Designer and builder Kenny Birkemeier in front of a recently completed home at xxxx NE xx. Note the decorative brick pattern, and the oculus window...details that he used in other homes. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

Designer and builder Kenny Birkemeier in front of a recently completed home at 3335 NE 32nd Place, in  May 1936. Note the decorative brick pattern, and the oculus window: design details he used in other homes. An exact reverse of this design is at 3209 NE Knott. From where he is standing in this photo, Birkemeier could look out and see almost a dozen other homes he built in this immediate area, just south of Fremont in Northeast Portland. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

The last major builder to leave his mark on the Alameda neighborhood, Kenneth “Kenny” Birkemeier, produced at least 20 homes in the Alameda Park addition alone, and dozens of other homes across the city, including apartments  and duplexes throughout the city. Birkemeier’s building career in the Alameda area spanned from 1932-1952 and included several building styles, ranging from his earlier English cottage style to the more modern 1950s contemporary ranch house.

The last house built by Birkemeier in the Alameda neighborhood — 2830 NE Regents Drive, built in August 1952 — is a classic example of his late 1940s-1950s work, featuring complex overlapping rooflines, cathedral ceilings with large front-facing windows, Roman-style brick on the building face, and landscaping that features terraced rock retaining walls. The Regents Drive site also presents a challenging building lot on a slope, another Birkemeier trademark, sandwiched between two classic Craftsman-style homes built in the 19-teens. This style — the large windows, spacious open-plan rooms, peaked roof and Roman brick — is Birkemeier’s classic 1950s signature, easily recognizable elsewhere in the neighborhood.

A detail from Birkmeier drawings for a mid-1960s ranch house in Tigard. The interior stone work, high peaked ceilings and glass are signature elements of Birkemeier's later work. Courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

A detail from Birkmeier's drawings for a mid-1960s ranch house in Tigard. The interior stone work, high peaked ceilings and glass are signature elements of Birkemeier's later work. Courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

Less recognizable perhaps as Birkemeier-designed homes, but clearly bearing family resemblance in floor plan and building materials, are his earlier homes, which have a steep-roofed English cottage look to them (below).

Birkemeier's English Cottage Style. xxxx NE 32nd Place.

Birkemeier's English Cottage Style. 2603 NE 32nd Place, built in May 1935.

Birkemeier was born October 21, 1905 into a family with a tradition in the building arts. His grandfather Fred designed and built the 1878 Birkemeier-Sweetland house, located near Kellogg Lake, in Milwaukie, Ore. Ken’s father — also named Fred — was a casket maker and fine carpenter.

Birkemeier attended the University of Oregon in the early 1920s, studying architecture. Before becoming a builder, he worked in a butcher’s shop in Milwaukie and then as a draftsman for furniture maker Bruno P. Johns (for whom Portland’s Johns Landing is named). Family members recall that whatever he was doing, Ken was always doodling on paper.

Kenny Birkemeier, right, and a building partner prepare drawings for a new home. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

Birkemeier, right, and building partner Al Jensen (owner of Jensen Floor Covering on East Burnside) review drawings for a duplex that Birkemeier built in Palm Desert. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

As a builder — known as “Kenny” to his contemporaries and the broader construction community — Birkemeier made a reputation as a person who did it all. He drew his own plans, built his own forms, poured his own foundations, did his own framing, and even built his own custom kitchen cabinets, often crafted in place with 4×8 sheets of birch-faced plywood. He had a small crew, which included his brother Ed Birkemeier, Fred Snelling who did the brick and stone work (both exterior, and on decorative fireplaces in many of the homes), Bill Gammon, Howard McDonald, and in later years his son Brent Birkemeier, who worked alongside his father on many projects.

Typically, Birkemeier built his homes on speculation, though there were several larger contract-built homes for buyers who wanted to make sure they had a Birkemeier home designed specifically for them.

He built a remarkable number of houses in the area just south of Fremont on the hilly streets running south — from 32nd place to 29th — a platted subdivision technically called the “Town of Wayne” but generally considered part of the Alameda neighborhood. Take a stroll through this neighborhood, and keep an eye out for the ever-present oculus or round window (left), and the rough brick pattern (right): telltale Birkmeier signatures. You’ll find many of his houses here, most built in the mid 1930s.

oculus-window

rough-brick-pattern1

 

After Alameda was built-out in the mid 1950s, Birkemeier continued to design and build homes near Reed College,  in other expanding eastside neighborhoods, and on Portland’s west side. He built several apartment buildings and duplexes in northwest and southwest Portland, as well as high-end homes on hillside lots.

Family members recall that Birkemeier continued to do the construction himself well into his 80s. At age 84, his family asked him to refrain from being up on the roof of his construction projects, and finally at age 86 he agreed. He died at age 90 on February 11, 1996.

This home, located 3273 NE Fremont, seems to have a little of Birkemeier's old and new style. Note the oculus window above and the decorative brick face up front with the wide clapboard siding toward the rear of the house. The photo was taken about the time the house was built in March 1938. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

This home, located at 3273 NE Fremont, seems to have a little of Birkemeier's old and new style. Note the oculus window above, the decorative brick face, and the wide clapboard siding toward the rear of the house. The photo was taken about the time the house was built in March 1938. Photo courtesy of Dan Birkemeier.

Birkemeier and his first wife Marge were married for more than 50 years and had two sons, Brent and Bruce. Following Marge’s death, he married Ramona.

Ken’s grandson Dan Birkemeier, who grew up in a house built by his grandfather, continues the family tradition with buildings: he is an architect living in Seattle.

His grandfather’s legacy, as Dan Birkmeier experienced, is much wider than just the homes he has left behind.

“It was my grandfather’s idea that I go to college for architecture,” writes Dan. “He suggested I go to the Oregon School of Design, a small school in the Pearl District of NW Portland and in fact he funded most of my schooling. It wasn’t until my later years of school that I discovered the legacy that Ken had in town. I was at the grocery store writing a check and the casher saw my name on the check and asked if I was related to the builder of the same name. I said I was and she told me ‘I remember when a Birkemeier house was the house to have in town.’ That was the first time I’d ever heard such a thing.”

“Unfortunately I never discussed design philosophy with Ken. I would have liked to but I was young and busy with my own life. Quickly after graduating in 1991 I moved to Charlotte North Carolina to work. I saw my grandfather on visits back to town but he died before I moved back. I was able to show him things I was working on but never discussed them in too much detail. One piece of advice he gave me on several occasions was that it was best to design and build my own projects. He said that’s where the money is. That’s how he worked.” 

Homes built by Birkemeier in the Alameda Park addition:

 2372 NE Alameda St.             $6,500             February 1941

3274 NE Alameda St.             $7,800             December 1939

3278 NE Alameda St.             $8,000             January 1936

2715 NE Bryce                       $14,000           September 1947

2831 NE Edgehill Dr.             $20,000           June 1950

2843 NE Edgehill Dr.             $20,000           June 1950

2855 NE Edgehill Dr.             $26,000           June 1950

3273 NE Fremont                                                 August 1939

3245 NE Fremont                                                 May 1939

2033 NE Mason                      $7,500             October 1945

3117 NE Mason                      $9,000             December 1945

2324 NE Regents                    $6,800             August 1940

2830 NE Regents                    $22,000           August 1952

2645 NE Ridgewood Dr.        $6,000             August 1932

3733 NE 22nd                          $10,000           June 1946

4107 NE 22nd                          $9,000             December 1945

3508 NE 28th                          $6,500             June 1945

4030 NE 28th                          $9,000             December 1945

4029 NE 29th                          $10,000           March 1946

3843 NE 32nd Place                                          June 1947

 

This is just a partial list, representing the homes Birkemeier is known to have built in the Alameda Park addition proper. There are many more: no conclusive listing has been found or yet developed. If you would like to share a picture of your Birkemeier home, or a story about what you like about living in one, please send me a note and I will post it here. I will be adding to this material as additional information and photos become available.

Special thanks to the Birkemeier family for their assistance in gathering photos and information for this summary.

-Doug Decker

23 Responses to “Kenneth L. Birkemeier 1905-1996”

  1. Gary Says:

    This is some great work Doug. Thanks for doing it and enlightening us all on this piece of Portland architectural history.

  2. Kenneth L. Birkemeier Says:

    Enjoyed the article about a namesake who has left a wonderful legacy.

  3. Clarisse Messemer Says:

    I have a Birkemeir home built in 1954 (after the last date that you have listed on your website).

    4131 NE Wistaria Dr. My neighbor has a mirror immage house, also a Birkemeir (also 1954).

    Definitely a Berkemier. Same green tile, same terracing materials outside, same curved walls, same decorative brickwork on the chimmney…

    We’re getting ready to sell the house.

    1. Doug Says:

      Hi Clarisse. Thanks for pointing out these two excellent examples of Ken’s work. The brickwork is classic Birkemeier…note the oculus window like brick detail on the front. Sometimes there is an actual window in this space…here it is a brickwork ornament.

  4. Tom Berkemier Says:

    Just came across this site. My father was Kenny Berkemier. Different family but close in name. I really admire the design of these homes!

  5. Renee Weddke Says:

    Thank you for gathering such great information. We live in on of the Brikemeier homes on Edgehill. The building site must have been tough.. Up hill! Great city views. We love entertaining and everyone says how lovely our home is. My husband used to play in the home when he was a young boy as his classmate lived there. No more shag carpet! LOL.

  6. Jeff Jarvis Says:

    Thanks for putting together this information. My wife Geri and I just purchased a Birkemeier at 3205 NE Fremont. We love the view, the style of the exterior and the interior detail work is timeless. Mr Birkemeier spent so much time on little details and it shows. His work is an inspriration to both of us. As we find details on this house we will forward them.


  7. While doing some research on historic homes in Portland.. I came across this.. some of the best work I’ve seen on the history of Portland Homes!

    Aaron Majors
    Broker

  8. Holly and Tim Sweeney Says:

    We just received a photo from our neighbor identifying our home as a Birkemeier. It was mistakenly given a NE Fremont address. It is actually 2554 NE 32nd Pl. We love our home and have particular affection for what we now know is an “occular” window! Friends and acquaintances refer to our home as a “fairytale cottage”. Come by and see it.
    Thank you for your facsinating study!

  9. kenny Says:

    I am actually Kenny M. Birkemeier, grandson of Kenny L. Birkemeier. I was born 1996 the year of his death so I do not have any memory of him but I happened to look up my family name and I found this amazing article. It told me a lot about my grandfather and my uncle Dan.

  10. Robert Says:

    Hi,
    I learned of Birkmeier today on an architectural tour in Palm Springs, CA and note in the picture caption of he and Al Jensen looking at plans of a Rancho Mirage duplex. Is that Palm Desert, CA, and of so do you have more info on his work or other projects here? Excellent blog, thanks.

  11. Sylvia & Gary Groce Says:

    We live in what Ken Birkmeier told us was the first house he built. He stopped by our house in the early 90’s, wanting to show the woman with him, whom we presume to be his second wife, our home. He told us this was the first house that he had ever built (Laurelhurst). He remembers cutting the ornate ceiling beams on a bandsaw in the garage. We of course gave him a tour and he was very happy to see that the house had stood the test of time. We have lived her 25 years now and love this house.

  12. Sylvia & Gary Groce Says:

    Our home in Laurelhurst is at 829 NE 41st Ave. 97232. Come by and see Ken Birkmeier’s beautiful craftsmanship.

  13. Sylvia & Gary Groce Says:

    We forgot to mention Ken Burkmeier built our house in 1932, English style with a rolled roof. Our address is 829 NE 41st Ave. 97232

  14. K.C.Piccard Says:

    I was privileged to grow up in two Birkmeier homes in the Alameda District. Quaint and distinctive. The family room in the basement had a rolled brick fireplace, a wet bar and distinctive black and white tiles surrounding a central top hat and cane pattern.

  15. Lauren Says:

    I think there are 5 or 6 of these homes on NE Alberta Ct and NE 38th. How many homes in Portland did he design?

    1. bob3738z Says:

      Bob H. Says:

      Went to your neighborhood and documented seven Birkmeier homes including 3715 and 3725 NE Alberta Ct., 4905, 4921, 4949 and 4955 NE 38th Ave. and 4910 NE 37th Ave. Documented from “historical permits” section of portlandmaps.com. The seven include two permitted by Al Jensen, Ken B.’s partner as noted above.

      Bob H.

  16. Kathy Says:

    I spent the year for the age of 8 to 18 in one of Ken Birkemeiers apartment buildings. It is now a condo building located at 5715 NE Sacramento. We were the first to live in to the 10 unit building, known then as The Boulders. Bruce built a five unit building next door, called The Flintstone.

  17. Miranda Zambon Says:

    Hello! I found your website via the Sunday paper, and although this site is primarily about the Alameda area, I was wondering if you could advise on how to find out the builder of a home? Reading about Kenneth Birkemeier and especially after seeing the drawing above, I’m curious if he built our house here in the Cedar Hills area. The seller called it a custom built home which was built in 1960, and it has almost the exact same fireplace as in the above drawing. The house has varying ceiling heights, custom kitchen cabinets and paneling that have beautiful veneers in which the wood grain continues from piece to piece. Anyway, any help would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Doug Says:

      Hi Miranda. Thanks for visiting. If you send me your address via e-mail, I will have a look at building and plumbing permits and see if we can find out who built your house. I would also suggest you check out the “resources” tab on my website for suggestions on how you can investigate the history of your house. You can reach me at doug@alamedahistory.org
      -Doug

  18. Paul Says:

    Thanks!
    He was my Great Grandfather, thank you for this information.


  19. Hi, Doug! Thanks so much for posting such great information about Ken Berkemeier. My husband and I recently purchased the home located at 3245 NE Fremont St. which is on your list. We just love it. I know it’s a long shot but I’m hoping to locate a photo of the house at the time it was built. Would it be possible to connect with Dan Berkemeier to see if one exists? The original building permit is indeed in Berkemeier’s name. Thanks so much for considering!

  20. Catherine fetters Says:

    We live on 38th and Alberta Court and there’s a string of seven Berkemeier homes in a row. They wrap from NE 38th on Alberta Court and around to 37th Northeast. We love our home. We were told it was the spec home for that area.

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