Scattered and unidentified in File 1856 at the Oregon Historical Society are pictures of young people preparing food in an old house kitchen and lined up on a front porch looking very determined in their white aprons.
The pictures are piled into a dog-eared manila folder containing random old photos of schools in north and northeast Portland, so at first glance they seemed out of place. Why was a house in the school folder? The photos did have the name “Vernon” written on the back, but they were clearly of a house, not a school.
We made copies of these photos anyway and kept on in our search for information on the old Vernon School. That’s one of our rules of research: you never know how all the parts might fit together, so keep an open mind and gather up the pieces because eventually they might make sense, and you’ll need them to complete the puzzle.
As we’ve learned more about old Vernon School—which occupied the entire block bounded by NE 22nd and NE 23rd, Wygant and Going from 1907-1932—we found references to two different nearby houses, rented by the school board at different times, that provided a learning laboratory for “domestic science.” These insights helped us make sense of the photos.
Launched by Vernon School Principal William Parker, the program started in 1914 in a rented house at 4715 NE 24th (rent was $18 per month) where it ran under the supervision of Mrs. Caroline Redding. References in The Oregonian and a handful of national magazines referred to it then as the Vernon Community House.
In 1917, the program shifted to a different teacher—Mrs. Lois Swafford—and a different house, this one also rented, at 4545 NE 21st. This house was referred to as the Vernon Practice House.
Regardless of which house or what it was called, Vernon’s community-house-practice-house was a pretty resourceful little institution. Students built the furniture, dug, planted and weeded the vegetable garden, made the drapes, sheets and linens, planned and made the meals, planned household budgets and hosted dozens of teas and gatherings to practice their domestic arts. They developed systematic approaches to cleaning and maintenance. Principal Parker dubbed the insight and experience this created as “homecraft,” the art of running a household. Students had the responsibilities and the learning rewards of figuring out how to run a two-story, six-room house; to practice at some life skills that might come in handy down the line.
Over a period of four years between 1914-1918, old Vernon School was a kind of educational mecca visited by leading lights in the education world and the national press to see what this learning-by-doing house was all about. During those years, the neighborhood had an impressive list of visitors that included the head of the Education Department at Harvard University; Ladies Home Journal magazine; Sunset magazine; scholarly education journals; The Country Gentleman, a national-circulation magazine targeted at rural homeowners.
Here’s a July 1915 article from The Country Gentleman, that describes the Vernon Community House. Click the image to enlarge.
Below, an article from Sunset Magazine in October 1918 tells pretty much the same story of the program. Featured in the photo is the Vernon Practice House (the second of the two houses) at NE 21st and Going, which operated after 1917 under the leadership of Mrs. Lois Swafford (inset). Click the image below to enlarge.
Even though old Vernon School has been gone now for 85 years, we wondered how both houses were faring and if their residents had any inkling of the former role these houses played in the neighborhood. So with pictures in hand, we set out to find them.
Investigation by bike, some walking around, a quick look at old city directories and a pre-address change cross-reference turned up the locations pretty quickly. We wondered if the students from the 19-teens would recognize the houses today. Judge for yourself:
From The Oregonian, January 24, 1915
4715 NE 24th Avenue today
We visited briefly with the homeowner here on NE 24th, who has lived in this house for 20 years. He had no idea his house was once part of a school program or, for that matter, that there had been a school just one block over. Most people we talked to, and those we’ve heard from since posting our story on Old Vernon, had no idea of the school’s former presence in the neighborhood.
Continuing on our hunt for old houses, we found and knocked on the front door at the second Vernon Practice House, where we met homeowners Ann Gravatt and Brad Ouderkirk, who were not aware of the home’s history but were interested to learn more. Again, no indications from their knowledge of the house that it was long ago the focus of so much attention.
The second Vernon School Practice House (after 1917). Detail from October 1918 Sunset Magazine (above), and today (below).
4545 NE 21st Avenue today
We shared more vintage photos from the Oregon Historical Society file (below), which they were excited to see. Their children are about the ages of the students in the photos from 1917, which prompted Ann to ask her son if he was going to be cooking dinner for the family…
Written on the back of this photo: “Vernon School boys, Portland, Oregon, who have been learning ‘fantastic cookery.'” Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, file #1856. Our best guess is that these photos were taken by Portland Public Schools in fall 1917 or spring 1918.
When the current homeowners saw this photo: “Yes, that is definitely our dining room.” Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, file #1856.
After several feature-length stories in The Oregonian in the mid 19-teens, and many blurbs promoting upcoming community teas, fundraisers and social events at the house (all catered and staffed by eager students), newspaper references to the house stop in late 1918. No clues in the archives, and no one to ask about what it all meant or how the Vernon Practice House ended.
Did Mrs. Swafford leave? Did the return of soldiers at the close of World War I swamp the rental market and return the practice house into actual use? We know that Principal Parker, a key leader of the effort, was at Old Vernon until 1920 when he was transferred to the Albina Homestead School at NE Beech and NE Mallory streets. Did he take the program with him when he left?