Neighborhood History


It’s been a quiet few months here on the Alameda History blog, but work has continued and the history radar has been tuned in to several topics and stories.

Like you, we have been watching with dismay as the trend of tear-downs has swept across the eastside. A changing market has meant that the value of the actual lot has eclipsed the value of some older homes, allowing developers to demolish and build new, and still make a profit margin. The result is typically larger, less historically appropriate homes shoe-horned into lots never designed to hold such large buildings. We’ve written a bit about this trend here in Alameda.

Clearly, this is a living and changing neighborhood—which we imagine few would object to. It is the prerogative of the present to redefine, reinterpret and reuse what the past has provided. Still, there are implications. And in our view there is the obligation we owe to the future to be thoughtful with the current and historic character of this 100-year-old-plus neighborhood.

The city is hosting a gathering to discuss this tear-down trend, existing pertinent ordinances, and where these trends may lead. We encourage our neighbors to participate. Here are the details:

Wednesday, June 11 2014, 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Concordia University’s Luther Hall, 2811 NE Holman.

Guest speakers from the City’s Bureau of Development Services, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, home builders, housing and community organization will address:

  • What are the City’s regulations around residential tear-downs and new construction?
  • How do these trends affect neighborhood affordability, stability, and equity?
  • What are the environmental issues around the demolition of building?
  • What is attracting home builders?

This is an important topic that deserves attention and consideration.

After a pause in our ongoing quest and passion for Alameda history, we’re back on track in the New Year with a free program as part of the Oregon Encyclopedia History Night series, at 7:00 p.m., Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater in Northwest Portland. Consider yourself invited.

In pictures and words, we’ll track the early development of Northeast Portland’s Alameda neighborhood, profile key builders and building styles, and share a social history of the homes, families and changing generations of this 100-plus-year-old neighborhood.

Come experience how these layers of local history add up to a deeper understanding of the neighborhood today. This updated presentation will touch on Alameda School, the Pearson Ponderosa Pine, Wilshire Park, the Subud Center/Alameda Park Community Church, the Broadway Streetcar and other institutions and businesses that have defined Alameda life over the years.

It’s free. The beer is good. You might see your neighbors and other history-inclined folks.

7:00 pm, Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan, Portland.

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We know change is all around us every day shaping our world, often at a tectonic and invisible pace. An exception this week here in Alameda was the rare, raw and rapid change associated with demolition of the William and Susan Illidge home at 3810 NE 28th Ave.

We knew it was going away, this graceful Frederic E. Bowman Mediterranean-style home built in 1922. Last summer we wrote about the plans to raze this vacant beauty and subdivide the big lot in two. We even shared a news story from 1922 noting its recent construction.

Still, there is a raw shock and sadness that accompanies demolition. Splayed out on the ground here at NE 28th and Hamblet—and in piles awaiting a truck—are bits and pieces from 90 years of construction and adaptation. Mom’s favorite tiles here and there. A door to the kids’ room. Tons of lath from the era of plaster.

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Gone now are the favorite places and spaces known by four generations of families. Which—as we stand on the sidewalk surveying the mess and trying to imagine two brand new buildings on this spot—makes us appreciate the time-honored aspects of our own home. And the complicated economics of change.

 

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Sorry to see you go, old time traveler.

Gordon’s Fireplace Shop, 3300 NE Broadway. Home of a former aircraft manufacturing plant owned by Oregon Home Builder’s President Oliver K. Jeffrey.

One of Alameda’s most prolific home building companies—The Oregon Home Builders, Inc.—is also responsible for building an aircraft manufacturing facility in the neighborhood that endures to this day.

You probably know this building as Gordon’s Fireplace Shop on the southeast corner of NE 33rd and Broadway. But in the late 19-teens, after serving as a workshop for house parts and domestic carpentry projects that now reside as built-in cabinets in homes across Northeast Portland, the building moved into full aircraft production mode and began churning out spruce struts, beams and braces for “flying machines.”

First a little context about Oregon Home Builders and its president Oliver K. Jeffrey…

There is much to be written about Oregon Home Builders, Inc.—and we’ve been on their trail for several years now—but suffice to say its owners had a big vision. They founded the company on a business model that involved selling shares of stock at .25 cents each to investors at large, and building and selling homes. They also built some of Alameda’s prized national register houses, including the Oliver K. Jeffrey House at Regents and Shaver, and the Thomas Prince House at Alameda and Regents. Others, including the George Eastman House on Stuart Avenue—designed and built by Oregon Home Builders—should be on the register.

In 1914, the company built 45 houses here in northeast Portland, and drew plans for many more. As a base of operations for this big vision, Oliver K. Jeffrey and his colleagues needed a workshop and warehouse near the market they were serving, and near transportation. So in 1915 they set out to build a warehouse on the Oregon Railway and Navigation Line in Sullivan’s Gulch, today’s Banfield corridor. Here’s a snippet that’s a tad fuzzy but readable from the January 17, 1915 pages of The Oregonian.

From The Oregonian, January 17, 1915.

But by 1917, O.K. Jeffrey’s passions—and the Oregon Home Builders warehouse—were focusing more on airplanes. A flamboyant character in Portland business and social life, and a man of means, Jeffrey received much coverage in the pages of The Oregonian during these years, whether in his role as a top Rosarian, his very public divorce proceedings, or his role as a brave tank commander during World War I. The story below in the August 1, 1917 edition focuses on the airplane factory building at 33rd and Broadway.

Click to read full size. From The Oregonian, August 1, 1917.

The O.K. Jeffrey story takes several more interesting turns, including bankruptcy for Oregon Home Builders by 1918, further innovations in aircraft design and operation, and his untimely death due to blood poisoning from a freak accident in December 1934.

Much more to come about Mr. Jeffrey, his company, and the homes they built, but back to the airplane factory in our midst.

Perhaps like us, you’ve driven by the building a million times and wondered about it. Following on that curiosity, and hoping for clues to the company that might have been forgotten in some nook or cranny in its upstairs floors, we dropped in for a visit over the weekend and can offer the following observations:

The folks at Gordon’s are helpful, and interested in the history of their building (which they’ve been in since 1990), but their collective memory of the building can’t see back around the corner of time. They do have a story here and there about a pasta manufacturing company that once inhabited the building. Some sense of the retail furniture company that operated there for 30 years. And a fabulous picture from 1929 that was first and foremost a portrait of Union Pacific Engine 17 coming around a bend in the track, but secondarily a picture of the building. See the distinctive brick pattern along the parapet? Look also how the building extends quite a ways east around the bend of the gulch.

Looking east in Sullivan’s Gulch on January 20, 1929 at Union Pacific Engine 17. The “Beaver State Furniture” building is no longer an aircraft parts factory. The building wraps around the rim of the gulch. Note also how much narrower the gulch is…widened in the 1950s to make room for the Banfield Freeway, requiring replacement of the viaduct. Photo courtesy of Gordon’s Fireplace Shop.

Check out this image below as well, which shows our aircraft factory building in 1956 as Erickson’s Furniture. The new viaduct associated with construction of the Banfield freeway (I-84).

Looking south on Northeast 33rd at Broadway. Construction of a new viaduct. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives. 

During our visit this weekend, we learned that the building houses the second oldest freight elevator in Portland, and it’s big. Like a two-car garage that levitates between the first and third floors. It doesn’t take much imagination to see it filled with furniture or spruce airplane parts. But pasta? Hmm.

A detailed look at aerial photography of the area over the years (with thanks to Ed McClaran), confirms that the building did indeed once extend east across what is today’s parking lot, and connected up with the building that now houses Rose City Furnishings in the 3400 block of Northeast Broadway.

The view from the top floor is impressive: both up and down Sullivan’s Gulch to the east and west. North across the busy intersection toward the Dolph Park neighborhood. But there are no hidden nooks or crannies with artifacts from Oregon Home Builders. It’s a tidy and well-organized warehouse on the upper floors. Here and there you can tell from marks on the floor where heavy machines and equipment may have been anchored, or workbenches secured to the walls.

No aircraft machinery to be found here. Just a warehouse for Gordon’s Fireplace Shop.

But the aircraft heyday of the building has passed and it stands on the north rim of Sullivan’s Gulch as an artifact itself while the busy intersection below surges with traffic and big development plans are underway for the blocks to the west. In the midst of the shuffle and change, it’s a time traveler with stories to tell.

We’ve come across a remarkable piece of propaganda recently that offers a unique look into the earliest days of Alameda Park. It’s a brochure, printed in 1910, that provides photos and some very creative narrative, all designed to get potential buyers into Alameda Park.

It’s different than the small brochure you might have seen. This is a three-color (black, yellow, green) glossy, multi-fold pamphlet.

Interesting to note how the photo/map view below right is facing east, with Mt. Hood in the distance, instead of the typical north-south orientation. See what other interesting details you can find, like all the steamships in dock. Be sure to check out the “Rustic Rest Resort” on the cover, which looks more like a coastal cabana than something you’d find in the woods and fields of this new neighborhood. We think it was a gazebo like “porch” perched somewhere along the Alameda Ridge.

Click on the image for a full-size look at the map and the text.

Text and images in the brochure go on to talk about the many virtues of the property—descriptions that are a bit ironic since when this went to print, the “Tuxedo” was little more than gravel streets, some concrete curbs, mud and brush.

Another distinctive feature is the way in which the proponents boldly benchmark and shamelessly rip off nearby Irvington, which was established, successful and featured solid property values. Check out this panel:

The green text is faded, but it’s pointing out that tiny patch of mud and trees at the far north end of this lovely Irvington street view, as if to say: “Alameda…it’s up there.” Throughout the brochure, Alameda Land Company boosters tried to build their own credibility on the back of Irvington (which was developed earlier and by a different company that didn’t much appreciate this kind of attention).

And here’s one that took some real initiative: calling the Irvington School the Alameda School. Just to be clear, this is the original Irvington School. There was never a school like this in Alameda. Period. It’s a bald-faced lie in black and white.

Don’t believe everything you read: there was never a school like this in Alameda…it’s the original Irvington School.

For us though, always in search of more information about the Alameda Land Company, the real gems of this brochure include the photo of the company’s tract office, which was located on the southeast corner of 29th and Mason. Check it out:

Looking east on Mason, just west of NE 29th Avenue. Note that the streetcar tracks have not arrived yet. A later photo taken from nearby looking north shows the railing and a banner that reads “Alameda Land Company Tract Office,” which appears to be on the roof too.

And saving the best for last: this view of NE Regents Drive, looking downhill, long before the neighborhood we know today. About as close as we get to time travel.

With thanks to our friends at the Architectural Heritage Center for sharing.

We’ve learned through the Alameda Neighborhood Association about an impending change for the corner of NE 28th and Hamblet. The 1922 Frederic E. Bowman-built Spanish style home will be torn down soon, the large lot will be subdivided, and two homes built.

The William and Susan Illidge home, 3810 NE 28th Avenue. Built by Frederic E. Bowman, 1921-1922. The house, currently vacant, is to be razed and the lot subdivided.

According to Alameda Newsletter Editor George Smith, the developer is planning to construct two high-end homes: one a colonial revival facing Hamblet; the other, a craftsman facing NE 28th. George reports that the builder is sensitive to keeping the houses in scale and style with the surrounding neighborhood.

We have had a close look at the house, and recognize it has clearly seen better days and restoration is an expensive proposition. Still, it’s going to be hard to let go of this time traveler and its stately presence set back on the wide, open and prominent corner lot. It’s one of the few Mediterranean-style homes built by Bowman, who was a prominent east-side builder from 1909-1931.

We did find a news story and photo of the home that ran in the July 9, 1922 edition of The Oregonian. Take a look:

In 1930, the house was home to William and Susan Illidge, their three children and Susan’s mother. Illidge was a prominent Portland attorney. We haven’t yet undertaken our customary full study of the house and its former residents—seeking out the stories, memories and photos from their years there. What do you know about this house?

More to follow…

Alameda Blog readers will assume we’ve gone into retirement due to the slowdown in posts here. But not so. Research continues, as do daily musings and wonderings about the stories from Alameda’s past. It’s been fun to see the conversation among commenters here on the blog. We’re glad to provide a water cooler around which we can share stories and thoughts.

The outlet this month for our neighborhood history energy is a walking tour of Alameda that we’re leading through the neighborhood on Thursday night, August 9th. At last check, there are still a few open spots, if you’re interested. Click on over to the Architectural Heritage Center’s website for more information about how to register.

More posts to come this summer and fall, including a great story about the baseball rivalry between Alameda and Irvington; some thoughts about current infill and remodeling underway in the neighborhood; and a profile of early architect Ida McCain. Stay tuned.

More on the Garfield telephone exchange, with thanks to frequent Alameda History blog visitor John Hamnett for inspiration…

We remember the time—which seems not so long ago—when our phone numbers began with two letters (and a word associated with those two letters), and then a number.

We grew up in the Alpine exchange and our number was AL1-2820, which eventually became 251-2820 (get it?…A=2, L=5). When asked for our number, we really did use to say “Alpine 1 2-8-2-0.”

Here in Alameda and in other nearby neighborhoods in Northeast Portland, our phone numbers used to begin with GA. And that’s not by accident. It’s because our neighborhood was served by the GArfield Exchange. If we had grown up here, we would have given out our number as Garfield 2-8-2-0.

A “numbercard” from an old Western Electric style phone bearing the GArfield exchange name and number

Check out this clipping from The Oregonian on September 1, 1955 which charts the evolution of a local business’s phone number. Keep in mind that behind these changes were corresponding changes in technology at places like the Garfield Exchange Office.

The spoken word “Garfield” would have been ubiquitous in our old Alameda homes in years past. And anyone passing by the building at 24th and Stanton would have thought about it as “our” exchange. The Garfield Exchange.

If you look closely as you travel the city, you might find evidence of these old telephone exchanges, and the days in which we referred to our numbers with a word. Alpine. Garfield. Check out this blog entry from a fellow local historian in New York who has made a practice of collecting these references. Pretty neat. Let us know if you find similar references here in Portland.

And if you are captivated by the idea of exchange names, you must check out this website, which has an incredible collection of information about early telephone exchanges (you can even search your old exchange name). We appreciate the reason given for why remembering these things is important: “Exchange names helped foster a sense of place…

You’ve driven by it a million times: the reddish brown brick building on the northwest corner of NE 24th Avenue and Stanton. As I’ve researched this building and its history over the last two years, I’ve spoken with neighbors who’ve thought it was once maybe a school, a brewery, a home for wayward youth: all understandable given its institutional look and size.

Originally referred to as the Garfield Telephone Exchange, or the “Garfield Office,” this building is still functioning today for its original purpose: making sure telephone calls get connected to the right place at the right time.

When it went into full operation in 1924, the building housed telephone operators at switchboards plugging incoming and outgoing calls to and from individual circuits that served homes in Irvington and Alameda. One operator remembered that some of her colleagues and supervisors wore roller skates to help them move quickly from switchboard to switchboard.

Today, the hallways and rooms are quiet except for an omnipresent electrical hum, the quiet clicking of switches doing the job of the former operators, and the soft buzz of fluorescent lights. No roller skates, no operators, in fact it’s uncommon to find anyone in the building at all anymore.

Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company first rolled out the need for a telephone exchange building in 1919, and chose the location at NE 24th and Stanton because of its strategic location in this growing area of Portland. But early residents did not like the idea of a semi-industrial/commercial building being located in the heart of a residential neighborhood. Building codes and land use ordinances at the time were permissive and allowed the project to move forward. But influential residents of Irvington petitioned Mayor George Baker and Portland City Council to tighten restrictions, which they did on January 14, 1920, throwing a monkey wrench into project planning for Pacific Telephone and Telegraph.

Engineers for the company were stung by the new restrictions—which allowed residents to object to projects—and complained that the new public involvement processes were going to set back development of the new technology.

The Oregonian reported on January 15, 1920:

The action of the city council yesterday, according to W.J. Phillips, commercial manager of the telephone company, will upset the entire plan of development outlined for the next 20 years in Portland…he fears that the entire future service may be impaired.

Forced into reckoning with the neighborhood, the telephone company reluctantly agreed to work with a committee of neighbors to refine designs for the telephone building. Noted Portland architect A.E. Doyle, an Irvington resident, helped lead the committee and eventually won design restrictions which were reported in the April 15, 1920 edition of The Oregonian as follows:

With these restrictions in place—and with designs emerging that showed the attractive architectural details we see today—the neighborhood dropped its opposition and the project proceeded. Building permits were issued and construction followed, completed by Portland building contractor J.M. Dougan and Company at a cost of $123,690.

Trying hard to reach out to the community with a message of progress, Pacific Telephone purchased an advertisement in The Oregonian touting the new facility and mentioning the $1 million total project cost, which included the complicated and costly miles of phone cable buried throughout the area that culminated at and connected into the building.

As Portland’s housing boom produced more demand for phone service, complaints began to mount against Pacific Telephone and Telegraph about the speed at which they were responding to the growing need. In several news stories in 1921 and 1922, phone company officials were quick to point the finger of blame for these complaints at the Irvington neighborhood for slowing down progress on the Garfield Exchange and causing a ripple effect of delay throughout Portland. The building finally went into full operation in January 1924.

Even after construction, and the cables installed, residents still needed to be trained how to use the new phone equipment. The blizzard of news stories about the Garfield office and the Irvington delays (more than 15 news stories on the subject from 1920-1924) finally quieted down in late 1925 when everyone settled into using their phones, and trying to keep up with the changing technology.

Several minor additions have been made over time, and obviously complete technical overhauls have been made inside. Two houses to the north of the building were razed to make room for today’s parking lot. Despite these changes, the conditions outlined in the 1920 terms pretty much hold true today.

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

Walking through the neighborhood during these cold evenings at the end of the year always puts us in a mind to reflect on the passage of time. While we think we know this place, and that this is our neighborhood, there are so many stories and layers of history lurking around every corner here — most of which are lost to time, but a few of which we can find and examine.

When we find reference to a small tree planted more than a hundred years ago to mark the far corner of a farmer’s field, and can go to the actual giant today; when we find the place in the house where the first family gathered around the piano, and can stand in the room and imagine the music and laughter; when we learn about the orchards and tall trees atop the ridge, and can walk in the evenings appreciating where they once stood; experiences like these bring us in touch with our past and are about as close to time travel as possible. They are a fringe benefit of studying the history, and of paying attention to the small things that layer up and give meaning to the passage of time.

And they are a reminder to each of us of our temporary nature here: stewardship of these old homes and their histories is our responsibility at the moment, but in a blink this will be someone else’s story, just as it was for generations before us.

Here’s a little gem we found recently that we’ll pass along as a New Years treat for faithful readers. From The Oregonian on September 18, 1921, the story focuses on local “hermit” Joseph Albert O’Donaghue, who reportedly lived in a shack here in Alameda on Bryce Street. A grain of salt is probably helpful as you track old Joe’s story, travels and age. But even if it seems a long shot that he was hanging around the Alameda Ridge back in the 1880s, the fact is he had been living for a while in the brush near today’s Bryce Street when the reporter found him. That’s enough to reset our mental picture of the neighborhood we think we know, and to feed our imagination.

Think about this the next time you’re out on an evening stroll up Bryce on a cold night at the end of the year.

Click on the story above for a larger view of the file, or the link below to download a PDF copy.

9-18-1921 Hermit lives in woods near Alameda

We’re hosting a Sunday afternoon presentation of “The Alameda Neighborhood: It’s Founding and Early Life,” here in the neighborhood at the Subud Center, 3185 NE Regents, on Sunday, January 23rd from 3:00-4:15. The free program involves pictures, maps, and stories from past residents that provide a sense of neighborhood life from 1909 til the 1950s. We’ve presented the popular program recently for the Architectural Heritage Center and wanted to bring it home to the neighborhood so Alameda residents could learn more about their local history . To RSVP or for more information, drop us a note at doug@alamedahistory.org or on the phone at 503-901-5510.

Readers of the blog will know that the Subud Center was formerly known as the Alameda Park Community Church and was often used by the neighborhood for public activities, scout meetings, dances and other get-togethers. A Sunday afternoon gathering there to focus on neighborhood history seems fitting. If you haven’t been in the building before, this will be the perfect excuse to come and look around, say hello to neighbors, and appreciate our local history.

Coffee and cookies will be served. Drop us a note if you plan to come so we have enough!

Looking southwest at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont, early 1920s. Note delivery bike visible behind power pole. OrHi 49061.

There was a time when the building we know today as the home of Lucca and Garden Fever—at the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont—looked after most of the neighborhood’s needs for grocery and personal goods. Alameda Pharmacy, Alameda Grocery, John Rumpakis’s Alameda Shoe Repair, even the dentist’s office, upstairs above the pharmacy, were neighborhood landmarks that everyone knew, shopped in, and pretty much took for granted (except the ice cream sodas at the pharmacy which were supposed to be legendary). The pharmacy and grocery even provided a delivery-by-bicycle option for homemakers who needed a few small items, but couldn’t get out of the house. It was a win-win situation for Alameda and for the local family-owned business during those early years.

To be sure, some shopping needs were taken care of away from the neighborhood. Even then, there were smaller markets or “convenience” style stores of the day located within walking distance (see this post on the Davis Dairy Store, one such locally-owned convenience market). Built in 1922 during the peak of neighborhood construction, the Alameda Grocery commercial building at 24th and Fremont quite literally had a corner on the market.

That is, until the mid 1930s, when a fully-built-out neighborhood with a growing population, combined with a slowly recovering economy and new trends in shopping, opened up new opportunities for big business which began to shape the corner.

Enter the Safeway Corporation: a publicly-traded rampant success story, with headquarters in Oakland, California and more than 3,200 chain stores nationwide. The company’s penetration of local grocery markets was so complete that by 1935, many states around the country were passing legislation—urged by local merchants who were getting slammed by Safeway chain stores—that taxed the huge company’s local operations to discourage competition.

But not in Portland. By 1937, Safeway had 54 stores here, including 46 stores located in eastside neighborhoods, and even one on the doorstep of Alameda at the southwest corner of NE 24th and Broadway (today it’s Brake Team, an auto service garage) built in 1936. Most of these stores were modest in size, and not like the sprawling stores we know today. Undoubtedly, the local Safeway on Broadway cut into the market share of Alameda Grocery. But nothing like what happened starting in 1938.

Click on the image for a larger view. This ad is from The Oregonian on September 13, 1940 announcing a remodel and reopening of the Alameda Safeway.

On July 16, 1938, Safeway opened a store in the building we know today as the home of Alameda Dental and Frontier Bank on the southeast corner of the intersection. The property had been leased from the Albers Brothers Milling Company, who incidentally also owned the Alameda grocery and pharmacy building across the street. Retail activity in the single-storey 50-by-100 foot concrete Safeway building began to take a big bite out of Alameda Grocery’s market share.

By 1940, Safeway expanded and remodeled, while Alameda Grocery across the street struggled to hold on. About that time, Safeway made plans to expand beyond the footprint of the existing store to take in the entire north end of the block. But as The Oregonian reported on March 20, 1942, the Portland City Council narrowly defeated a zoning change that would have allowed this major expansion. Despite voicing concerns about home values in the neighborhood, Mayor Earl Riley voted to expand the commercial zoning to permit the Safeway expansion:

From The Oregonian, March 20, 1942.

Safeway’s expansion into residential neighborhoods was not a phenomenon isolated to Alameda. Blog reader and longtime Grant Park resident John Hamnett writes that in nearby Grant Park, local residents fought a pitched battle with the City of Portland regarding a plan to build a Safeway adjacent to the Grant Park Grocery, a similar locally-owned market at the southwest corner of NE 33rd and Knott. The vision for that zone change took in all of the southwest corner, and further considered zoning the entire intersection commercial at all four corners. In May 1942, City Council voted 4-1 to allow the Safeway development. Incredulous neighbors protested time and again concerned about their property values, but the City would not relent. Finally, in March 1943, neighbors filed suit against the city for allowing the zone change, and won in a clear decision handed down by Circuit Judge Walter L. Tooze.

Back at NE 24th and Fremont, two gas stations were added on the northwest and northeast corners—the true portal of the Alameda Park subdivision (today site of a parking lot, and Perry’s on Fremont). Generational and ownership changes were remaking the anchor businesses on the south side of the street as well. Eventually, as Safeway’s business model changed (fewer, larger stores instead of the 50-foot by 100-foot businesses sprinkled all over Portland), the former Safeway store went back to being a family-owned business, loved and known by a generation of Alamedans as Brandel’s. Nature’s Fresh Northwest (or simply “Natures”) eventually took over the Alameda Grocery building. And today, after a string of unsuccessful restaurant tenants, Lucca seems to have hit its stride.

Check out this story from The Oregonian on January 17, 1984, which is a snapshot as the corner transitioned from some difficult times in the 1970s to the place we know today:

From The Oregonian, January 17, 1984. Click on the image for a larger view.

We still miss Brandel’s and the ease of slipping into that old Safeway building for a gallon of milk on the way home. But every time we pass through that intersection, we pause for a moment to think about how our neighborhood geography could have turned out quite differently.

Check out this view looking up the hill at NE 33rd and Fremont–Gravelly Hill–taken in 1954.

Photo Courtesy of City of Portland Archives. Click for a larger view.

Two lanes of traffic northbound, and those were the days of the wide-body car. And you think it’s a tight fit today!

Have a good look around and you’ll see the house on the southwest corner, a Roman-brick ranch with swimming pool that collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You’ll also see that the brush and trees on the east side of the street are still there, just a little bigger today. Street signs have changed style since then. The upslope houses on the west side of the street haven’t been built yet.

Way back, this was the summit of Gravelly Hill, a one-time gravel pit and garbage dump for east Portland. The contributing factor to the demise of the former home that occupied the southwest corner was the underlying instability of the slope due to the gravelly soils and the not-fully-compacted refuse the house was built upon.

We’re working on a careful look at the history of Gravelly Hill and found this photo fascinating. Believe it or not, we’ve found news stories in The Oregonian from the early 1900s that refer to fox hunts (as in social groups of people on horseback with dogs riding about the countryside) that began and ended at the base of this hill. Farmers and fruitgrowers tilled the soil here for a generation perfecting new breeds of strawberries and apples. Boxing matches were held out this way, far beyond the edges of the city, in a barn perched on the hillside. And residents who wanted more space around them lived and died out here in the country where they could appreciate the view from Gravelly Hill.

Let’s just say that it’s a hill with a lot of history.

And today, just like half a century ago, it’s still a busy intersection, one of the neighborhood’s most dangerous, and one of our least favorites.

With thanks to the Stanley Parr Archives at the City of Portland for this photo from the past.

We’ve written in the past about Alameda School and the portable buildings that preceded it. To be clear, there is much more to learn and write about the school itself, but recently we’ve come across some information that will make you want to go stand at the corner of NE 25th and Fremont and imagine a different reality (that’s a big part of what history is all about for us…trying to reassemble the pieces).

And since it’s the start of the school year, what better time to pause for a moment to think about our favorite local school?

We’ll remember that in 1914, the Alameda Park neighborhood was a blank slate with streets and curbs in, but less than 80 homes built. Still, there were kids, and parents who organized to push for the School Board to build a local school.

On September 3, 1914, the Board heard from a delegation of Alameda parents, and received a promise for further action:

From The Oregonian, September 4, 1914

Construction of Kennedy School on NE 33rd was underway which may well have just served to irritate Alameda parents, who felt there should be a school here too. By October, the Board was ready to provide a temporary solution, leasing a 200-foot by 500-foot lot on the northeast corner of 25th and Fremont for several temporary buildings:

From The Oregonian, October 2, 1914. Interesting unrelated note: the writer refers to the “overlap” area (see post from August 24th) as Alameda Park.

By Thanksgiving week 1914, the buildings were in and so were the kids:

From The Oregonian, November 24, 1914

Over the next several years, the portables multiplied into a compound of buildings and by October 1919, Alameda parents (there were more of them by now) held a rally of sorts, signed a petition and expressed their readiness to levy a tax against themselves to build a building:

From The Oregonian, October 29, 1919. Note that additional portables had been added to the mix since the first two in 1914.

On an interesting side note, Dr. C.J. Smith was a notable Alamedan who while serving as the President of the State Health Board was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for Governor against James Withycombe in the election of 1914. The Smith family was very active in Alameda community affairs. Despite his pleas and the voices of the community, when school started in 1920, the Alameda portables were bursting at the seams with nearly 150 students. Something had to be done. By mid-October 1920, School Board Director W.F. Woodward had been to see the hardships, and parents submitted more petitions.

From The Oregonian, October 15, 1920

Which is exactly what they did. A bond issue was passed and school construction began to catch up with the growing student population across Portland. One year later, on October 27, 1921, the School Board selected a contractor and construction soon followed leading to the school we know today (the building of which is another story for another day).

The following year, homes were built on the property where the portables stood. In fact, there may be a few missing pieces to the story about the location of the portables. The northeast corner of 25th and Fremont has had a house on it since 1919. Perhaps the reporter meant the northwest corner of 25th and Fremont, though we’ve seen multiple references to that northeast corner. Possibly by the early 1920s, the portables were moved onto the current school site–which was a dairy pasture–as the neighborhood expanded.

Regardless, it’s an inspiring story about neighbors making a difference. And it still makes us wonder what the corner of 25th and Fremont looked like with six portable buildings and 150 students. And tip our hat to the parents of the day who helped make it happen.

If you’re like us as we turn the corner into fall, we’re mapping out the next few months and trying to fit in all the family goings on, important programs and events we want to be sure to take in.

Here’s one for your calendar: We’re presenting a program on the history of the Alameda neighborhood at the Architectural Heritage Center on the morning of Saturday, October 23rd. It’s an encore presentation of a sold-out program we gave in January of this year, but with some added new research from the last nine months.

The program is entitled “The Alameda Neighborhood: It’s Founding and Early Life.” We believe all who attended enjoyed it, and we certainly enjoyed the many conversations it spawned afterwards.

The Architectural Heritage Center hasn’t posted their fall listing of programs yet, but when they do, you’ll be able to register for the Alameda program on-line. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, save the date.

Hope you can join us for a trip back through time…

We’d like to recommend a great local website that will feed your curiosity about Portland history: www.vintageportland.wordpress.com

This excellent site, which launched last November, features a steady parade of high resolution photos that you’ll want to look at close-up for clues to the past and the present. We like to download the photos and then explore them in detail. Look closely and you might see the person in the upstairs window. Or the guy in the distance staring at the photographer from under his fedora. Or the amazing wolf’s head frieze on the cornice of the downtown building.

Taken together they offer a sense of just how much we’ve inherited from the past, how much has been lost, and the importance of recognizing the stewardship role we have at this moment in time to be a bridge between past, present and future.

Keep an eye out there and you might even see a shot or two from the Alameda Park neighborhood! For future reference, we’ve added a link to Vintage Portland on the links sidebar in the lower right side of this page.

We’ve recently completed a survey through city building permits, collecting information on every home built here in the Alameda Park addition. It’s taken two years and more than a dozen visits to the Bureau of Development Services (which has been very accommodating and helpful), but time well spent, given the insight it offers into the development of the early neighborhood. Everything from the date of construction—it’s interesting to see what parts of the neighborhood were built first—to identifying the most prolific builders, and all of it helps paint a picture of how Alameda Park developed.

Original building record for Alameda School, taken out on November 7, 1921. Information from more than 1,025 Alameda Park building records were reviewed as part of the study.

When you aggregate the information from the permits, there are some trends and patterns that emerge:

The first observation has to do with the general timing of construction in Alameda Park, from just two homes built in 1909 to a peak of 139 built in 1922. One factor in the timing of this was the ebb and flow of the economy. Strong in 1910, but the infrastructure hadn’t yet caught up. Slow in 1918-1919. Explosive in the 1920s with both a strong economy and demand, and an infrastructure that was truly ready for development.

Building permits issued in the Alameda Park subdivision, by year, 1909-1934. From permit study by Doug Decker, 2010.

By 1934—the end of this graph—about 85 percent of the neighborhood had been built out (the late 1930s and 1940s are a mere trickle of a couple or three homes per year, if that). 1922 would have been an interesting time here in Alameda, with an influx of neighbors. If you haven’t read it, go back and look up our post about the Alameda Park Community Church and the pastor’s desire to bring together new neighbors who were strangers. That was 1922 here in Alameda.

Another observation from the permit study is to have a look at the spread of construction activity to see which portions of the neighborhood were built out first: the areas around 24th and Dunckley; 25th and 26th below the ridge; 29th and Mason; and 32nd Place (then called Glenn) from Mason to Hamblet. These highlighted areas below indicate in general the earliest construction from 1909 to 1912.

 

It’s also interesting to see who was doing the building during these years. A handful of builders built a large percentage of the homes. The list we’ve compiled below shows total homes constructed in Alameda Park by each of the most prolific builders. Many of these we’ve profiled here, others we’re still working on.

Builder Total Alameda Homes Built Building Activity
Oregon Home Builders 24 homes built 1914-1917
Ken Birkemeier 21 homes built 1932-1952
Harry Phillips 21 homes built 1921-1928
Matot Construction Co. 20 homes built 1921-1926
Frank Read 19 homes built 1923-1941
Nils O. Eklund 17 homes built 1916-1922
Grady Mahaffy 13 homes built 1922-1936
Wickman Building Co. 10 homes built 1921-1923

 

In addition to the general trends, there are specific sad stories: more houses than you might imagine have had fires (and fire repairs, hence the permit records). A couple of homes were actually struck by lightning. A fad of game rooms, recreation rooms and wet bars were put in during the 1950s, and even an exercise room way back when. Sadly, too frequent removal of trim, built-in shelves and other architectural details in a attempt at modernization (gasp). Interesting to note how many wooden front porches were rotting apart by the 1950s, and a spate of concrete porches and steps poured in replacement.

It’s also clear, when you look at the permits, why Portland’s addressing system was changed in the early 1930s. Some of our homes here in Alameda have had three addresses prior to the Great Renumbering (particularly on NE Bryce Avenue) as numbers had to be skootched over to make room for new houses built on empty lots. Let’s just say the original numbering system was less than scientific. You can see this on the actual building permits themselves, where one address has been scratched out and the new one written in. History in the making. It wasn’t scratched out in the example above, but you can clearly see Alameda School’s pre-address change number: 864 Fremont.

Another observation as we completed the study was just how many homes do not have an original building permit. Over the years, for whatever reasons, the City has lost perhaps as many as 20 percent of the original building permits, particularly in the early years. For these homes, we have to rely on original plumbing permits which always give the construction date, but can be sketchy with owner and contractor information.

Regardless, as you handle these permits, some 1,025 in all, you feel time passing through your fingers. You see the clerk typists punching in the details. You sense the contractors standing in line, waiting at a counter wishing they could be back on the job instead of in the permit office. You witness the many inspectors and their mostly neat observations, drawings, complaints and even sarcastic remarks in shorthand on the 4 x 6 manila cards.

And you can’t help but wonder what it will be like 100 years from now when someone wants to research the history of your house. What story will your house be able to tell?

Our presentation this weekend at the Architectural Heritage Center turned up some helpful leads into Alameda stories.  We were there to offer a presentation about the development and early life of the neighborhood and were pleased to see some familiar faces, including Maryon Kinsey, who is featured here on the blog. Afterwards, several neighbors approached us to share suggestions and ideas for further research. Thanks!

Our sister Bonnie Hull, the talented Salem artist and art blogger (be sure to visit her blog, which often features detailed profiles of local artists, a feature she calls “Living the Creative Life“) was in attendance and provides a very nice glimpse into our AHC program. Check out her reporting here. Thanks Bon.

We’ll likely be offering the program again at AHC—perhaps in the summer or fall—and  who knows maybe other places too…open to suggestions or invites.

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