LOCAL HISTORY: Explore Salem’s past during Historic Preservation Month

The Oregon State Capitol, photographed sometime between 1939 and 1947, with Willamette University campus (Ben Maxwell collection/Salem Public Library)

Editor’s note: This column is part of a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. This week, Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s historic preservation officer, explains resources for exploring local history around you. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

May is Historic Preservation month! Initially established in 1973 as a week-long celebration, the National Trust for Historic Preservation extended the celebration to the entire month of May beginning in 2005. The event gives local communities across the country a greater opportunity to celebrate their history through events and activities.

In Salem, Mayor Bennett read a proclamation at the May 10, 2021 City Council meeting declaring that May is Historic Preservation Month. During her remarks to the Council, Tracy Schwartz, Chair of the Salem Historic Landmarks Commission, shared a quote from the 1973 Presidential proclamation declaring the first National Preservation week: “As the pace of change accelerates in the world around us, Americans more than ever need a lively awareness of our roots and origins in the past on which to base our sense of identity in the present and our directions for the future.”

As the Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Salem, this quote captures the essence of why I do the work that I do every day. I recently came across an old photograph of my grandparents standing on the steps of the Oregon Capitol in the 1960s. My grandmother in particular had a deep love of history. I think she would have been so pleased to know about the work I’m doing now here in Salem to preserve our past and hopefully provide a direction for the future.

George and Esther Vanderbrug, Kimberli Fitzgerald’s grandparents, outside the Oregon Capitol in 1967 (Courtesy/Kimberli Fitzgerald)

I sometimes feel like I have the best job in the world because I get to discover new things all the time. One of the first projects I worked on was the redevelopment of the Oregon State Hospital. I never knew that the famous movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed right here in Salem, at the Kirkbride Building located on the hospital’s campus!

Now home to the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, the building houses a great exhibit on not just on the movie, but also about the interesting and challenging history at the hospital. They’ve done a beautiful job honoring those who have died while living at the hospital. The cremated remains of these individuals are held in copper urns which are now part of a beautiful memorial housed in a repurposed building at the hospital. They are continuing their work to reunite these remains with descendants.

Our capital city has many wonderful opportunities to visit and connect to our local history and culture. We’ve compiled a list of places you can go to. You’ll also find a fun short four minute video created by the Salem Culture and Heritage Forum, a group comprised of representatives from Salem’s heritage and cultural sites.

Be sure to also check out some of the other Forum videos in their Capital City Cornerstones series. One of my favorites is the “Women of Mission,” which explores the fascinating work of Salem landscape architects Elisabeth Lord and Edith Schryver, along with their gardens at Deepwood and Bush House and their home at Gaiety Hollow.

I am really excited to see who our Historic Landmarks Commission will be acknowledging this year through their annual historic preservation awards at their May 20 meeting. They have several different awards they give each year, including the Ben Maxwell Award and Virginia Green Award to recognize great preservation work by individuals and property owners. This year, they have created a new award category to recognize exceptional projects relating to the interpretation or preservation of Salem’s cultural landscapes. They will also be selecting the winners of our seventh annual historic photo contest! Here are some of great photo submissions and winners from last year.

May is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month. First celebrated in 1979 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, Congress expanded the celebration to the whole month of May in 1990. There are a number of online exhibits and events available if you are interested in learning more, including the Library of Congress portal. Here in Oregon, you can find Oregon’s proclamation as well as several short videos and documentaries celebrating Oregon’s Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage at the Capitol History Gateway. Of particular interest to me are the free online daily talks offered this month by the Chinese American Heritage foundation.

Regardless of where your interests lie, please take a moment this month to stop and become aware of your surroundings, and try to find evidence of that history where you live and work. It is all around you. As another part of the 1973 Presidential Proclamation stated: “America’s history is told not only in books, museums, and monuments, but also across the face of the land itself and along the streets of our cities and towns.”

Kimberli Fitzgerald is the Historic Preservation Officer and City Archaeologist for the City of Salem. Contact her at [email protected] or 503-540-2397.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!