SALEM HISTORY: A firebombing brings a neighborhood together to restore historic home

The Bucher House boarded up following the 1992 firebombing (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

Neighbors in the Court/Chemeketa Residential Historic District called the classic bungalow located at the corner of 14th and Court the “House from Hell.” Built in 1914 by Walter and Mary Buchner, the once stately home had been converted into apartments following the housing shortage after World War II.

When we moved our 1895 Victorian home into the neighborhood, we were told an absentee landlord had managed to create nine apartments in the house: three on each floor including the basement.

The home became a magnet for all kinds of destructive behaviors including fights, drugs, prostitution and constant noise at all hours. In a period of a little over one year, 87 disturbance reports were made to Salem Police. Flashing lights and sirens became a too common occurrence. 

What to do as we watched our neighbors leaving and trying to sell or rent their homes? We too were wondering if we had made a terrible mistake choosing this area to plant our home. Then, about 3 a.m. on the morning of September 25, 1992, two Molotov cocktail bombs were thrown into the small basement windows of the Buchner House. Fires erupted in the basement. Two people died: Hattie Cohens, 29, a Black woman, and Brian Mock, 45, a gay man. It was declared a hate crime and aggravated murder. Two self-described skinheads went to prison. 

A Statesman Journal editorial shortly after the September 25, 1992 firebombing called for the city to confront hate, reduce violence and do more to deal with nuisance properties.

A flyer for a September 25, 1994 Lesbian Avengers vigil at the Oregon State Capitol to commemorate the Salem residents killed in the Buchner House firebombing (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

A second fire in the now empty home caused even more internal damage. We learned the owner planned to take the insurance money and return the structure to nine apartments as before.

What could we as a neighborhood do? We formed Court Chemeketa Historic Renewal Inc. and invited our neighbors to loan us money to buy the house and to join us in restoring it to a single family home. Thirty-three folks loaned us $86,000 and in August 1993 we purchased the house for $62,000.

Neighbors’ early attempts to enter the Buchner House in May 1993 (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

Charred beams inside the Buchner House in March 1994 as neighbors began restoring the interior (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

Hazel Patton at work on the Buchner House stripping paint (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

Then we all pitched in and began a work project that lasted until we handed over the keys to the new single family owners December 1994. So many neighborhood heroes stepped up to help.  We all had older homes so knew what restoration meant. Our two neighborhood churches joined us as well as students from Willamette University, and architect and financial friends. 

Some of the good things that came out of this tragedy:

It brought our neighborhood together, a bond that still exists.

Our City Council passed an ordinance declaring chronically unlawful behavior by residents of property to be a nuisance and provide for an abatement procedure. No other neighborhood should have to endure what we experienced.

We had promised those who loaned us money that we would pay it back plus 8% interest. Everyone gave their interest earnings to the new owners so they could continue the restoration.

We received many awards. Possibly the most notable first place from the National  USA Neighborhood Award. Home and Garden also featured our project and we presented our story at the National Trust 2005 Preservation Conference.  

Today, the Buchner House sits proudly at one entrance to our residential historic district as a reminder how one home can be a turning point for a community.

Restoration nearly complete on the Buchner House (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

The Buchner House following its restoration (Courtesy/Hazel Patton)

Hazel Patton is a longtime Salem resident and historical preservation advocate.

This column is a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected].

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