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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.

Broadway Streetcar Walk-A 3.1 mile loop

Here’s an Alameda neighborhood walk that puts you on the pathway of the past: a history-hunt of sorts to see the clues and imagine a time when the Alameda Park Addition was young and connected to downtown courtesy of a clanky, drafty, dependable streetcar.

Broadway Streetcar, looking south from NE 29th and Mason, about 1948. Courtesy of Bill Hayes

Broadway Streetcar, looking south from NE 29th and Mason, about 1948. Courtesy of Bill Hayes.

You can enter this walking loop just about anywhere on the course of the streetcar’s roundabout transit through the neighborhood, and you can head either north or south. But, just to be orderly about it, how about starting at the end of the line: 29th and Mason. That’s where the Broadway streetcar stopped; where the motorman would step outside for a smoke and a look at his watch; where he’d flip the seat-backs around to face the other direction for the ride back downtown.

 

From 29th & Mason

From the end of the line walk south on 29th to Regents, where the streetcar passed through the “Bus and Bicycle Only” notch at Regents and Alameda. The streetcar turned right and went down the hill here, and you should too, following Regents to 24th, where you turn left on 24th for about a block and then right on Fremont. Continue a couple blocks west on Fremont, just like the train did, to NE 22nd Avenue. The train turned left (south) here. Continue south on 22nd and note just how wide the street is: a clue that you are on the streetcar route.

After a good, long straight stretch, when you hit Tillamook and 22nd, you’ll find a little “S” curve, where the streetcar zigged and zagged on its way south to connect with Broadway. Follow along just for fun. But once you hit Broadway, instead of turning west (right) like the streetcar did on its way downtown, turn left (east) on Broadway and walk back to NE 24th, where you turn left (north) and head back toward the neighborhood. Now you’re back on the path of the Broadway Car, and headed toward home. Continue north, cross Fremont and turn right (east) on Regents, where you go back up the hill on your way to the end of the line.

At the top of Regents, pass back through the bus notch again and go a few more blocks to Mason, and you’ve arrived at the end of the line. The photo looks south on NE 29th, from the southeast corner of Mason. See if you can line up in the footsteps of history 

Summarizing:

  • Start: 29th and Mason
  • Walk south on 29th to Regents, turn right and go down the hill.
  • At 24th, turn left (south off of Regents).
  • At Fremont, turn right and go two blocks west to 22nd.
  • Turn left on 22nd.
  • Walk south on 22nd quite a ways (through the zig zag) to Broadway, turn left.
  • Walk east on Broadway to 24th, turn left.
  • Walk north on 24th, crossing Fremont, and turn right on Regents.
  • Walk up the hill on Regents to 29th, turn left through the notch.
  • Walk north on 29th to Mason and you have reached the end of the streetcar line.
  • Tip your hat to the motorman and the generations of Alamedans who depended on this train.

Total distance traveled: 3.1 miles. You can do this at a nice pace in just under an hour.

 

Some things to look for on your walk…

Want to look for clues to our lost streetcar line? Notice how 29th narrows on the north side of the intersection. The wider stretch of street to the south was necessary to accommodate the rails and the traffic. Have a good look at Northeast 22nd and you’ll notice how much wider it is than any of our north-south streets. There are other clues to be found in the alignment of power poles, and in the remnants of rail unearthed from time to time during street repairs.

A little more history about our streetcar…

Two generations of our neighbors grew up here in Alameda relying on the Broadway streetcar to take them where they needed to go. Ever-present, often noisy, sometimes too cold (or too hot), but always dependable, the Broadway car served Alameda loyally from 1910 to 1948.

Sensitive to the transport needs of its prospective customers, the Alameda Land Company financed construction of the rails and overhead electric lines that brought the car up Regents Hill to 29th and Mason. Developers all over the city knew access was one key to selling lots, particularly in the muddy and wild environs that Alameda represented in 1909.

In 1923, a trip downtown cost an adult 8 cents. Kids could buy a special packet of school tickets allowing 25 rides for $1. In 1932, a monthly pass for unlimited rides cost $1.25. Alamedans used the streetcar as a vital link to shopping, churchgoing, commuting to the office, trips to the doctor. Some even rode the line for entertainment.

During the day, cars ran every 10 minutes, and Alamedans referred to them as “regular cars” or “trains.” During the morning and evening rush hours, additional cars called “trippers” were put into the circuit to handle additional riders. Trippers did not climb the hill to 29th and Mason, traveling only on the Fremont Loop to save time. At night, our line was one of the handful in Portland that featured an “owl car,” a single train that made the circuit once an hour between midnight and 5 a.m. Owl service was a special distinction. The downtown end of the line was Broadway and Jefferson.

The Broadway streetcar was replaced by bus on August 1, 1948. By 1950, all of Portland’s once ubiquitous streetcar lines were gone. In the early days of neighborhood life, our streetcar was indispensable. It was one catalyst that made development of Alameda possible. It linked us to downtown and to other neighborhoods near and far. To hear the stories of those who rode it frequently, it linked us to each other in a way too.

Let me know what you find as you walk the Broadway Streetcar Loop.

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