Event to mark city hallís 100th birthday

By Dick Mason, The Observer November 26, 2012 02:00 pm

This is how the building that is now La Grande City Hall looked while it was being constructed a century ago. (Photos from City of La Grande archives
This is how the building that is now La Grande City Hall looked while it was being constructed a century ago. (Photos from City of La Grande archives

Milestone to be celebrated Dec. 12 as part of City Council Holiday Open House 

To appreciate the story of La Grande City Hall one needs to first glance in the rearview mirror back to 1911, the year construction of the building began. 

In Ireland the construction of the heralded but ill-fated RMS Titanic was under way and in France Gaston Leroux’s book “Phantom of the Opera’’ was published. 

Sadly, much of what was constructed a century ago, including the Titanic, are now gone, but in La Grande the city hall structure at Fourth Street and Adams Avenue remains a landmark. 

Today the brick building is anything but phantom-like with its striking ornate features and seemingly timeless stability.

This will be evident to many visitors on Dec. 12 when the building’s 100th birthday is celebrated. The observance will be part of the City Council’s Holiday Open House. A century of public library services in La Grande will also be celebrated.

The story of the city hall building is one of numerous and occasionally controversial council meetings and a brief but tragic tale of violence. 

The structure, first named the Federal Building, originally served as La Grande’s U.S. Postal Service building. Mail began being distributed from there when it opened on Feb. 23, 1913. La Grande’s post office was moved there from a building leased on Adams Avenue by the federal government, according to an article in a February 1913 edition of  The Observer.

The Federal Building housed the post office for 50 years. The post office was moved to its present site at 1202 Washington Ave. in 1963.

The Federal Building continued housing offices for various federal programs after losing the post office. Around 1980, the City of La Grande purchased the Federal Building for a relatively small sum.

 City of La Grande offices were moved into the former Federal Building in 1982. They were moved from La Grande’s old city hall at Sixth and Washington, now the site of the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum, said Norm Paullus, public works director for the City of La Grande. 

Today, the La Grande City Hall is on the National Register of Historic Places. An application submitted for placement on the National Register vividly describes the brick building’s features. 

“The building is a handsomely proportioned and beatifically detailed example of the Georgian Revival style of architecture, which was popular in the United States from the 1890s through the early 1920s. The La Grande building is a rather ‘pure 1’ example of the style in which stylistic elements are handled with an exceptionally high degree of architectural quality.’’

The report makes note of things like the total cost of site acquisition and constriction of the building, which was $65,000, and how its granite steps were replaced with ones made of concrete in 1931.  

The application for the National Register was remarkably detailed and complete but makes no reference to the building’s link to a notable moment in La Grande’s history — the murder of Billy Eng. A Chinese American, Eng was shot in front of the Federal Building at 12:10 p.m. on March 13, 1917. The murder was believed to be connected to the Tong Wars. These were feuds carried out between gangs of Chinese immigrants or their descendants. The feuds spanned from the 1850s through the 1920s.

Eng died at the scene and three men with Chinese backgrounds were arrested and charged with the murder hours later. Eng was described in a March 13, 1917, Observer story as a highly respected member of the community.

This is how the site of todayís La Grande City Hall looked before construction of its building started about a century ago.
This is how the site of todayís La Grande City Hall looked before construction of its building started about a century ago.

At the time of the murder, the Federal Building is believed to have housed only the La Grande post office. This changed years later when the offices of many government agencies were moved into the building. A number were related to agricultural services. Offices for the U.S. Forest Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Selective Service and a U.S. Navy recruiting station were also housed there. Many of these were based there after the post office was moved to its present location in 1963. 

La Grande library system also to be recognized

It is fitting that La Grande’s public library system will be recognized with the city hall building on Dec. 8, for both have similar origination dates. The first La Grande Public Library building opened in the basement of old Honan Hall on March 27, 1912, according to a story in the March 14, 1984, Observer. The city paid $25 a month to rent the tiny space, which had about 1,000 volumes. 

Soon after the library opened, a drive began for the library to get its own building. An application was made to the Carnegie Corp. for funding. Carnegie awarded $12,500 to La Grande for the construction of the library in February 1913. Construction of the library was completed in late 1913. The library, located at 1006 Penn Ave., formally opened March 16, 1914, with 1,286 volumes. The library had 13,000 volumes by 1927, making it the 12th largest in Oregon in terms of number of volumes, according to a Sept. 15, 2006, edition of The Observer.

The library served La Grande through September 2006. It closed after the present Cook Memorial Library was opened in the fall of 2006. The new library, which is much larger, was needed because the old one was cramped and in deteriorating condition. 

The old La Grande Public Library building today houses Art Center, which was recently refurbished in a big way with assistance from a $10,000 Wildhorse Foundation grant and a $2,500 grant from the Union County Cultural Coalition.