Filling the eastside gulches: “The last stand of the frontier in Portland”

Yes, we’re diverging a bit from old houses, but our recent foray into Portland’s lower northeast side has been interesting, plus at least a couple of our readers asked a good question: so when did that happen?

We know from our recent look at the 1909 Sanborn maps that the western edge of Portland’s eastside represented a major challenge to turn-of-the-last-century developers and engineers. Everywhere the land met the waters of the Willamette and its tributaries–and in the upslope transition to the relative plateau we consider today’s eastside–the land was marked by gulches, gullies, ridgelines, swamps, seeps and seasonal creeks.

Sanborn maps from 1909 referred to these areas simply as “deep gulch” which was less a geographic place name than a kind of short-hand for you’re gonna have some work to do if you want to build here. Sanborn didn’t show topographic lines, locate waterways or note other natural features. Just white space implying terra incognita. Interesting that for a fire insurance map, they didn’t consider the fire hazard coming up out of the gulch: lots of summer news stories from those early days of gulches on fire and nearby homes being threatened.

So if you’re like us, you want to know a little more about the extent and location of these places. Click around in the Sanborns below to look at some of the deep gulches in Eliot and Lower Albina. You’ll recognize the street names: some of them still don’t go through today because of old fashioned topography, and of course there are two major sports arenas, a hospital and a major interstate highway that have reshaped the landscape too. Still, have a look to set the table for the story of development that follows and the memories of a little boy who grew up playing in the gulches. And if you’re interested in learning more about Portland’s “hidden hydrology,” take a look at this cool set of maps we came across while looking around.

 

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Here’s the area around today’s Portland Public Schools building off Dixon in Sanborn Plate 287 from Volume 3 in 1909. If you venture around this vicinity today as we did recently, you’ll see the line of bank hasn’t moved a whole lot, but the bottom of the gulch has clearly been filled. For a comprehensive discussion of the development of this area, check out Roy Roos’s excellent book The History of Albina.

 

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In Plate 297 above, you see a channel toward the bottom of the map at the “intersection” (we use this term loosely because these were little more than gravel traces, not engineered roads at the time) of Wheeler and Broadway, and an east-west hollow up toward the top all along Weidler, where Sanborn notes that either the street or future buildings, or both, were planned to be built on posts. Bring on the engineers!

Let’s hear from Edward W. Coles, who grew up on Hancock Street, one block from this terra incognita, at today’s 77 NE Hancock. Coles was an adventurous schoolboy at the turn of the last century. His explorations and memories are collected in a self-published volume called These Were My Days. In just over 90 pages, he brings Portland day-to-day life of the 1900s into very clear focus. It’s great reading: a time capsule, really, that we’ll draw on again down the line. Here he introduces us to one of the most memorable afternoons of his entire life, which happened in Montgomery Gulch at the foot of Hancock Street.

One of my most unusual experiences happened when I was in my early teens. Ecology was not a concern in those days. They threw most anything down the hill into Montgomery Gulch. [My friend] Orlo and I would go down after school looking for anything we could use. Once, there was a piece of galvanized pipe 2 feet in diameter and 15 feet long which was lying on the side of the hill. He dared me to slide down the inside.

I put both arms against my sides and slid down. The only trouble was that the lower end had dug in the dirt and I couldn’t get out. I hollered and Orlo tried to move the pipe but it was too heavy. Then he got frightened and left, leaving me stuck in the pipe. I thought he was going for help. I wondered what would happen to me: maybe I would starve or maybe the rats would crawl into the pipe when they saw I was helpless. I screamed but my voice only echoed against the pipe. I was frantic, and I was sure that my days were numbered.

In the meantime, Orlo went to his home. Eventually my mother called me for dinner. No Edward. She had all the neighbors hunting, but no luck. Orlo had never said anything to anybody; he was too frightened. They called the police, but no luck. Then, one lady said that she saw me with Orlo early in the afternoon and that Orlo must know something. Finally the policeman frightened Orlo so badly that he confessed where I was. By that time it was getting dusk, and four or five men went down to the Gulch and pulled me out. I had been in the pipe for over two hours; I was almost out of my mind. I never thought I would get out of there alive. I was in bed for two days and had nightmares for months.

About that time they decided to put Montgomery Gulch to some good use, for valuable industrial property. They used hydraulic mining equipment: a giant hose and nozzle and lots of water at high pressure. A drain was made to the Willamette River, but after several weeks they had dead carp. The odor was awful. However, they eventually got it all washed down and smooth, all near the railroad and the river.”

Montgomery Gulch was a geographic place–you can see it there in Sanborn 287–and it was perceived as a major impediment to development. Named for James B. Montgomery (1832-1900), a railroad and real estate business leader and Oregon legislator who was a force behind the development of Lower Albina. Here’s a story from The Oregonian on November 13, 1914 describing ongoing challenges with filling Montgomery Gulch (note the salute to young Coles and his playmates down in the third paragraph):

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While these rough places on the bluffs may have meant adventure (and a scary afternoon) for young Coles, real estate developers had bigger issues. For them, the transportation and infrastructure challenges meant property with less value, and obstacles for higher value properties they were trying to sell. Gulches elsewhere in Portland were being converted to sewers draining directly into the Willamette. Some were open garbage dumps. Others were bridged by long trestles for roadways or rails. Whatever the strategy, a growing Portland needed more flat land and was ready to do whatever it took to solve the gulch problem. Here’s a quote from The Oregonian on March 3, 1905 that summed up the sentiment of the day:

“Around Vancouver Avenue and Weidler and Victoria streets is a deep gulch that runs down from Irvington. Into the gulch is dumped debris of all kinds. A row of buildings backing upon the gulch are said to be without proper sewerage. Complaints and remonstrances to the authorities have availed naught, say the neighbors.”

And a letter to the editor from November 6, 1912:

“Why could not all the refuse be dumped in some deep gulch and then have a crew of men grading on the mountain side closeby and dumping their earth on the garbage? Earth will purify any putrefaction it comes in contact with. Signed, O. Hempstead”

To the question of differential property values of gulch vs. non-gulch—and who pays the cost of improving infrastructure—some developers wanted to put the entire cost only on those owners whose sloped property was in need of improvement. Many on the eastside argued to spread the cost across all owners who would benefit.

Ultimately, as Portland’s population grew and property values increased, the city figured out how to contract the substantial grading and fill work. Fill was brought in from elsewhere on the eastside, and the city undertook a major project of widening and lighting Northeast Broadway to coincide with opening of the Broadway Bridge on April 22, 1913. Here’s an article from June 30, 1912 about big changes to the gulches, the streetcar line, and to Broadway itself:

6-30-1912 Fills Planned

By the time the Broadway Bridge opened, most of the curbs and streets were in place up here in Alameda. Sewer lines were in and streetcar lines and local businesses were starting to bloom. The grid was in place, the gulches filled, and the first steps were taken on the uncertain path to the future.

NE 3rd and Broadway as you’ve never seen it

One of the great joys of our research is finding the unknown—more properly the long forgotten—in the midst of the known. Photos, memories, documents and stories from the past add new understanding to places we know (or think we know), and often bring a hint of the familiar: the profile of the ridgeline on the horizon, the curve of a street, the form of a building we recognize.

Sometimes these clues from the past are unreconcilable with the landscape we know today. In the world of Northeast Portland neighborhoods, pretty much anything after 1910 will carry a hint of the familiar. Turn back the clock a bit further and those hints are harder to detect.

Case in point: this Sanborn fire insurance underwriting map from 1909 of the Eliot neighborhood, showing the vicinity of the busy intersection at Grand and Broadway that we all know. Or think we know. Have a good look and pay attention to the location and extent of the gully shown as Deep Gulch, the wooden bridges, the buildings up on posts, the row of houses with their bay windows all to the side. Check out the State Laundry Company building too, and the note about the night watchman. (If you don’t know about Sanborn maps—which were used for fire insurance underwriting—be sure to check out our post on the topic).

1-16-16 Sanborn 289 Detail

Detail from plate 289, Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1909

Everything in this frame from 1909 is absolutely gone today—the gully, the buildings even the streets which have been widened—and most of us speed through here (being careful about the red-light cameras) on our way somewhere else. Below is a modern view of that intersection.

1-16-16 Detail from Google Earth

Thanks to Google Maps. Click the thumbnail above for the full photo.

* * *

Ready for an even closer look? This is the fun part where we get to try to imagine the landscape that once was, and how different it is today. As you study this photo, be sure to check out the detail: the awning style shutters; the orderly clapboard and fish-scale siding; the beautiful shingle roof; the decorative round gable end ornaments; the family members at each level; the gulch out back. The picket fence in the left foreground is running north-south along the edge of NE 3rd. The double gable end faces NE 3rd, so this view is looking off to the south/southwest at the corner of NE 3rd and Broadway.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway

Home of B.T. and Cora Soden, NE 3rd and Broadway. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

And an approximate view today:

Site of Soden Home, NE 3rd and Broadway, northwest corner

237 NE Broadway in January 2016.

We’re able to feed this imagination thanks to fourth-generation Northeast Portland resident Bob Elston, great-grandson of Bartholomew and Cora Soden, who recently shared these and other family photos that got us to wondering about this part of the neighborhood, and to haunting these blocks ourselves in order to take a good look. Thanks Bob.

Fast forward a few years and a slightly different angle at the Soden place, this time looking west/northwest showing the barn out back, which is depicted in the 1905 Sanborn map. Note the same wooden bridge on Northeast 3rd over Deep Gulch, which keys the building into the northwest corner of that intersection. The dip of the gulch is still visible off to the left.

1-16-16 Soden Home 3rd and Broadway 1905

NE 3rd and Broadway, looking west in the late 1890s. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

 

Mildred, Willard, Frances, Raymond in front of the house on NE 3rd.

Frances, Willard, Mildred and Lester Soden, in front of the house on NE 3rd, 1898. This view is looking north on 3rd. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

* * *

Bart Soden was owner and proprietor of B.T. Soden Hay, Grain, Coal and Plaster, provisioner of vital goods for the eastside at the turn of the last century. His warehouse and business was located just a block east from the family home at the southeast corner of Union and Schuyler (today’s MLK and Schuyler). Scroll back up to the Sanborn map and look at it there in the upper right corner, labeled “Hay, Grain and Cement Ware HO.” Here’s a picture of Bart and a helper, probably from about 1905, showing the delivery wagon heading out on a run:

1-16-16 BT Soden Business

The southeast corner of NE 3rd and Union, about 1905. Photo courtesy of Bob Elston.

Here’s the same view today:

Site of Soden Business, MLK and Schulyer, southeast corner

Bart was born in Australia in 1849, came to Oregon as a young boy, and grew up in rural Polk County. He earned a degree from the Oregon Agricultural College in 1879, tried his hand at teaching for a while, and eventually moved to Portland in the 1880s where he married Cora Wells, 16 years his junior. The couple built the house and business we’ve been looking at here, raised a family of two sons and two daughters, and were active in Portland society. Bart died in 1926. Cora lived until 1950. Both parents and several of the children are buried in the family plot at Portland’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery.

We’ve recently come across a memoir by a Portlander who grew up a couple streets over about the same time as the young Sodens. Stay tuned for his observations, which will continue to help us bring this long lost landscape back to life.

Beaumont 1927 Construction Photo Series

Four more tantalizing views of the Beaumont corner at 42nd and Fremont from the late 1920s (we think June 1927), all showing some major trenching and dirt-moving activity out in front of the shops on the north side of the street. All four are from the collection of Beaumont Dry Goods shopkeeper Bessie Kramer and her grandson Paul Kirkland. If you need help orienting yourself, we’ve placed current companion views to each of these at the bottom of this post.

You’ll recall from our earlier posts that Bessie Kramer ran the Beaumont Dry Goods and Book Shelf store in the 1930s, which—based on Polk City Directory records—we believe started out life as Fremont Dry Goods in 1927 here on the north side of Fremont, about where today’s Americana Frame shop is now, and later moved with a name and ownership change to the south side, where Shop Adorn is today, when construction of that building was finished in the fall of 1928.

Incidentally, we’re mapping the comings and goings of Beaumont’s various businesses over the years, and doing some homework on the Beaumont Market/Gazelle commercial building on the south side of Fremont at 41st (which is actually two buildings built seven years apart) so stay tuned for that. If you have photos or insights to contribute on the general topic of Beaumont business over the years, we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, have a good look at the images below which we believe were shot all about the same time (click on each one for a larger view), and when you’re done, come back here for some discussion.

Beaumont Construction 1

East view

Let’s start by orienting ourselves here. Look carefully at the address over the door of the shop to the left, which is Fremont Dry Goods, 1213 East Fremont Street North. You can’t quite see the business name in the upper left, but you’ll see it in the next photograph. It reads “Fremont Dry Goods.” After Portland’s Great Renumbering in 1931, that address became 4223 NE Fremont, today’s Americana Frame. Next door to the right, at today’s 4225 NE Fremont, is Fremont Pharmacy, home of ice cream, cigars, drugs and on this day lots of fireworks. The pharmacy business shown here, (which moved across the street in 1929 and became a neighborhood fixture in the shop occupied by today’s Gazelle) is known to us today as Silhouette, a tailoring shop. There are two more businesses out of frame to the left–Buy Rite Grocery and Beaumont Hardware–but we’ll get to those in a moment. Click here to keep reading…

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.

Earliest Alameda Views

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.

Proposed Alameda Auto Camp Meets Protest

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

Time Passes in Alameda

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

Study of Alameda Building Permits Provides Insights

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?

A Legacy Written in Stone (ok, concrete)

Who hasn’t come across the time stamp of history on neighborhood sidewalks? If you’re paying attention, even on a simple stroll around the block, you’ll find yourself on the trail of the past.

Curbs and sidewalks under construction, from The Oregonian, June 3, 1910.

Curbs and sidewalks under construction, from The Oregonian, June 3, 1910.

On most blocks–typically near the corners–you’ll find the name of the contractor who installed the sidewalks and curbs, along with the date of their construction, and even the names of the streets. Think of it as a signature, and appreciate the irony that even though the prestigious builders of the big houses are long gone, the identity of the grunt-work done by  ditch diggers, form builders and concrete finishers has stood the test of time.

The curbs and sidewalks on my block–block 23 of the Alameda Park Addition–were built by Warren Construction Company in the summer of 1912. Warren Construction, like other companies, had contracts with the city to excavate, frame and pour many city blocks worth of sidewalks and curbs. Look carefully and you’ll find the printed names of Hassam Construction, Krieq, Elwood Wiles and others.

elwood-wiles-stamp

So, here’s some insight into two of the of the companies you’re going to bump into walking around the Alameda Park neighborhood, and some great factoids you’ll want to hang onto for scintillating dinner conversation. After you’ve paid enough attention to these names–and learned a little about the companies and when they operated–you can almost tell what era and corner of the neighborhood you’re in just by looking at the names on the sidewalks.

Warren Construction Company

This company once employed world-renowned chemist and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling as its chief asphalt inspector. Pauling, born in Portland in 1901, was a young man when he worked summers for Warren, testing the quality of its asphalt production facility. Pauling recalled, years later, how company bosses didn’t want him to go on with his studies…they wanted him to stay put on quality control. In addition to giving one of the world’s greatest chemists his start, Warren Construction also made a name for itself building and installing all of the concrete decking on the Interstate Bridge (first opened in 1917), and applying the asphalt surface once the bridge deck was complete. They also worked on the Columbia River Highway as well.

 

Elwood Wiles

If you are a walker, this man is a household name. You see him everywhere on Portland’s east side. For years, I wondered about his identity, and after doing the research, I finally have a few answers. Wiles was born in Canada in 1874, and came to Portland in 1887. After high school he worked in a variety of jobs for a local harness maker before going into the sidewalk business. From 1903 til about 1917, Wiles held the majority of all city contracts for excavating, framing and pouring curbs and sidewalks. After the big building boom of these years, Wiles dabbled in timber speculation, concrete pipe manufacturing, stocks and bonds, and insurance. In his later years, he owned an illuminated traffic sign company. He died in Portland in December 1956. Be sure to check out this photo of Wiles and biography I’ve written in  The Builders section here on the site.

Interested in helping create an inventory of sidewalk contractors in Alameda? A couple of us are setting out to do some documentation, and we could use a studious person with some time to spare (and a digital camera) to help. If you’re interested in joining in, drop me a note: doug@alamedahistory.org.

Click here to see what’s been done in the Hawthorne neighborhood.

If this topic really piques your interest, check this out.

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