony and arguments on every side.
At that time, council might either approve the HLC’s decision “or they could remand it back to the HLC with directions to consider something that they feel was not duly considered” by the HLC the first time, Hauim says.
Haium also notes that city council could “reverse the decision and approve the demolition permit” as well.
There may be more legal wrangling even after that. In fact, Haium says the City believes a final decision “is likely to be several months” away, because of the “possibility, and certainly the likelihood, that the decision will be appealed to LUBA.”
LUBA is the State of Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which reviews land use decisions.
Beyond LUBA, according to city attorney Natasha Zimmerman, “there is always a very good chance it will go as far as possible.”
Zimmerman says, “this is a controversial issue that people care deeply about,” and told Salem Weekly that further steps might involve the Oregon Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court.
“Any time people care deeply about an issue one way or the other,” Zimmerman said, “they will do everything they can to be sure a decision is fairly considered.”