In the footprint of Old Vernon

In the spirit of knowing that pretty much everything is connected, we were intrigued to learn of the ties between mid-century modern builder Kenny Birkemeier (1905-1996) and the old Vernon School block south of Alberta between NE 22nd and NE 23rd.

Frequent AH readers will recall the story of Old Vernon (which is one of our favorites), the giant wood frame structure that once occupied much of the block bounded by Wygant, Going, NE 22nd and NE 23rd. It’s a fascinating story of Portland’s early school building challenges, the growth of a neighborhood and the all-too-frequent fate of Portland’s early all-wood institutions. And there’s virtually no trace left even though its impact on the neighborhood during its heyday cannot be overstated. Learning about Old Vernon was a bit like a curtain going up to reveal an entirely different neighborhood that once was.

Readers will also recall that Ken Birkemeier was one of Portland’s most prolific and resourceful builders between the mid-1930s and the 1950s. Dozens of his homes, most with a distinct family resemblance of Roman brick, ornamented brick facades and whimsically placed oval windows, can be found in nearby northeast Portland neighborhoods.

So–you’re wondering–how do these stories connect?

(Spoiler alert if you haven’t already read our piece about Old Vernon…maybe you should go do that first.)

In the aftermath of the big fire, the school district contracted with Rose City Wrecking in March 1933 to haul off the burned remains and to demolish and remove anything else still standing on Block 54, which they did. An aerial photo from 1936 shows the footprint of the burned building and lots of open land.

Detail of an aerial photo from 1936 showing vacant Block 54 and the burn scar / footprint of old Vernon School. NE Prescott runs east-west along the bottom of the frame.

The mid-1930s were not a great time for homebuilding in Portland, so Block 54 sat vacant for a few years. The Great Depression killed the real estate market and tightened down on much of the available money to build or to buy. But gradually the market returned and our resourceful Mr. Birkemeier acquired the entirety of Block 54: all 18 lots.

Our review of city permits, prompted by eagle-eyed AH reader Michael Johnson, shows Birkemeier began building in October 1940 on the south end of Block 54 (2225 NE Going and 4621 NE 23rd, to be exact) and worked his way north. He finished the last of the 18 houses on that block in the winter of 1944 with a pair of duplexes at 2210 and 2232 NE Wygant.

Ken Birkemeier was a talented builder, and an effective marketer as well. Many of his homes from that era were featured in The Oregonian, including photos of the houses and occasionally of him too. But a careful review of past issues from those construction years didn’t turn up anything from Block 54.

So here’s an opportunity for you to go walk along the invisible fault lines of the past, from the long-ago schoolyard, to the brand new block of the 1940s, to the changing neighborhood of today. Make no mistake, change is our constant companion. That’s how it always has been and how it should be.  How we change will explain a lot to the future about what we value today.

 

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