If These Walls Could Talk
The Evolution of G Street & the Grants Pass Historic District Architecture
Cate Battles, Travel Grants Pass
January 24th, 2020
While strolling around the Grants Pass Historic District, the first thing you might notice are the charming boutiques and eateries lining the streets, but have you ever stopped to look at the artistry behind the architecture? Some of these buildings were built before the turn of the 20th century, and as a testament to time, have survived fires, wartime economies and depressions, along with growing pains and city expansion. From the early days of the railroad through the emergence of the Pacific Highway, the evolution of downtown’s historic district can be seen in its buildings, and the ones that remain standing today continue to tell their stories.
The Railroad and the Birth of Grants Pass
The establishment of the railroad in the early 1880s can be largely credited for the significant growth boom of Grants Pass as a mecca for agriculture, hospitality, and commerce. Within three years of the passenger train’s arrival, 135 residences as well as over 50 businesses were erected and the town was officially incorporated in 1887. At the time, Grants Pass was the Southern most rail stop from Portland, which made it a vital shipping point of industrial and agricultural goods as well as an emerging tourist destination. G Street, formerly known as Front Street, was selected to be the main commercial thoroughfare due to its close proximity to the railroad. These businesses attracted many visitors from the train depot across the way and served as a central hub for shopping, dining, and drinking- even more than a century ago. The shops and taverns catered to local loggers, mill workers, miners, and farmers, as well as transient workers who followed the railroad construction South. With the huge influx of people passing through town, the early days encapsulated the “Wild West” image of the 19th century and the area around G Street was known to get rowdy with regular brawls and gunfights.
Fires and the Switch to Brick
Built in 1894 after the previous structure was destroyed in a fire, the Chicago/Commercial style Dixon Dry Goods building is one of the oldest buildings on G Street. Its sidewalls serve as party walls to the adjacent structures, signaling the rush to rebuild after the devastating 1894 fire and the subsequent shortage of brick. The rear of the building holds some of the last remaining metal-clad fire shutters in town. To the right, is a Sanborn Map listing the buildings and businesses in 1894.
Originally, the buildings were made of wood because the lumber was cheap, readily available, and didn’t require skilled workers. Unfortunately, this material was highly flammable and when a slew of fires devastated the street in the 1890s, business owners turned to brick construction. The fire’s aftermath also resulted in stricter building codes. The buildings you see today on G Street and the immediate surrounding area were mostly constructed between 1894 until the turn of the century and reflect the architectural style of typical small-to-medium sized towns of that era. The architecture in the historic district is considered primarily “Chicago School/Commercial Style” which can be characterized by its flat roof, one to four stories height, brick surface, decorative cornices, and ground floor storefronts. While these frontage stores were open for business, the buildings directly behind them facing H St were used as their warehouses and storage, which is why the facades of the buildings are much simpler than their G Street counterparts.
The Chicago/ Commercial style can be seen at the Grants Pass Brewing building, now home to Climate City. Beer making has been a Southern Oregon tradition since the 1800s and hops were one of the biggest cash crops in the early days of Grants Pass.
The architecture of this period strayed from the more ornate styles of previous eras, however, you can still see elements of other architectural influences. The arched windows and patterned masonry of the Romanesque Revival movement can be seen on several buildings, as well as the corbeled brick cornice of the Kesterson/ Star Seed and Grocery Building (1905). The First National Bank building (1890) was built with Victorian Eclectic influences, combining different elements with its multi-shaped windows. The Sherer- Judson building (1889) is the oldest remaining structure in the historic district and though it was built in the Chicago/ Commercial style, it’s complimented with Queen Anne details like the arched and flashed multi-paned windows, decorative trim, and sunburst motifs. Originally, the first floor served as a hardware store and tin shop in one half of the building, and the other side was a dry goods and jewelry store while the second story Blackburn House offered boarding rooms.
The Sherer-Judson building is the oldest remaining building in the historic district. (Notice the decorative window detail.)
Though a large majority of the historic buildings are in the Chicago/Commercial style, there is one building in particular that leaves this mold. Without a doubt, one of the most iconic structures downtown is the Kienlen-Harbeck building, which embodies the characteristics of Italianate architecture with its square-domed Second Empire Baroque corner tower, galvanized sheet metal façade, large brackets and cornices, and decorative cast iron columns. Constructed in 1900, Mr. Kienlen wanted to make his status in the town’s burgeoning business community known, and his new saloon and rooming house were sure to make an impression.
The Kienlen Harbeck building served as a saloon until the town was voted dry in 1908, largely influenced by the Womens Christian Temperance Movement and later by Prohibition.
The Progressive Era and the Demise of the Passenger Railroad
Many changes arose with the dawn of the new century. Up until this point, the 400ft railroad right-of-way along with the depot located in the middle of 6th street created a barrier to commercial development north of the tracks and proved inconvenient to the townspeople traveling between the residential and commercial areas. Eventually, the Southern Pacific Railroad relinquished the right-of-way and relocated the depot, opening up development by shifting the commercial focus to the wider and better suited 6th Street.
To the left, arched signs spanning the streets were erected, boasting of bountiful natural resources and weather in the area, with hopes of attracting more folks to town. To the right, 6th street has now surpassed G street as the main thoroughfare. Note the first use of electrical lighting at the top.
In the early 1900’s, the town focused heavily on civic improvements and beautification projects, encouraging visitors to flock to the area not only for its immense natural resources, but also for the quality of life. Grants Pass was the first town in Southern Oregon to have electric street lighting and the rutted dusty roads were turned into paved thoroughfares and sidewalks in 1909. By 1910, the power supply to the city was increased and the municipal sewer system was installed. Urban parks were appointed and downtown landscaping provided shade during the hot summer months. To highlight the mineral and agricultural jewels of the county, the railroad advertised the economic and social benefits in pamphlets and literature while the Commercial Club erected arched signs spanning across the streets with slogans like “Welcome to Grants Pass: Orchards and Vineyards, Farmers Paradise”. Like Boatnik, the Commercial Club staged the “Irrigation and Industrial Fair” with parades, races, and performances to draw people to town.
Urban landscaping and city parks were prioritized during this era. Caveman Bridge replaced the older bridge in 1927.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes to Southern Oregon in the early 20th century was the introduction of the automobile and the subsequent decline of the passenger railroad. The Pacific Highway which eventually connected Canada to Mexico was constructed in Grants Pass in 1917. This brought people to town like never before and fortified 6th street as a bustling commercial hub. In 1926, a spur route, Redwood Highway 199 would connect Grants Pass to the California coast.
A Push to Modernize
The Urban Renewal Movement of the early-to-mid century brought changes to downtown’s architecture as business owners wanted to modernize. The appearance of a town’s main street reflected its prosperity, and many believed that keeping the storefronts in their original state conveyed economic stagnation. In order to prove that downtown business was flourishing, the brick facades of some old buildings were stuccoed and the original structures were bulldozed down and replaced with modern architecture.
The best example of Art Deco architecture in Grants Pass can be found at the Rogue Theatre. The Redwood Tower remains the tallest building in downtown Grants Pass.
Art Deco buildings were a popular style choice during this era and one of the best examples in town can be found at the historic Rogue Theater, built in 1938. The large marquee and illuminated neon sign welcomed in a new era of motion picture and was one of the few Oregon theatres constructed during the 1930s. The building’s smooth aerodynamic lines and bold colors signaled an advancement in technology and exuded a polished modern elegance. The Redwoods Tower, an iconic fixture of the downtown skyline, was built in 1926 of reinforced concrete with Art Deco ornamentation on its façade. It was originally built as an expansion of the Josephine Hotel that burnt down in 1975, whose past has been immortalized by muralist, John Michener. Other buildings with Art Deco elements include the Steam Laundry Building (1903) which was one of the first buildings to utilize concrete as well as the neighboring building at the corner of 5th and H, which served as the first Safeway in town in 1941. The International style of the Wing Building (1949) provided ample space for multiple professionals and also was fire and earthquake resistant. Some business owners opted to keep the buildings and modernize the facades, like the mid-century design of the Golden Rule Plaza and the Hart Jewelers building.
Mid Century aesthetics moved away from ornamentation and older brick buildings were covered up, including the Hart Jewelers building and the Golden Rule Plaza.
Some Things Never Change
Over the past 100 years, downtown’s Historic District has continued to evolve and today, it remains the home of dozens of locally owned boutiques, eateries, retail shops, and art galleries. When you take a moment to stop and appreciate the history of these old walls, you realize the buildings directly reflect the history of our town, whether it was times of booming success or years of struggle, they remain an emblem of perseverance and the strive for improvement. No matter what century or decade defines Grants Pass, one thing is certain; its small town charm will never change as long as we continue to preserve its legacy.