Amazing early photos from the Beaumont neighborhood

If you’re a frequent AH visitor, you know we love old photographs, particularly when they include a house or building still around today, a vintage street scene that transports us back in time, or maybe a neighborhood mystery that needs solving.

Here’s an amazing photo you might think was taken in rural Oregon, maybe in the thick Douglas-fir forest up near Mt. Hood. Have a good look at the picture before you scroll down to see exactly where it’s from (click on the image for a very sharp and enlarged version).

 

40th and Failing looking Northwest

Ready for its actual location: Northeast 40th and Failing, looking northwest. Seriously.

Here’s the same view today.

Today 40th and Failing looking Northwest

This is the first of a series of photographs we’re going to roll out over the next few posts, showing the very early days of the Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood, dating back to the 1920s. Life-long resident Paul Kirkland sought us out after learning of our passion for old photos and wanted to make sure his photos had a good digital home and were appreciated. Thank you Paul, and no problem there. We were thrilled to see these photos, which are about as close as possible to time travel.

The common denominator in these images that we’ll roll out in the next few weeks is Paul’s grandmother, Bessie Kramer, who lived in the neighborhood and ran Beaumont Dry Goods and Book Shelf store at the corner of NE 43rd and Fremont.

Bessie Bartos Kramer Weber was born in Iowa in 1894 and first appears in the Oregon record in the 1920 federal census with her husband Jessie and infant daughter Maxine. In the 1920s and 1930s, she lived in the neighborhood in several locations both as a boarder and then a renter.

Grandson Paul says that when this picture was taken, probably in the mid-1920s, Bessie and her husband Jessie Kramer were living in the small hip-roofed house on the left (which we think has been added to over time and is today’s 3829 NE Failing). The house on the right, which has recently been on the market, is 3905 NE 40th, built in 1922.

Stay tuned: some amazing pictures of Bessie’s Beaumont business at NE 43rd and Fremont are next, which will provide the basis for some good discussion about the early Beaumont business district.

Thanks Paul!

Portland’s Great Renumbering, 1931-1933: Bringing order out of chaos

Throw together a couple dozen scattered and growing neighborhoods, at least five incorporated towns with their own municipal governments, a public transportation system owned and operated by a handful of different authorities and private companies, a real estate market on fire, and an expanding network of streets and main arterials running across the whole complicated map. Sounds like an administrative headache, doesn’t it?

That was the challenge facing local leaders in 1931 when Portland decided it needed a new addressing system. The old way just wasn’t working: letters, visitors, homebuyers and even deliverymen were getting lost.

By the mid 1920s, Portland’s east side neighborhoods were booming. Research we’ve done into building permit history shows Alameda’s heyday of construction was 1922. In those early years, some homes started out with one address, but had to be renumbered—some several times—as lots were developed and new homes built.

A remnant of Portland's early addressing system

If you look carefully when out walking, you might find clues to our old address system. This artifact was cast into a neighbor’s front steps when the street was East 30th Street North.

By 1926, the city engineer recognized the need to change our address system. Except for the alphabet district in northwest Portland, where streets were (and still are) alphabetical, there was no numerical or organizational logic about how we told each other where we lived or worked. No baseline starting point for address numbers like today’s use of the Willamette River and Burnside. No predictable and sequential set of numbers that go with each block (i.e. the 2400 block of any particular street being 24 blocks north or south of anywhere else). No primary districts (northeast, northwest, north, southwest and southeast). Just cardinal directions and a pack of numbers. By the late 1920s, Portland Postmaster John M. Jones reported that 2,000 pieces of mail were going astray each day because of the confusing and random addressing system.

After all, the fraying system in place had been cobbled together in the early 1890s when the cities of Portland, East Portland and Albina merged. In the intervening years, both the population and the territory of the city more than doubled.

Reflecting on our system’s need for help, one reporter for The Oregonian wrote: “Many a city planner and civic engineer had thrown up his hands or uttered oracular warnings at the antiquated way in which our city was numbered.”

FullSizeRender (5)

More evidence of Portland’s early addressing system when all east side streets had two cardinal directions. Most of these early cast-in-place curb identifiers have been lost to modernizing curb cuts. Another name frequently cast into our sidewalks is builder Elwood Wiles. Click here for a photo and short biography of Mr. Wiles.

City Commissioner Asbury Lincoln (A.L.) Barbur recognized the problem and assembled a group to look at other cities for examples and to assemble a system that fit Portland’s needs. Barbur, whose name you will recognize from the southwest Portland boulevard named to honor him, was one of Portland’s most civic-minded early leaders. Elected five times to two-year terms as city auditor between 1907-1917, Barbur ran successfully in 1920 for commissioner (his election slogan was “Let the People Rule”). Read the reporting from the day and you’ll find him a pragmatic, smart, get-it-done elected leader who was almost single-handedly responsible for the business model that resulted in the paving of Portland streets, as well as the push to change the address system. Barbur’s street paving model is worthy of its own story: with so many new gravel streets in need of work, Barbur led the city to buy and operate its own paving plant rather than contract it all out, which saved the city millions of dollars, got the job done, and attracted the ire of local contractors who branded him a socialist.

In early 1930, Barbur’s addressing committee looked first at the system in Philadelphia, and then at Milwaukee, Wisconsin for ideas. As they did their scoping work, they also held public meetings in Portland neighborhoods to hear ideas and build support. By December 1930, Barbur’s committee had crafted a plan and received unanimous support from 18 different community organizations.

The essential framework was the system we know today: Divide the city into five sectors: NE, NW, SE, SW and North (owing to the bend in the river). Burnside was to be the new baseline north and south; the river was already an effective east-west baseline. Blocks would be divided into sets of 100 numbers. And some substantial renaming would add continuity and order. Here’s an editorial from The Oregonian on May 13, 1931 that endorses specifics of the plan and makes the case for change.

5-13-1931 Editorial

 

On September 2, 1931, city council unanimously and enthusiastically passed the plan, including $10,000 to pay for ceramic number tiles for every house and building, and it created a workforce of unemployed men to get the job done. Here in Alameda, renumbering and renaming resulted in a numeric transformation, and the changing of at least two street names, Glenn became NE 32nd Place; Laura Avenue became Edgehill.

Work is done photo

From the July 16, 1933 edition of The Oregonian. Click on the image to read the full story.

From the fall of 1931 through the summer of 1933, crews of workers fanned out across 66 square miles of Portland pulling wheeled carts filled with ceramic numbers, aluminum trays to hold the numbers, and hammers and nails to anchor them to every Portland house or business. It took 23 months. Not everyone was happy: some were superstitious if assigned anything with a 13 in it. Others who operated certain established and illegal businesses out of their homes took down the new numbers so as to not confuse their loyal customers. But most Portlanders embraced the new system and caught on to its logic quickly.

A ringing endorsement from The Oregonian on July 16, 1933, coinciding with completion of the renumbering, summed up how the community responded to the transformation:

“To the business man, the hundred and one small tradesmen and to the ordinary citizen, this new and uniform numbering system meant a logical and simple way out of a puzzling network of miscellaneous addresses.”

 

1934_curb-numbering-se-elliott-ave_a2009-009-31661

Painting a new address on the curb in Portland’s Eliot neighborhood following the Great Renumbering. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

Then and Now | 2445 SE Hawthorne

Our friend Irene wrote the other day to share a picture of her grandparents’ home on SE Hawthorne: a beautiful, three-story Crafstman, built in 1910. She had the original street address (797) from before Portland’s Great Renumbering, which took place between 1931-1933. And she had a picture. That’s more than we often get to begin our old house history detective work, so it didn’t take much digging before we were ready to set out in the rain to connect past and present.

Here’s the photo pair:

FullSizeRender (4)2445 SE Hawthorne Close

Kind of hard to line up exactly in the footsteps of the photographer. Hawthorne has definitely been widened over the years and the traffic in that stretch today is not interested in slowing down. Plus, the trees and bushes have pretty much taken over the house. You have to look hard for the graceful lines. The distinctive overhanging eaves, the row of dentals at the top of the second story, the columns and robust brick pedestals, the porch baluster. All are still there, but fading. When we visited recently, we noted a large group of young men exiting the house heading out in the neighborhood, which made us think it might be a group home. Chances are the interior has been divided up into many small apartment rooms.

Irene’s mother Phyllis Jones was born into the house, which at the time was occupied by two generations of the Jones family—both shipbuilders and real estate investors. The elder: Rome Volti Jones and his wife Lulu Bennett Jones; the younger: Robert V. Jones and his wife Luella (this sounds like a researcher’s minefield with multi-generational names so similar). The Jones family moved to Pasadena in 1921, and sold the house to Peter Connacher, a lumberman, from Yacolt, Washington: a Pacific Northwest logging family name we definitely know.

Mystery solved. Next?

Birkemeier always remembered his first house

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.

 

Scan (3) (1)

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.

Another tear down: 3416 NE Alameda

We’ve received word this week of another pending tear-down in the neighborhood: the 1928 Tudor located on multiple lots at 3416 NE Alameda, just east of 33rd.

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3416 NE Alameda, slated for demolition this summer.

We’ve walked past this home and noted the exceptional landscaping the high peaked-ceilings and the new roof. We’ve also noted that it contains several lots, which increasingly means it’s a sitting duck target for developers seeking tear-downs and rebuilds of multiple homes. Last week, we received a letter from the Bureau of Development Services letting us know of the impending tear-down, and that under Portland’s new demolition delay period, an appeal by a qualified organization (like a neighborhood association) is possible until July 6th.

The home has a for sale sign up at the moment, with a sticker that says pending, but the correspondence we received from the city indicates it has been purchased by Everett Custom Homes.

If you’d like to appreciate this fine example of Tudor revival, you’d better look fast.

Alameda Walking Tour | Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Still more than a month off, but plenty of time left to sign up for an Alameda neighborhood walking tour we’re leading on the morning of Saturday, July 25th for the Architectural Heritage Center. Here’s a link to more information and to sign up. 10:00 a.m. to noon on what we hope will be a sunny day.

The blurb says “moderately strenuous,” but the trickiest part is walking up Deadman’s Hill, where we pause halfway up anyway to appreciate the George A. Eastman Arts and Crafts style home on the south slope. We’ve led tours like this in the past, both for the Architectural Heritage Center and for interested neighbors. We love to explore the neighborhood with like-minded participants, and to share the many interesting history stories we’ve gathered up over the years. And of course you know our mantra: that understanding the past is the key to appreciating the moment and to shaping the future.

 

Tear down on Alameda Ridge

We know that change is our constant companion, and we believe that change and design diversity can be invigorating and even inspiring in the right context and range. But that doesn’t mean we don’t regret seeing a time traveler removed from its prominent spot on the Alameda Ridge.

5-24-15 Alameda Ridge 2

2122 NE Alameda, May 24, 2015.

This week, wrecking crews demolished the lifetime home of the late Maryon Lewis Kinsey at 2122 NE Alameda. You’ve seen it: a blue blend of Cape Cod and English Cottage, just before you turn down the hill on NE 21st. Maybe you’ve read our post about Maryon, which you can find here. We recommend it: a short read to understand what it was like to grow up in Alameda.

Here’s what the house looked like when it was built and put on the market in 1928.

726 The Alameda

It’s an advertisement from a 1928 edition of The Oregonian that attracted Maryon Lewis Kinsey’s parents, who bought the house brand new to raise their family in, and the house where Maryon and her husband Lloyd raised their family until her death in 2013.

Here’s a picture of the house, with Maryon on the steps, from our visit there a few years back:

maryon-kinsey-lewis

We know the house and its foundation had serious structural problems, and that the current owners have reportedly wrestled with the idea of taking it all the way down. We appreciate that. We’ve struggled ourselves with the economics of restoration vs. new construction. Of course, we always lean toward restoration and are always ready to make the case for conserving the historic fabric. But not everyone does.

Now that the original house is gone, the really hard part for us has to do with the plans for its replacement. Here’s the rendering:

2122 NE Alameda New

The new and improved 2122 NE Alameda, from a news story that ran in the Portland Chronicle on May 10, 2015.

Not sure what exactly to say about this. The beautiful brick tudor style house immediately to the east (built 1932) and the Colonial to the west (built 1928)–and all of the 1920s-era houses up and down the Alameda Ridge–will have some adjusting to do.

There’s been an active discussion about the demo and the reconstruction plan on the Nextdoor website, which is a social media conversation place for the neighborhood. Roughly speaking, the comments are running against the design, but some neighbors (we bet not the exact next door neighbors) are endorsing the design.

What do you think?

 

5-24-15 Alameda Ridge 1

 

Part 3: Alberta Bungalow Grocery Restored

Third of three parts: Bringing a great old building back from the brink

store (corner view) (1)

In 2002, with much of its south-side clapboard replaced with T-111 siding, a clear southward slump, rotted floors, and replacement aluminum sliding windows, the bungalow-grocery at NE 27th and Going was crumbling and weeks away from being torn down. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

It’s been a while—regrettably, a very busy spring—but just to refresh from Part 1: In 1910, the Alberta District was at the edge of a very fast-growing Portland. As real estate values and more people caught up with the region north of Prescott and south of Killingsworth, a booming residential and retail area began to grow.

One particular building at the northwest corner of NE 27th and Going merged both residential and retail. In Part 2, we covered how the modest bungalow storefront opened originally as a men’s furnishings store, and was adapted over time and changed hands through the generations, closely integrated with neighborhood life until it went out of retail use in the mid 1960s.

Deferred maintenance began to catch up with the building, and when it was sold to a developer in 2002, the property was well on its way to becoming a vacant lot. Fortunately for the building, an adventurous fixer-upper couple named Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich bought it four months later and began to bring it back to life.

porch exterior-untouched

Missing siding, aluminum sliders and a rotting back porch were the least of the worries. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

“I was attracted to its unusual live-work facade which I thought was very handsome, unique, and proportionally graceful,” remembers Crouch. But he also remembers that it was in very sorry shape. The southeast corner was rotted and sinking. The foundation and the floor of the store had to be completely replaced. The residential kitchen was a disaster.

 

kitchen untouched

The worn-out kitchen in the residence area, looking out the back door toward the porch. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

While it had been almost 40 years since being an active retail store, Crouch and Eckrich found two clues, including a Franz Bread ad and the word “LIPTON’s” etched into window glass. Other than that, the store space held no clues to generations of retail activity. “It was very spare: plaster walls and painted wood floors.  Florescent shop lighting.  No original fixtures, stencilling, or noteworthy mouldings. There was a wood stove taking up a lot of floor space.”

 

new concrete floor

Inside the store space looking toward the front windows. Note the new foundation wall on the right (the building had to be lifted by jacks and the new foundation poured underneath). The new floor shown here is a poured concrete slab piped with warm water to keep the floor toasty during the winter. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

guest room walls stripped (1)

One of the few clues to the building’s earlier retail life. An advertisement for Franz bread. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

Crouch and Eckrich invested sweat equity and financial capital in the restoration, and did so in a creative way. “We used some of the original wood flooring in a step-up elevated dining platform and perimeter bench in the main room.  It turned out to be more work than it was probably worth, as the planks had been compressed by traffic patterns of 100 yeas of foot traffic. Some hand planing was required to work out the refinishing.  We put up salvaged tin ceiling tiles on the new span joists we ran to accommodate a master bedroom in the 1/2 story above.”

 

DSC00962

A view of the finished store space (front doors and windows are on the left). Note the fireplace, salvaged ceiling tiles, new hydronic slab, and built-in perimeter bench in the former store space. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

A gallery of photos was posted on a real estate website when the building was sold in November 2013, so click around and take a look. Chad and Sheryl have done a great service to the future and to the past with their careful, thoughtful restoration. The Smythes, the Coulters and the other proprietors–plus the generations of families and neighbors who bought their groceries and necessities here–would definitely recognize the building and think it’s in fine shape for being 105 years old.

Today, Alberta’s bungalow-grocery is an attractive and vibrant old building that serves as a kind of time capsule for the neighborhood, showing just how nicely old buildings can be restored and repurposed instead of razed and replaced. In a neighborhood where change is the common denominator, this success story holds hope for the future.

 

 

Part 2: The Alberta District and its bungalow grocery

Second of Three Parts: The life and times of a neighborhood store and its people

You get the picture from Part 1: In 1910, the Alberta District feels a bit thrown together and rough-and-tumble. But investment and expansion are impressive. A strong sense of neighborhood identity is emerging (thanks in part to business booster H.D. Wagnon other early business owners, early residents and real estate developers). People are coming from near and far because property is cheaper here than in other eastside neighborhoods and there’s a new streetcar that provides dependable service.

Plus, plans underway for a new Willamette River crossing that in 1913 would become the Broadway Bridge were changing the way people thought about living and working in Portland.

 

Built and Run by the Smyths

Enter Michael and Mary Jane Smyth, shopkeepers from Ireland who were running a mom-and-pop grocery near 79th and Southeast Stark (then known as Baseline Road). Michael was born in Ireland in 1842 and immigrated to the US in 1864. Mary Jane was born in 1850 and arrived in the US in 1875.

By 1910, the Smyths had run several small retail shops in Portland and at least one in eastern Oregon. The couple never had children and may have seen the Alberta District investment as setting themselves up for retirement. At ages 68 and 62, they were starting their new venture at NE 27th and Going somewhat late in life.

The original plumbing permit for the building shows construction complete at the end of September 1910, three years before the curbs and sidewalks were installed by local contractor Geibisch and Joplin, and well before the streets were even paved. According to the Polk City Directory, the Smyths opened their business in 1911 as a men’s furnishings store. By 1914, the listing had changed to dry goods and the Smyths were living six doors to the north, with the residence side of the new building rented out.

Mary Jane died on October 12, 1917 and her funeral mass was held at St. Charles Catholic Church, which was then located near the corner of NE 33rd and Webster, two blocks south of today’s Concordia New Seasons (the parish church relocated to NE 42nd years later following a devastating fire and financial hardships). After Mary Jane died, Michael took a rented room in the neighborhood and continued to run the dry goods store on his own until 1921 when he sold it for $3,375. Michael died on February 20, 1922.

 

The Coulters Take Over: Alameda Park Grocery

William and Isabella Coulter, immigrants from England via Canada, bought the business from Michael Smyth, having seen it advertised in the March 2, 1921 edition of The Oregonian as a “very fine bungalow-grocery.” They had shopkeeping experience from several years in Missoula, Montana. It’s unclear if they gave the store its name, or if they adopted the name used by the Smyths, but there it is, listed in the 1928 Polk Directory as the Alameda Park Grocery.

This is unusual for a couple reasons: 27th and Going is near but not actually inside the Alameda Park plat; and, there was a much more prominent store on the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont known as the Alameda Grocery. This must have been confusing, at least. No word about what that rivalry may have been like, but the 24th and Fremont business advertised widely with its name, and the bungalow grocery with its slight variation never shows up in any newspaper advertising or any other annual Polk Directory.

While the naming convention might have been confusing, we know it to be fact thanks to a photograph from David White, grandson of the Coulters, that clearly shows the name Alameda Grocery painted in big black letters on the side of the store. You can see the store and the letters here over the shoulder of these two best friends: William and Isabelle’s daughter Agnes is on the right and her friend Marjorie Ellis is on left. Taken about 1926, looking east on Going a few doors west of 27th. Photo courtesy of David White.

Looking south toward 27th and Going, 1926

William Coulter passed away in the mid 1920s, and Isabelle took over the business on her own, with help from daughter Agnes, until 1943. This 22-year period was probably the best era for this little building and its business: Isabelle ran a tight ship and took good care of the place.

Somewhere during the Coulter years, this incredible photo was taken, which we have paired with the same view today (spoiler alert for Part 3).

Isabelle Coulter, about 1930, 4601 NE 27th

Isabelle Coulter in front of her store, about 1930. Photo courtesy of David White. Click the photo for a larger view (there’s so much to see here you better take a closer look). Below, that same view today.

Alameda Park Grocery

 

From Retail to Church to Artist Studio

Charles and Vera Fiebke bought the property from Isabelle Coulter in 1943 and sold it on June 20, 1944 to Henry and Ruth Rieckers, who owned the business until 1953. During this time, the business was referred to as “Rieckers” and as “Rieckers Grocery.” A classified advertisement in The Oregonian on March 3, 1953 indicated the Rieckers were retiring and putting the business up for sale, asking $6,500.

On June 24, 1953, the property was purchased from the Rieckers by John Henry Moad and his wife Lucy Jane Moad. They operated the store—as Moad’s Grocery—until 1961 when it was sold to Robert A. and Louise M. Klatke, who changed the name to Bob’s Quik Stop Market. But not for long.

An article in The Oregonian on June 29, 1962 reports a robbery at Bob’s Quick Stop. Robert, age 56, was robbed with a knife to his throat. A few months later, he and Louise put the store back on the market, selling it to Agnes Martin on November 2, 1962. Sometime during the mid-1960s, the building ceased functioning as a store.

As we know from earlier posts here on the blog, this was the beginning of a tough time for mom and pop neighborhood grocery stores. The whole retail grocery business was changing and local grocery stores were quickly becoming convenience rather than primary shopping locations.

The Martin family owned the property for the next six years and at least one reference to the building shows it as the Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ. The Polk Directory for 1965 shows the building as vacant, and in 1967, it is listed simply as L.S. Martin. On September 17, 1968, the Martins sold the property to Carl E. Bass (son) and Viola Matheson (mother). Bass, who was a potter, turned the space into an artist’s studio and lived in the property until his death in April 2001 at the age of 73.

The property was purchased from the Bass estate by investor/developers George and Isabelle Zitcak, who held it for just four months before selling it in April 2002 to Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich. This is where the story gets interesting, which will be the subject of Part 3.

To whet your appetite for the next chapter of the bungalow grocery, we’ll leave you with this photograph, which shows just how far down the building had faded during its later years and why it was a leading candidate for the wrecking ball by 2002.

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The bungalow grocery at low ebb, about 2002. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

Suffice to say that Mary Jane and Michael Smyth, and Isabelle Coulter, would probably have cried to see it in this shape.

Next up: Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich bring the bungalow grocery back from the brink.

 

 

 

 

 

The Alberta District and its bungalow grocery

First of three parts: Understanding the neighborhood’s early beginnings

We’ve been working on a fascinating property in the Alberta Arts District, formally known as the Elberta Addition (that’s not a typo, that’s an actual plat name).

It’s a store and home built by Irish immigrants and operated for several generations, eventually running out of retail energy in the 1960s when it became a church and then an artist’s studio before nearly collapsing from years of deferred maintenance and decline. We’re eager to share the fascinating story of this sweet little building—which has been lovingly restored—and an incredible photograph from the pinnacle of its retail life.

But first, we have to provide some context about the area that today might like to be known more for its hipness than the complicated polarity of change underway through gentrification, though both are present.

To be clear, the geography of the area in mind actually holds three of today’s neighborhood associations: King, Vernon and Concordia, and the business district known as Alberta Arts (which technically resides mostly within the Concordia neighborhood: think MLK to NE 33rd and Alberta to Killingsworth). But back in 1909, this area was a muddy, brushy flat that existed outside city limits and beyond what Portlanders thought of as their city.

If you lived up here in 1909, you were probably either a dairyman or the advance guard of development, and you could see the city creeping your direction. After the Lewis and Clark Exhibition, Portland was booming with new residents and new construction, and hungry for relatively close-in developable land.

Here’s a hopeful word picture from H.D. Wagnon, Alberta’s number one promoter, in January 1910 that picks up the story from the perspective of a man on horseback riding through brush thickets in the area that helps provide proper context for our bungalow grocery story.

Alberta District Thrives, 1-9-1910

From The Oregonian, January 9, 1910

 If you opened up the real estate section from any Sunday edition of The Oregonian during these early days you’d find a flurry of advertisements for these desirable lots. The new streetcar provided access, the lots were affordable compared to other new subdivisions elsewhere in town, money was relatively available to loan during the rising economy of 1910, and people were flocking to the area.

Of course, this caused its own problems, documented a few months later in the June 26, 1910 edition of The Oregonian:

Alberta District Grows, 6-26-1910

From The Oregonian, June 26, 1910

 And by the end of 1910, Alberta was becoming so populated, neighbors were calling on the city to build a school.

School demanded, 12-25-1910

From The Oregonian, December 25, 1910

 The problem of education infrastructure lagging behind neighborhood development was a trend across the eastside, which was successfully raised and driven by active and engaged parents (particularly moms). One might think this equation would be clear enough for neighborhood developers (homes + kids = need for schools), but their focus was on business and the sales of lots represented profit while the construction of school buildings represented only cost. Secretary Wagnon, a promoter through-and-through still preferred to focus on the immediate positives:

“One cannot get beyond the sound of the hammer or the sight of piles of lumber in this district.”

We like that sound-picture and can absolutely imagine what it must have been like on a weekday morning, closing your eyes anywhere along Alberta and hearing hammering and construction in every direction. That little details tells its own story.

Against this backdrop of growth and growing pains, local residents started some new traditions with unintentional echoes in the life of the district today. Market fairs for produce and hand-made products were springing up mostly as a matter of necessity for local residents.

Market Opens Today, 6-20-1914

From The Oregonian, June 20, 1914

 The open-air markets were a temporary fixture, but steady retail was shoring up its presence in the district. That’s where our bungalow grocery story will begin: construction of a store connected to a house at the northwest corner of NE 27th and Going, right in the heart of the construction boom.

Next up: In Part 2, 105 years ago, an older Irish couple moves to the neighborhood and opens a men’s clothing shop, which quickly becomes a neighborhood grocery.

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