Gray Building’s history includes YMCA, city hall and court

By Andy Zimmerman
Salem Rewind

The Gray Building is seen circa 1912. It opened in 1891 as the home of Gray Bros. hardware store. Photo Source: Willamette Heritage Center, 1998.004.0091

The Gray Building on the northwest corner of State and Liberty streets NE underwent an extensive remodel in 2018, the latest chapter for a building that continually has been adapted to serve a changing Salem.

It has been the home of Salem city government, a justice court and district court, the YMCA, doctors, a Painless Parker dentist office, a hardware store, the chamber of commerce, a restaurant and bar, and many other businesses in its more than 120-year history.

A 1959 Capital Journal story said the construction of the building in 1891 encouraged the growth of Salem away from Commercial Street, and for the following 40 years, most of the new commercial buildings in Salem were constructed along Liberty, State, Court and High streets.

Home of the Gray Brothers Hardware Store

The first iron columns for the Gray Building were set in position on May 27, 1891. The Gray Building was the home of Gray Bros., a hardware and implement store. The hardware store reportedly opened Oct. 19, 1891.

“Their store building is one of the largest and finest in the city and they carry an immense stock-buying in large quantities and retailing cheaper than many firms of smaller capacity,” the Oregon Statesman wrote Jan. 6, 1894. “The stock includes general hardware and implements, and in fact everything that can be found in a first-class hardware store, such as blacksmithing supplies, woodchoppers’ tools, heavy hardware, both iron and steel, and the best barb wire manufactured.”

Other early tenants in the building included the Oregon Land Company and the Willamette Valley Fruit Growing Co.

The Gray Building is seen between 1960-70. Bishop’s, Montgomery Ward and Miller’s department stores are seen down Liberty Street NE.
Photo Source: Willamette Heritage Center, 2004.010.0519.

Temporary home for City Government, Salem YMCA

In 1893, the building became home to city government, with the first city council meeting held in the Gray Building on March 21, 1893.

“The recorder will hold his police court right on the corner, a back room being used for the meeting of the city council,” the Capital Journal reported March 13, 1893. “The city jail prisoners will be kept in spare cells of the county jail, and these arrangements will continue until a new city hall and jail are built.”

Salem City Hall, which was at the southwest corner of High and Chemeketa streets NE, was constructed between 1893-97.

The building also served as the second home of the Salem YMCA, but the organization quickly outgrew its quarters and moved again in the mid-1890s, according to a March 28, 1931, Oregon Statesman story.

Gruesome Find

The building’s first big remodel happened in 1909, after Charles Gray sold the building. New stores such as the Barr Jewelry Store were added.

The Gray Building made news for a troubling reason in June 1912: a portion of a human skull was found in the attic.

“From appearances the former possessor of the bone cannot have been dead for more than a year. The blood stains on the skull and in the kettle still show crimson and the blood vessels can be easily traced, both in the portions of scalp and on the inside of the skull,” the Oregon Statesman reported June 19, 1912. “Hair clings to the piece of defunct brain pan in a gruesome mass.”

The partial skull was found in a kettle of quicklime.

“The garret where the skull was hidden is in the south portion of the building which fronts State street. The attic is entered by a man-hole from the roof,” the Oregon Statesman wrote. “The part of the garret where the discovery was made is merely a dark cranny in the roof of the building, which is made no use of whatever. It is evident that the person or persons responsible for the presence of the skull in the top of the building entered by way of the roof.”

The Oregon Statesman presented theories that were considered by the coroner, but the newspaper didn’t report whether the mystery was solved.

In the 1920s, Salem’s justice of the peace moved into the building. And the Gray Building later became the site of a district court in 1947. Court proceedings left the building in July 1950.

Unfortunate Burglary

Since the building was home to a variety of businesses, there was a risk of burglaries, much like today. In April 1936, a would-be thief broke into the wrong office: the courtroom.

“The burglar pried open the transom of a room adjacent to justice court and found it to be unoccupied,” the Capital Journal wrote April 11, 1936. “He then tried the transom of the justice court, but seems to have given it up after leaving plenty of fingerprints. A dentist’s office is located next to the justice court and it is believed the burglar thought he was getting into the dentist’s quarters.”

In recent years, the building was known for being the home of the Brick Bar & Broiler, which opened in August 1993, according to reports. It closed at the end of 2017 ahead of the remodel. It also was home to the Coffee House Cafe, which closed in 2010.

Amadeus restaurant, which is in the former on the Liberty Street side, survived the recent construction and remains in the Gray Building.

This article provided special to the Willamette Heritage Center by Andy Zimmerman. Contact Andy Zimmerman at