City News

After 70 years of sewing machines and vacuums, a new vision on Court Street

Charles Weathers likes uncovering history in old buildings.

It’s apparent as he walks around the now vacant storefront that housed Whitlock’s Vacuum & Sewing Center for 70 years before the business moved to a smaller location on Southeast 12th Street in May. 

With the vacuum and sewing machines cleared out, Weathers pointed out the details he sees in the 22,000 square foot space: the staircase that once ran from the street to the second floor, now buried behind a wall, or the sign he found in the basement advertising the “furnished 6 room charm house,” a miniature home upstairs that served as a showroom for the furniture business that once occupied the space.

Weathers is the Salem developer behind Fork Forty, the downtown food hall that opened in 2020, with second-floor apartments and a basement escape room. The project transformed a dilapidated building with cracks in the walls into a collection of six restaurants and a bar, winning Oregon’s DeMuro Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation in 2021.

He’s now planning a similar transformation in the former Whitlock’s space at 455 and 467 Court St. N.E. after buying the buildings for $2.1 million in April.

“I’ve always loved Indiana Jones, and this is a far cry from archaeology or Egyptology or any of that stuff. But just uncovering and piecing together the past, it’s so interesting. I like looking at these old photos and then finding the business listings from way back when,” Weathers said.

Plans are still up in the air as Weathers looks for businesses interested in opening in the space.

For now, the large glass windows along Court Street are covered with bright signs featuring absurd slogans intended to draw interest and amuse passersby. Two of the all-caps slogans read: “Build your dream business until the next health nightmare” and “This would make a great grocery store for people who hate parking spots.”

One tenant – a combination laundromat and bar – is lined up for the west half of the ground floor, Weathers said.

The east half of the building could house a large restaurant with mezzanine seating looking down on the ground floor, or several smaller businesses.

“It’s very much a Field of Dreams situation. We’re going to remodel it and hope they come,” Weathers said.

Windows on the second floor at 455 Court St. N.E., which served at storage for Whitlock’s Vacuum & Sewing Center before the business relocated in the spring of 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A portion of the upstairs will become apartments, though Weathers hopes the west half, which features high ceilings and may once have served as an events space, could be used again as a theater or something else for gatherings. Office space is another option.

“It’s just a win-win,” said Sheri Wahgren, the city’s downtown revitalization manager. “We’ll get a … fresh, historic-looking building and we’ll get new residents to support downtown.”

Wahgren said housing remains needed downtown, and new units are typically leased as soon as they’re built.

Court Street is an ideal location for the project, because the block is walkable and has several new or newly remodeled businesses, including the Los Toreros Mexican restaurant and the expanded Kitchen on Court Street.

“It’s just going to be so catalytic because it’s something fresh and new there,” Wahgren said.

Signs with eye-catching slogans in the window at 455 Court St. N.E. Developer Charles Weathers said they’re intended to amuse as he works on plans for the space. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Weathers expects to spend about $2.5 million renovating the building. That process will begin as soon as plans are completed later this summer and permit applications are approved by the city’s historic landmarks commission and planning department.

Once permits are secured, Weathers said he expects renovations to take about nine months, though that timeline is a rough estimate given the supply chain challenges in the construction industry.

A former theater and furniture store

As with Fork Forty, Weathers’ goal is to preserve and highlight many of the building’s historical features.

The site was once the home of Salem’s Wexford Theater, built in 1910 and described as one of the most advanced theaters on the west Coast due to its air circulation system. It burned down in 1915, and the developer, Judge P.H. D’Arcy, replaced it in 1916 with the New Wexford Building.

The first tenant was Geer-Krueger, which sold furniture, as well as trunks, bags and suitcases, according to a 1916 ad in the Capital Journal.

Weathers is still trying to piece together the litany of businesses that occupied the space before Whitlock’s opened downtown in 1952.

Newspaper ads from the 1930s and 40s show a variety of furniture stores advertising goods at 467 Court St., while 455 Court St. features listings from several realtors in business.

A miniature model house on the second floor at 455 Court St. once served as a display room for a furniture store that occupied the space before becoming storage. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Though Whitlock’s had carpet over much of the ground floor, the original hardwood remains below it.

The sewing and vacuum company used the second floor largely for storage, so Weathers said it’s been well-preserved, in contrast to portions of the Fork Forty building that had been unoccupied for decades.

“No one had been upstairs for 50 years over there. So it’s seen its share of pigeon orgies,” he said, laughing.

The Court Street space, in contrast, is “four times the size, but it’s probably in four times better condition,” he said.

Loony Toons wallpaper on the mezzanine at 467 Court St. N.E. is one of the details developer Charles Weathers hopes to preserve as he remodels the space into new businesses and housing. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Second-floor windows with prismatic glass that are currently boarded up will be restored, giving tenants or businesses a view of Court Street.

He’s hopeful the project will qualify for the city’s maximum $300,000 grant for capital improvement projects in the downtown area.

The basement space remains a puzzle. Weathers said he was lucky at Fork Forty to find an escape room – the rare business that doesn’t want exterior windows. 

Several people have suggested the space, which has stone walls and exposed wood rafters, would work well as a cigar club or whiskey den. His wife hopes to see private karaoke rooms, he said.

But so far, he said, nobody has approached him who’s interested in operating a business in the basement.

Weathers said he wants the building to reflect what the Salem community wants and hopes people who are interested in leasing space or opening a business reach out to him at [email protected].

“I want it to be something that someone wants to do,” he said. “I would love to see more (variety) being done downtown.”

Salem developer Charles Weathers looks out onto Court Street Northeast from the second floor of the former Whitlock’s Sewing Center building, which he purchased in April 2022 and plans to restore (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.