House Styles

Ken Birkemeier, the prolific Alameda neighborhood designer and homebuilder, always remembered the first house he ever built: a cute little English storybook style home at 829 NE 41st.


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829 NE 41st Avenue. Ken Birkemeier’s first homebuilding project. Photograph is from a 1932 story in The Oregonian about the sale of unused public property. The lot, located on a small peninsula just across the street from Laurelhurst School, had been kept in reserve in case the city needed it for school purposes, but was eventually purchased and developed by Birkemeier.

Birkemeier, whose work has come to signify the best of the Mid-Century Modern movement in Portland, built more than two dozen homes here in Alameda alone, often on steep or challenging lots.

According to homeowner and AH reader Gary Groce, Birkemeier dropped by one day during his later life, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, like a salmon returning back to where it all began. Groce wrote us recently with this account of his impromptu visit with the Mid-century Master.

As I recall, I was outside the house working on something when this largish car pulled up with an older couple inside. They were looking at the house. I walked over to the car and he introduced himself. My impression was that he had recently married this charming woman and wanted to show her the first house that he built. We invited them in and showed them things we had done to restore the house as close to original as possible including the re-acquisition of original art-deco slipper shade lights, etc.

I vividly remember him telling me as he looked at the mahogany beamed ceiling… “when we got the garage up, I used that as a shop and I remember cutting those brackets for the beams on my band saw in the garage.”

I remember him saying, “I used the best materials I could find because I wanted it to be right.”

I lamented to him that the original fireplace façade in the living room had been changed at least twice and that someday, I hoped to restore it to original. He very graciously invited me to his home in the west hills as he thought he might have blue prints, and sketches of the fireplace. I took him up on his offer.  I remember his home being this unbelievable, sprawling mid century modern with a fantastic view.  In retrospect, that home was undoubtedly of his own design and build. Unfortunately, he couldn’t seem to find anything of interest on our house so we just spent our time visiting.

I came away with the impression that this was a very successful, intelligent man who never lost the common touch. Very warm and personable.

In the years following the passing of his wife of 50 years (Marge), Birkemeier married Ramona, who he evidently wanted to see where all the homebuilding work began. Birkemeier died in 1996. The last house he built in Alameda is at 2830 NE Regents Drive (1952).

To read more about Birkemeier’s life and work, check out the profile here on the blog.

With thanks to Gary for sharing this memory.

Alameda residents have been building, rebuilding and changing the neighborhood now for more than 100 years. While most of the initial home construction in Alameda took place in the 1920s, a look back through historic building permits reveals a constant stream of repair, remodeling and renovation. History-inclined neighbors with an appreciation for period detail will agree that some of this work has been for the good, and some…well. That’s life: change is the constant.

This spring, change continues to shape homes here in Alameda. A strengthening real estate market, low interest rates and an improving overall economy have meant homeowners and developers are more willing to invest in work.

Alameda and other nearby northeast Portland neighborhoods have experienced an 18.4 percent increase in real estate values over last year at this time, according to the Portland Business Journal. In the first quarter of 2013 alone, there were 62 pending and closed property sales in the neighborhood. The result of this strengthening market is plainly visible in the form of renovations, additions, complete tear-downs, and partial re-builds.

Here are a few of the visible projects we’ve seen progress on during our walks through the neighborhood. Not an exhaustive inventory of major works underway, but a list of interesting projects to watch.

28th and Hamblet

As of mid-May, this double lot just north of the Alameda Ridge is a hole in the ground where once stood a stately 1922 Mediterranean style home built by Frederic Bowman. The home was demolished in February, and the lot subdivided in two. As a demonstration of Portland’s policy on infill development and the improving market conditions, developers of this project closed the door on the possibility of adaptively reusing the original structure, subdivided the lot, and decided to start over from scratch. Neighbors had to say farewell to the historic home, and now get to watch as construction of two houses unfolds—both with architectural styles that will attempt a linkage with the past.


37th and Bryce

OK, it’s technically just east of the Alameda neighborhood, but it’s a particularly interesting project to watch because the new structure is using some of the original materials and structural elements. We watched as the house was disassembled this spring and it looked like much of the original building material was stacked and recycled (unlike the demolition at 28th and Hamblet). Entire interior partition walls are being repurposed, and even window headers and doorframes now feature some old and some new material. Original foundation walls have been retained and new sections added. We remember this as a bungalow.

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This home at NE 37th and Bryce presents a reuse of existing structures and new materials. The old framing lumber appears dark in this picture, and new material is a lighter color.

Image 3A detail of the home at NE 37th and Bryce showing the original foundation, exterior wall and flooring system (left), joined with a new foundation and materials (right). Construction and remodeling projects across the neighborhood this spring are using a range of old and new materials.

21st and Regents

This corner bungalow has received a major facelift this spring. In the past, this house has been unsure if it wants to address the 21st Avenue side or the Regents side. Today, the house connects with both streets in its unusual position at the prow of the neighborhood. Siding, landscape and other upgrades are apparent.

30th Avenue, south of Fremont

Major reconstruction work on the bungalow on the west side of the street in the first block south of Fremont has removed the former Mansard-style roof (which was not original), expanded the footprint, and added back several traditional design elements including columns and a new front porch.

Alameda and Regents

Elements of the original house were retained and blended with a major expansion to the north, a new front porch (still underway), a completely new roofline and exterior shingles on the upper storey.

Mason and 27th

Work on this house is almost done now, but has involved a complete restoration both inside and out. Most of the original fabric of the home is still intact. This has been another interesting one to watch this spring.

One thing is for sure: in a neighborhood of older homes and with an improving real estate market, continued investment and renovation will shape the neighborhood. Do you have favorite home restoration projects you’re watching?

Seeing as how the English Tudor Cottage stories and photos are among the most often viewed files here on the blog, I thought I would share an article and drawings that ran in The Oregonian homes section on December 20, 1925 (click on the image to enlarge). Interesting to note that plan sets like this were available in abundance. Every week, the newspaper focused on a different house style: the narrative describing each house could have been the same for every story, favoring words like roomy, inexpensive, tasteful, convenient. If you live in a Tudor, does this floor plan and design look familiar?

From The Oregonian, December 20, 1925

From The Oregonian, December 20, 1925

There aren’t many of these in the neighborhood, so they tend to stand out proud and clear: the Mediterranean, with its distinctive tile roof and stucco exterior, is a time traveler from a very specific period in Portland’s residential architecture history.

This home at 2506 NE Ridgewood, built in 1925 by Emil G. Peterson, is a classic example of the Mediterranean style in the Alameda neighborhood. Current resident Clayton France is underway with restoration work.

This home at 2506 NE Ridgewood, built in 1925 by Emil Johnson, is a classic example of the Mediterranean style in the Alameda neighborhood. Current resident Clayton France is underway with restoration work.

First beginning to appear with the housing boom of 19-teens and early 1920s, the Mediterranean style quickly became popular, with multiple grand homes built particularly in high-end Portland Heights and Willamette Heights neighborhoods, but also with more modest versions scattered through Irvington and Alameda.

While much of the surrounding housing stock of the time was clad with shingles, clapboards and the distinctive angular features associated with the Craftsman era, the Mediterranean style offered a more exotic and even romantic feel. Characteristic design elements tie to centuries-old classic materials and structures, including terra-cotta tile roofs, graceful archways, white-washed smooth stucco exteriors, and hipped-roof towers. Look for small porch-like tile-roofed entries (called loggias), and long narrow—often arched—casement windows.

All of these features conjure up romantic visions of Tuscan villas, rolling hills and established old settlements rooted in generations of storied history, which of course young Portland didn’t have a lot of in the 19-teens. But the appeal of this stylistic message, particularly here in a brand new neighborhood at the edge of a booming western city, was clear enough for some speculative home builders to give it a try.

A perfect example of the style here in Alameda is the home at 2506 NE Ridgewood, built in the spring of 1925 by local builder Emil Johnson. Johnson, and his younger brother Ernie Johnson (both Swedish immigrants, and both home builders) were busy in Alameda and Irvington during these years, but this is the only Mediterranean he built. Johnson designed and built this house, and likely took special care in its construction because it’s where he and his family lived (his daughter Eileen lived in the house all her life).

Look at the arched and roofed front entrance, the long casement windows, the terra-cotta roof tiles, the hipped-roof stair tower at the entry, and the wrought iron balcony railings: design elements that trumpet the Mediterranean-Italian connection.

Like so many aspects of American life that changed in the early 1930s, the Great Depression signaled the end to the popularity of the Mediterranean style as well. People went back to basics and the seemingly frivolous romance of the 1920s was seen as part of the problem. But this home, like several other Mediterraneans in the neighborhood, remain as a classy souvenir from the past, and a fine example of the diversity of architectural styles that make up our neighborhood.

It’s all in the name: four square.

Four sides of equal dimension, and each side equal in height and in width. In essence, that’s the four square house, though a variation on the style added a bit more space by making the front-to-back walls longer. These practical, attractive, stately beauties can be found in Alameda mostly north of the ridge, throughout Irvington, and in just about every other Portland neighborhood. The style was most popular in the 19-teens-Portland’s biggest residential building boom-and is seldom seen after the 1920s when builders and buyers turned their attention to the Tudor, the colonial, and other modern styles.


Here’s a shot of a classic four-square, which ran in The Oregonian on January 21, 1912.

The four square is almost always a two-storey house and is capped off with a hipped roof: a pyramid shaped top-hat that reflects the symmetry of the four walls. Sometimes the eaves extend out far beyond the walls with solid or ornate brackets (in a kind-of Prairie School style reference). Often four squares have a dormer or two up top which add a little head room to the attic and bring in some natural light.

In the purest form, the interior floor plan of the four square was also (you guessed it) a square: four rooms of equal size, which ensured a corner for each space and precious cross-ventilation.

Porches, ever-popular during the first part of the last century, almost always span the entire front wall. Interesting to note that lots of front porches simply wore out in the middle of the 20th Century. A review of building permits for the Alameda neighborhood shows a high frequency of porch demolition and reconstruction in the 1940s and 1950s. All that wood just couldn’t hold up against all that water. Sometimes the rebuilt porches, while practical and often concrete, left a lot to be desired historically. It’s not uncommon to see a lovely four square with a tiny porch roof just over the front door, with concrete stairs and wrought iron railings…clear clues to some early remodeling.

Most four square houses have some visible influence from the Craftsman style, whether inside with door and window trim and other details, or outside in the form of eave brackets, window trim, porch columns or other details. That’s just natural: the builders who constructed these houses were also building bungalows and larger houses. And the Craftsman style was popular with home buyers and home owners at the time. Over the years, as styles changed, often these details were removed or altered to keep up appearances.

A note about taxonomy: you might hear these houses referred to as “Old Portland Style.” Portland didn’t have a corner on the market for four squares…they are everywhere that homes were being built in the U.S. during this era. The Old Portland reference is a relatively new term, likely coined by realtors, that lumps together all two-storey, square, “boxy” looking houses. Don’t be fooled. Now you know: just look for four walls of equal dimension.

Rooted in American history and tradition, the Colonial Revival style and its popular angled-roof cousin, the Dutch Colonial Revival, were some of the Alameda neighborhood’s earliest and sturdiest looking homes. The style takes it primary influence from New England homes of the 1700s and 1800s and is intended to call to mind the traditional American virtues of civility, practicality, and patriotism. Alameda’s early builders were searching for designs that would appeal to the aesthetic interests of well-to-do buyers. The Colonial, and its variations, were an important part of the style palette for builders of that era.

This Colonial Revival home at the corner of NE Regents and Dunckley was built in 1939 by Frank A. Read, a prolific Alameda builder of the 1930s and early 1940s. Use of brick around the entry door brings a modernizing touch to the traditional clapboard exterior. The plunging roofline from the roof peak to above the entry traces a link to early 17th Century New England homes. The use of a garrison style overhang between the first and second floor, and pendant drops at the corners, clearly ties the design to its colonial influences. Other Frank Read homes of this period use many of the same building materials and design references. Photo courtesy of John Haleston.

While not the most common house style in Alameda, the Colonial and Dutch Colonial are notable because they mark both the earliest wave of building in the neighborhood during 1911-1912, as well as some of the last houses built on the dwindling supply of vacant lots in the 1950s. The early Colonial Revivals (such as the Harold Prince house at 2815 NE Alameda) are classic examples of the style, while the later homes more freely interpret the Colonial style and add in other influences like the bungalow or the Norman farmhouse.

Here are some telltale signs of the Colonial Revival and Dutch Colonial Revival:

Colonial Revival

  • Rectangular shape;
  • Typically symmetrical form and placement of double-hung windows, often with decorative shutters;
  • Front door placed at the center, often with ornate portico;
  • Second floor dormers with double-hung windows and decorative shutters, placed symmetrically on the building face;
  • Clapboard exteriors, typically painted white;
  • Sometimes featuring a slightly overhanging second floor, known as a “garrison style;”
  • Decorative pendants, drops or spheres.
  • Central (and sometime grand) staircases that lead direct from the entryway to the second floor.

Dutch Colonial Revival

The Dutch Colonials often feature some or all of the features noted above, but have the distinctive angled roof, called a gambrel style (a barn-like roof) and are typically smaller than the Colonial Revivals.

The most prolific designer and builder of the Colonial Revival in Alameda was Frank A. Read. Between 1926 and 1941, Read built 15 homes in the neighborhood, most of them Colonial Revivals, many of them clustered together in locations north of the Alameda Ridge.

In addition to Read’s sense for design, he had good business sense for real estate development and for construction economies of scale. Located within 100 yards of each other in this portion of the neighborhood are a dozen other homes built by Read. The places where he chose to build were a quick walk from a stop on the Broadway streetcar which ran to 29th and Mason. Read was born in Portland in 1885 and lived on the east side most of his life. He died in June 1950, survived by his wife Mae and three brothers. His obituary in the Oregon Journal described him as a builder and contractor for more than 40 years.

A great observation about old houses and their sometimes brash new neighbors. This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian on March 16, 2008.


One thoughtful reader, responding to Emma’s column, writes:

Don’t you wonder what story the purple box is telling us? If the older homes were about family, and a love of making things that are handsomely decorated, or about sitting in the sun on our porches, maybe the purple box is about amnesia, or something like it.

What do you think the purple box is telling us?

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