Beaumont-Wilshire


Today, it’s a major landmark both here on the ground in Alameda-Beaumont-Wilshire, and even from the air: the 15-acre rectangular patch of tall Douglas-fir trees surrounding baseball diamonds, open fields, picnic areas and a dog park. We know it as Wilshire Park, and many of us benefit from it every day.

Wilshire Park very nearly became a 1920s auto campground, and then a 1940s subdivision.

We can take Wilshire Park for granted today because of a series of events tracing back to an investment made by one of Portland’s wealthy early residents, Jacob Kamm (1823-1912), who made his fortunes in the steam navigation business. Kamm also dabbled in real estate investment and had strategically purchased parcels downtown and at the edges of Portland, including the 15 acres of woods just north of the Alameda Ridge off the old county road (today’s NE 33rd Avenue), which he platted as the Spring Valley addition in 1882. When Kamm died in 1912, the tract had been untouched, and his estate was valued at $4 million. Sorting out the estate took years and was frequently in the press.

An effort to turn the park into a KOA-style automobile campground in 1920 was cancelled with prejudice by vociferous Alamedans who were worried about its impact on property values and didn’t like the notion of a non-residential and transient-based activity being so close to their homes. After that fight, which involved petitions, community meetings and a high level of consternation with city government, the fate of the 15 acres rested for a few years.

Remember that the early 1920s were a major boom period for the construction of homes in this area. All around the 15 acres, new subdivisions (and lots of kids) were springing up: the Willamette Addition, platted in 1888 and bounded loosely by Skidmore on the south and Alberta on the north (though the original plat was never fully built-out); the Wilshire Addition, platted in 1921 and roughly including the area from NE 33rd to NE 42nd between Fremont and Prescott; the Beaumont Addition, platted in 1910; and Olmsted Park—just  west of 33rd across from the woods—was as well established as its neighbor Alameda Park. Kids from these neighborhoods were already using the wooded area as their playground, with a maze of improvised trails, forts and other secret places nestled into the thick brush and trees. It seemed a natural to become a real city park, with playgrounds and picnic facilities for organized events.

The Wilshire Addition Community Club—a kind-of early neighborhood association and social club—was the first to call for acquisition and development of the park, submitting a proposal in September 1926 for the city to float a bond measure to fund the work. But Portland Parks Commissioner C.P. Keyser felt the chances of a voter-passed measure were too slim because not enough planning and survey work had been completed, so the effort stalled.

Left on their own after the city chose not to take up the cause, neighbors began direct negotiations with the Kamm estate. By 1933, an agreement had been reached that allowed the property to be used as a park—still owned by the Kamm family—as long as the planning and development work was funded and conducted by neighborhood residents. In a Monday morning, March 27, 1933 news story, The Oregonian reported the following:

“Improvement of a 15-acre tract of land has been started by residents of the Wilshire District to convert the site into a park. The land has been made available by the Kamm estate with the proviso that improvement expenses be assumed by persons living in the neighborhood. Volunteer workers gathered at the tract Saturday and yesterday and cut away underbrush and cleaned the land for further improvements.”

A passing reference about who was actually coordinating the work provides insight into the way some people though of the 15 acres in those days: the work party was led by the city’s Nuisance Division, and the Clean Up Campaign Committee of the Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Thanks to work parties like this, and continued use by neighborhood kids, community interest continued to build in the mid-1930s—with the property still in the hands of the Kamm estate—until a proposal was made in the fall of 1937 to have the city purchase the property with a localized bond measure. Backers of the proposal knew that time was running out to keep the park as a park, and told The Oregonian in December of 1937 that “this is the last chance to get it. Contractors want to take over the property to build homes.” They also continued to make the case that the nearest proper park was too far away for children to use. The 15-acres was still a glorified brush patch.

Working with neighbors, the city proposed assessing the agreed purchase price of $28,500 across 3,000 homes within the surrounding vicinity, less than $10 per household. This did not go over well with some, and a firestorm of letters to the editor and complaints to City Hall boiled over. More than 30 percent of the 3,000 homeowners had actually signed petitions opposing the fee, though not all were against the park acquisition itself, if the city could find a way to spread the cost city-wide.  In 1937, Portland was in the grips of a recession that followed the Depression, and joblessness and foreclosures were headline news on a daily basis.

One letter writer, local resident Spencer Akers, put it this way:

“The controversy over the proposed Kamm park seems to be fanned to a red heat. Where is the justice in a comparatively few individuals being obliged to shoulder the purchase price, especially since the depression has reinforced its destruction siege by the surprise attack of the ruthless ‘recession?’ If the city is too poor to purchase the property than why in the name of common sense should we, who happen to live in the immediate vicinity, be judged as financially able to raise the whole purchase price? I know of several families in this district who are actually in need, and a bombshell of this nature would play havoc with their tottering defenses.”

A staff-written editorial from The Oregonian on December 27, 1927, made an eloquent case otherwise:

“If the Kamm tract were certain to remain available for a park for a number of years, and the majority of the residents of the district desired that buying of it be deferred, there could be no sound objection to such a course. It is likely, however, that the tract soon will be developed for residential purposes if it is not taken over for a neighborhood park. The national cry for more housing and the probability of advantageous federal financing for building make that seem inevitable, if the city does not act now. The price is reasonable, probably lower than it will ever be again. No other property is to be had for the purpose. The proposed assessment [of $8.60 for a 50 x 100 foot lot] would be unlikely to be a hardship on anyone; the return of value to the property owners in the district would be obvious.”

But forward-looking arguments did not prevail, and after all the fuss, the city dropped the proposal.

Meanwhile, kids kept using the 15 acres, brush continued to grow, crimes were reported being committed in the woods, and developers sought to purchase and build on the property.

This detail of an aerial photograph from 1943 shows the 15 acres of trees and rough trails. Though the city owned the parcel at this time, there were no developments or facilities yet. Have a look at the rest of the young neighborhood…plenty of vacant lots.

The story goes quiet again, until a brief headline in the April 10, 1940 issue of The Oregonian: City Acquires Kamm Tract. The short, page 4 story reports only that the City Council took the action by emergency ordinance and was acquiring the land from the estate at a cost of $28,500, financed with a two-year loan from the First National Bank that would be paid off from city funds. Perhaps a development proposal led to the tipping point and the emergency action…that part of the story is untold. The public purchase of the property brought an important chapter to a close, and secured the land for the future.

However, almost as if the neighborhood needed something more to fight about, controversy boiled again in February 1941 about naming the newly acquired parcel, with some wanting to call it Jacob Kamm Park, which stemmed from a proposal made by the Sons and Daughters of Pioneers. The majority of surrounding neighbors lined up behind a proposal to call it Wilshire Park. After several stormy meetings on the topic, City Council agreed with the neighbors and adopted Wilshire Park as the official name.

The Hamnett family on the north side of Wilshire Park, looking south, 1948. Note the gravel surface of NE Skidmore street. Photo courtesy of John Hamnett.

By 1950, the city had cut and removed much of the underbrush, constructed the ball diamonds still in place today, and even built a playground, which featured among other things, old Fire Engine Number 2, a 1918 model that was finally decommissioned from service at the SW 3rd and Glisan fire house.

Wilshire Park baseball game, 1956. Looking west.

Many other memories remain about the park, including the family that lived in a home at the far southeast corner of the woods around the turn of the last century; Christmas trees cut in the 1920s and 1930s from the “33rd Street Woods;” the jackstrawed piles of trees and branches left over from the Columbus Day storm of 1962; the generations of baseball players, soccer players, runners and dog walkers who have loved this place.

The first chapter of the Wilshire Park story…

 

Faithful Alameda History blog readers will know that protests were not uncommon in the early years of our neighborhood life, usually around schools and churches, and frequently about land use topics. Property owners had sought out this subdivision for many reasons, including a covenant that prohibited all but residential development within the Alameda Park plat proper. You couldn’t build a store or office. You could barely build a church, as we have seen.

Want to build a campground, or as they were known during the day, an auto camp? Forget it. This neighborhood was definitely not buying any such proposal.

Our timeframe for this vignette is the mid 1920s. We’ll remember that at this point, Alameda Park is experiencing exponential growth…the previous few years outpacing all other years combined. There was much new construction, but still many vacant lots, some brush fields, and a sense that while we were the “Tuxedo of Portland,” as claimed in the real estate development ads, we were still on the outskirts of Portland.

That’s when our predecessors first learned about a proposal to build an auto campground right here on our doorstep at 33rd and Mason.

The 15-acre wooded parcel that is today’s Wilshire Park was then part of the Jacob Kamm estate. Kamm (1823-1912) was one of Portland’s wealthiest residents, making his fortunes in the steam navigation business. He also dabbled in real estate investment and had strategically purchased parcels downtown and at the edges of Portland, including the 15 acres of woods just north of the Alameda Ridge. When he died in 1912, his estate was valued at $4 million. Sorting out the estate took years and was frequently in the press. Up here in Alameda, Kamm’s trees kept growing.

So when a plan came along to do something with the property, reported in an innocuous story in the September 12, 1920 edition of The Oregonian, some readers may have just looked at it as another business pitch. Commissioner Stanhope S. Pier was in charge of this idea:

 

Tourist parks or auto camps were not that uncommon here in Portland and elsewhere. The car was a new toy and tool, and as people traveled the countryside, they needed a place to land temporarily as they explored the area. Think of a KOA campground. Let’s just say that auto camps were in the public consciousness of the day: an enjoyable, convenient and necessary extension of car travel. Here’s a photo from the City of Portland Archives showing one such camp in 1925, somewhere on the Westside.

 

But after reading the September 12th story, it took Alameda residents only a matter of hours to get up a protest to Commissioner Pier, which eventually turned into a petition drive and then a forceful meeting with Mayor Baker and City Council. In The Oregonian story from October 7, 1920 below, be sure to have a look at the fourth paragraph and its description of Alameda as a “quiet, refined district, composed of a home loving people…”

 

Faced with a petition and local uproar, City Council had to schedule some time to let Alameda vent and make its case. Below, in the story the next day, October 8, 1920, check out the fourth paragraph, where a description of Alameda’s winding streets, considered an asset by some developers, is spun as a liability when it comes to serving the needs of the traveling public.

 

In the following day’s story, with some plausible deniability and backpedalling by Pier, City Council quickly reversed direction on the plan and endorsed the neighborhood notion of playgrounds and open parks.

 

The topic goes quiet then, resurfacing six years later in the September 10, 1926 edition of The Oregonian (below)as one of several city park needs being considered.

 

It would take another seven years until 1933—with the property still connected to the Kamm estate—that the city would seriously consider the idea.

Next Chapter: Conflicts about Paying for the Park

I’ve just finished a history study on a two-story 1912 Craftsman in Beaumont, located on NE 41st Avenue. The story of the house is fascinating: four owners and one default in the first three years, with the title flowing from the original builder, to another contractor to a developer and back to the bank all in short order. The house itself is of interest too, with an unusual gambrel roofline dropped onto a Craftsman body.

But the pieces that will stay with me on this one are the memories of past owners. I was fortunate to find one of the children who grew up there in the late 1920s and early 1930s — now in her 80s — who shared some family stories, memories and photos. The one that sticks with me is the scent of memory, which goes something like this: in the summers, families all up and down NE 41st had wood delivered and stacked in the parking strip between the curb and the sidewalk where it cured in the summer sun. You could look up the street and see firewood stacked everywhere.

Twenty years earlier, the developers of Beaumont bragged that a dozen rose bushes would be planted in front of every lot in the new subdivision. But by the 1930s, residents had become quite practical about their parking strips, which were now a great place to dry firewood for the coming fall and winter.

So our young Beaumont girl, about eight years old at the time, always loooked forward to August because that’s when men started in to split the stacked wood. She remembers the sweet sappy smell of pine and fir permeating all corners of the neighborhood, and the house itself. You could smell it from Beaumont School, she remembers.

Amazing how the power of memory and smell intertwine. What scent do you remember from your old neighborhood?

It’s OK if you’ve not heard of the Manitou Addition, a small chunk of neighborhood that once had its own identity, now lost to time. In my research on Alameda-Beaumont-Wilshire, I’ve kept running into references to Manitou-this and Manitou-that and wondered where it was. While reviewing plat maps recently, I found it: the long block between 33rd and 35th that includes the north side of Fremont and both sides of Alameda.

 

Manitou Plat Detail, March 3, 1910

Manitou Plat Detail, March 3, 1910

 

The plat for Manitou was incorporated by Fred and Gussie Jacobs, who were partners in the Jacobs-Stine Company, which platted many Portland subdivisions with fancy sounding names, only two of which are in circulation today-Errol Heights and Argyle. Fred Jacobs told a reporter in April 1910 that Manitou was named for Manitou Springs, a picturesque mountain community about 65 miles south of Denver.

Of course, when I found Manitou, it begged another question because that plat is a subdivision of the Spring Valley Addition. Now there’s another name that has fallen out of use. Spring Valley is easily one of the oldest plats in the area, filed on November 6, 1882 by one “Clara L. Files, Spinster,” and encompassing the area east-west between 33rd and 37th and north-south between The Alameda and Skidmore (including Wilshire Park). Interesting to note that until 1941 (when development really came to that part of the neighborhood) the Spring Valley plat showed a major planned north-south thoroughfare called Broadway, located about where NE 35th is today.

The cumulative mushroom effect of historical research guarantees that you can’t look into the history of the Spring Valley Addition (or Manitou) without bumping into other nearby mysteries, including plats for Maplehurst (south of Fremont), Irene Heights, Fullerton, Whiterose, Rossdale, Rosyln, Calman, Wilshire and Railroad Heights (nope, no railroads ever ran up here, but you might have been able to hear a train or two).

Not to be outdone by Alameda Park or Olmsted Park or any of the dozen-plus subdivisions beginning to spring up about this time, the Columbia Trust Company commissioned their own artwork (and copywriter) to sing the praises of their development. Take a look:

Beaumont Ad, The Oregonian, May 1, 1910

Beaumont Ad, The Oregonian, May 1, 1910

If you squint just right at their ad, you can imagine Wisteria or NE 42nd Avenue curling down from the ridge. But when this ad ran in the spring of 1910, the big improvements in Beaumont–paved streets, sidewalks and graded lots–were still more than a year away. In fact, real estate folks in existing developments like Irvington went out of their way to point out that places like Beaumont and Alameda Park were just pipe dreams, and only they were able to sell actual houses on actual lots in neighborhoods with actual paved streets. Competition for buyers was as fierce as the pace of homebuilding, which was faster and more ambitious than anything before or since.

I’ve been going through early issues of The Oregonian in search of stories and photos about homes and neighborhoods. It’s been a fascinating journey marked with some real jackpots of information about Alameda, Olmsted Park and Beaumont. Photos, catchy advertisements, stories about who was building what, and where. The Portland of 1909-1915 feels definitely more boastful, a little rowdier than today, with the challenge of meeting day-to-day necessities a little closer to the top.

When you get to reading these papers, you can just feel time flowing through your hands. Each news story or photo is a small thread in the fabric of time. Important at that moment, but entirely forgotten or unobserved today. 

I happened on a great series of stories that grew out of the boastfulness of new neighborhood development. The Portland Realty Board got together with The Oregonian to launch and run a series of columns that invited new Portland homeowners to tell their own stories about how they built (and financed) their new houses. Their modest houses, in most cases. This was not a focus on the big Craftsman or Dutch colonials being built (they had their own limelight on the pages of the Sunday Oregonian). These were grass roots stories about saving money under your mattress, living out of the tent on your new lot, and building your bungalow with your own two hands. Inspiring, really.

Called Stories of Success by Homebuilders, this column was the outgrowth of a weekly contest for the best story. Cash prizes were given, and winning essays were printed in the Sunday Oregonian. The unstated purpose was to help motivate first-time home buyers. In setting up the first essay, the Portland Realty Board wrote:

It was a difficult problem for the committee on awards to decide which of the number were the three best stories, as each contained features deemed of great value in emphasizing the purposes for which the contest is being held. The spirit which underlies the authorship of the essays is wholesome, cheery and inspiring.

So I’m going to pick out of a few of the best and share them, along with a translation of the address for the house today, in case you want to ride by on your bike for an informed look (and a tip of the hat to the first homeowners who made it happen).

Here’s Ed Mack’s submission from April 7, 1912. The home he and his wife built is at 3122 NE 47th Avenue. It appears there have been some significant changes made to the house since the Macks knew it.

 680 East Fortyseventh Street, North is today's 3122 NE 47th Avenue.

I’ve been researching several houses in the Beaumont neighborhood lately and have come across the plat map for that area, which I’ve placed at the bottom of the map page. Check it out: http://alamedahistory.wordpress.com/the-map/

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