A 1921 Oregon Statesman photo of "The Home Electrical" at 901 Capitol St N.E.

A routine part of my job includes reviewing building permits and completing historic design reviews on properties in Salem that are designated historic resources. Part of the work that I do includes summarizing the history and significance of the resources on the property. I was recently completing a historic design review at 901 Capitol Street NE and when I began digging into the history and significance I stumbled upon a mystery.

901 Capitol St NE, known as the William G. Allen House, was originally designated as a Salem Local Landmark in 2003 for its architectural significance as an excellent example of the Craftsman bungalow architectural style. The owner at the time pursued designation of the home to take advantage of Salem’s “specific conditional use” process to allow a graphic art and design office use in the building in a zone where normally only residential uses would have been allowed. This process, now called “adaptive reuse,” incentivizes preservation of historic resources through flexible zoning regulations.

The original Historic Landmark Commission staff report for the designation provides a history of the original builder and occupant: “The house located at 901 Capitol Street NE was built c. 1920 by William G. Allen. Born July 31, 1876, Allen was known as the ‘dean of Northwest canners.’ He was a pioneer of the food canning industry in Marion County and the Northwest beginning in 1893. Allen’s first wife, Florence, is listed in the city directories as living in this house during 1926-27. Allen’s obituary indicates they had three sons. He and his second wife, Elsie, were married in 1939. He was manager of Hunt Bros. Packing Company, developed several new methods of food processing, and beginning in 1942 operated the Allen Fruit Co. in Salem until 1952 when he built a new cherry processing plant in Newberg.”

I took a look at Virginia Green’s blog (shineonsalem.org) and she writes that Allen designed this house and his own crew built it in 1920. Green reports that Allen was a businessman in Salem who operated Allen Fruit Packing on North Front Street and also reports that in 1935, Allen Fruit Packing was the largest processor of cherries in the Pacific Northwest and that during World War II Allen processed potatoes for the armed forces.

However, newspaper research revealed that this history might not be correct. I surprisingly came across a newspaper article “A dark ending for a man who lit up Salem in the 1920s,” published on January 15, 2017 written by Kaylyn Mabey, curatorial assistant for the Willamette Heritage Center, for the Statesman Journal.

Mabey writes about Frank and Clara Barton’s home built in 1920: “Their electrical dream home was built at 901 N. Capitol St., now the law offices of Gerald L. Warren and Associates. It was designed and built with the express idea of demonstrating just how comfortable, convenient and economical a home outfitted with electricity and modern conveniences could be. Every door had a light switch and electrical outlet high enough that no bending over was needed to plug in the vacuum sweeper.”

F.S. Barton, pictured in the Oregon Statesman in 1921.

Mabey describes how the Bartons opened Salem Electric store on the ground floor of the Masonic Building in Salem, which was intended to help homeowners transition from gas to electric fixtures and appliances. She notes how Frank Barton had the idea for an electrified community Christmas tree on the grounds of the old Marion County Courthouse, just across from his store - which was the first of its kind in the nation. Unfortunately, by 1925 the couple filed for bankruptcy, closed their store and sold their house. Mabey reports that in 1928 Clara had died, and by 1930 Frank had been admitted as a patient in the Oregon State Insane Asylum where he died later that year.

So now I truly had a history mystery! Who actually built the house?

One of the key things that historians who do research relating to significant properties is to complete a chain of title, to confirm the ownership of the property over time. I looked at the original research files associated with this property that appear to have been completed back in 2003 and a partial chain of title was completed, just back to 1954 at which time the property was owned by Elsie M. Allen (William’s wife). The property was owned by Charles Jens from 1954-1959 and then by Ruth Jens from 1959-1997.

The notes in our research files state: “Purchased by Dr. Ruth Jens, First Female Private Practice Psychiatrist West of the Rockies, and her husband Charles A. Jens, Willamette University Law Professor from, I believe, the original owner… Used house for extensive entertaining for friends like then Senator Wayne Morse, Mark Hatfield, Supreme Court Judges such as Judge Rossman, Dewey Rand, Senior owner of the Capital Press, Dr. Brooks of the Oregon State Hospital, Dean Reese of Willamette and David Duniway, then State Archivist. There were many more, but I cannot remember their names.”

Another step historians take is to look through the city directories to confirm any names associated with addresses. City directories (like a telephone book but with addresses) for Salem are available at the Willamette Heritage Center as well as the Salem Public Library. The research files for this property included city directory listings going back to 1926-27, which confirmed that 901 Capitol St. NE was occupied by William G. Allen, but no information prior to 1926 is listed.

A Dec. 1, 1921 Oregon Statesman article about the Barton home at 901 Capitol St. N.E.

I found another article in the Oregon Statesman published on December 1, 1921 “The Electric Household is the Home of Comfort and Beautiful Dreams, of Light and Laughter and Good Cheer; The Subtle Current Brings Efficiency.” This lengthy article describes both Barton’s home at 901 Capitol as well as his Salem Electric business and it includes both a picture of Barton and his home.

A later article published in the Oregon Statesman in 1924 “Better Homes Being Studied” discusses a series of “Better Homes” programs being held at the F.S. Barton residence. By 1925 the Oregon Statesman article “Salem Electric Co. in Bankruptcy” reports that Barton entered a plea for bankruptcy for both the business and their home on Capitol and confirms they are leaving Salem.

A 1926 Oregon Statesman article published on April 28, 1926 “Social Calendar” reports that “the W.G. Allen Home at 901 Capitol Street is open to visitors in observance of Better Homes week.” These articles and further deed evidence confirm that the Allen’s purchased the Barton home after their bankruptcy in 1926.

Even though this started out as a mystery, what’s exciting to me is that we have now uncovered the true significance and history of this resource. Next, we will move forward and work with the current owner to ensure that our official historical documentation relating to the significance of this property is updated. If you are interested in researching your own house please check out our resource page.

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. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]