Oregon Home Builders: A Company History, 1912-1917

The story of the Oregon Home Builders is one of a big vision that ended in bankruptcy and likely even unprosecuted fraud. But it’s also a story of productivity and lasting accomplishment, with works of careful design and craftsmanship that have survived a century.

Founded in 1912 by a group of established Portland and Willamette Valley businessmen, OHB’s primary mission appears to have been to make a lot of money, to use as much of other people’s money as possible to do that, and to benefit from skyrocketing growth in real estate and in-migration to the Portland area in the years following the 1905 Lewis and Clark World’s Fair, which had put Portland on the map.

Officially, the company’s prospectus, published in 1912 in a slim, attractive hardcover book, put it like this:

“Early in the year 1912, a number of successful Portland business men, confident of the wonderful future of the metropolis of the Pacific Northwest, organized The Oregon Home Builders for the purpose of purchasing, developing, sub-dividing and selling real estate in and around the city of Portland and to finance and build modern homes on its own tracts for sale on monthly payments like rent… to participate in the golden harvest to be reaped in Portland through its certain growth, prosperity and development within the next few years.”

Consider the primary organizers of the company: the chief attorney and the general manager of Portland Railway Light and Power, which was building the essential and widespread transportation system that enabled Portland’s eastside expansion; a leader of the Portland Retail Merchant’s Association; the president of a major lumber company; several bankers and accountants; one of the leading automobile dealers of the day; a charismatic and successful 24-year-old real estate broker from a prominent Portland family named Oliver King Jeffery (who also happened to be related to the bankers and accountants). Add in a few other friends and relatives: a successful farmer from the Newberg area, the former mayor of Newberg, and a captain of heavy industry from back east (also related).

 

Oliver King Jeffery, 1916
From the Photographic Business and Professional Directory, American Publishing Company, 1916.

 

This group incorporated in early 1912 as the Oregon Home Builders with Jeffery as its president and a borrowed corporate strategy from the Los Angeles Investment Company, led by Charles A. Elder, who was known at the time across California as the “King of the Homebuilders.” Elder’s company had become that state’s most prolific builder of homes, arranger of financing and developer of real estate.

OHB liked what it saw to the south and structured itself much like Elder’s company, where investors put up the money to start and fuel operations by buying stock that would turn to profit once the company started actually selling homes. Following several trips to L.A. to witness Elder’s success and methods, new president Oliver K. Jeffery returned to Portland fired up and ready to raise capital.

Multiple references to the California approach, and the math of its investments, were quoted liberally in the original 1912 OHB prospectus, as was this perfect description of what was happening across Portland’s eastside:

“The development of suburban acreage into city property is one of the surest forms of profit earning known. In every growing city there are a number of people who have had the foresight to anticipate the growth of population and the consequent increased demands for housing facilities. As a city grows, spreads, expands in each direction, new neighborhoods spring up, farms are cut up into lots, streets cut through, sidewalks and city improvements installed, homes built, stores, churches and schools are established, and as if by some magic wand, what but a short time before was a truck farm or woodland, or field, is soon an integral part of the city: and in this transformation men and women have made fortunes.”

Oliver K. Jeffery was prominent in the Portland social scene as a leading Rosarian, later credited with inventing the Rose Festival Parade, and even at age 24 had helped build the successful commercial and residential real estate firm of Keasey, Humason and Jeffery. His family owned and developed much of the King’s Heights area on Portland’s westside (his mother Nautilla was a daughter of the King family). So when he started talking about real estate, people wanted to listen. Here’s the grand plan Jeffery spelled out in The Oregonian on February 9, 1913 as a paid advertisement. Note the reference to 1000 % profit, an early signal of the group’s underlying intention.

From The Oregonian, February 9, 1913

 

As it tried to create a financial head of steam, OHB’s early advertising push was marked more by pitches for investment and financial return than anything actually related to home ownership or home building, but that would follow once the company had sufficient assets to make the thing go. Here’s a sample of what OHB told readers of The Oregonian and The Daily Oregon Journal on a frequent basis in 1912-1913.

From The Oregonian, December 29, 1912

 

Pitches like this must have been successful because by 1915, OHB was reporting it had more than 1,000 stockholders from across the state. The company’s vision for what it was trying to create—which seemed in its early days to be mostly about selling stock, not houses—was evident in this help wanted ad it placed for more salesmen:

“Large corporation can use bright, active salesmen in every city in Oregon and Washington to sell the best home building stock offering ever submitted. The profits to the investor are very large.”

Once capitalized, OHB did start buying property in what it termed “first class” subdivisions being platted like Laurelhurst, Alameda Park and Olmsted Park, and it concentrated particularly near streetcar lines. It even bought and sold some home properties at the coast, where Jeffery had been active as a real estate agent before OHB. In the first two years, the company also relocated its offices twice, from the 5th floor of the Corbett Building to the 14th floor of the Yeon Building, and then finally to a prestigious suite of offices on the 13th floor of the Northwest Bank Building (known today as the American Bank Building, 621 SW Morrison).

And then in 1913, encouraged by a rising local economy, OHB began building homes.

At the bottom of this article is a partial list by year that we’ve gleaned from reading every entry about the company in The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal between 1912-1921, and from a study of building permits we completed in 2010.

OHB’s principal architect during the early years was George Asa Eastman whose talent is still visible today in the homes he designed. Eastman was born in Albany, New York on January 16,  1880 and arrived in Portland in 1900. He worked for a time as a salesman, window dresser and furniture designer, marrying Lillian Key Brooks in 1906. City directories from 1911-1916 list him as an architect. During those years Eastman kept a busy practice of his own as architect and homebuilder, but he also worked for OHB. Eastman traveled in social circles with both Jeffery and Edward Zest Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company, which developed the Alameda neighborhood.

Eastman’s early work is notable for its Craftsman and Prairie School influence. Check out the Zimmerman-Rudeen House at 3425 NE Beakey; the George and Lillian Eastman House at 2826 NE Stuart, which he designed and lived in; 2747 NE 18th; 2442 NE 24th; 2803 NE 24th; 5620 NE Cleveland; 2334 NE 25th, 49 Briarwood Court, Lake Oswego. All of these bear strong family resemblance. Three of his homes in Northeast Portland are on the National Register of Historic Places. He was a talent.

George and Lillian Eastman home, 2826 NE Stuart. Designed and built by Eastman in 1912. He and his family lived here from 1913-1915 before moving to Detroit, Michigan where Eastman worked for Associated Builders Co. before his untimely death in 1920 at age 40.

 

Perhaps Eastman saw the writing on the wall here in Portland: he and Lillian and their two children George and Virginia left in 1916 for Detroit, Michigan where the design and building of high-end homes was going strong. Eastman’s architectural career was brief: he died on January 25, 1920 and is buried in Birmingham, Alabama—Lillian’s hometown—where Lillian, George Jr., Virginia, and infant daughter Jane moved following George’s death.

After Eastman left Portland, architect Max Meyer took over briefly as lead architect for OHB, before leaving to start his own private practice in 1917, where he advertised himself as “formerly with Oregon Home Builders,” signaling the company’s lingering cachet even after it eventually closed its doors.

On the construction side of the business, many of the city building permits taken out by OHB had H. Riley Linville’s name on them, who for a while was chief plumber and partner in the Linville-Myers Plumbing Co. The full list of carpenters, laborers, day workers, superintendents and other OHB employees remains unknown.

These building professionals knew what they were doing. In 1915 they built a conveniently located workshop and warehouse at NE 33rd and Broadway, which in late 1916 was expanded into the building on that corner we know today as the former Gordon’s Fireplace Shop which later figured in another very brief but failed Jeffery vision known as the aircraft factory. Little more than a big shed at first and then later a full three-story building with milling equipment, that corner was a manufacturing hub for built-in cabinets, shelves, window and door casements and furniture that went into OHB homes. And they just kept building houses, often multiples in a block bought by OHB, and for individual clients who had picked a particular home design from their catalog. Some were modest and run of the mill. Others were show houses.

From The Oregonian, June 10, 1917. The house above is at 2931 NE Dunckley; below is 3024 NE Bryce. Both built by OHB. All of Portland was readdressed in 1931.

 

During these busy years, Oliver K. Jeffery weighed in—part company president, part civic booster and part confidence man—with content and quotes that were curiously well placed in the paper’s news reporting on the days when OHB ads appeared elsewhere in the paper. This was not an uncommon phenomenon in early journalism at The O, which ranged well beyond the real estate pages. Here’s a sample:

 

From The Oregonian, May 14, 1916

As OHB matured in its short five-year lifespan, the company added employees and different business lines, mimicking its California role model. Ads listed the company’s busy organizational structure: “Architecture Department, Construction Department, Real Estate Department, Land Sales Department, Rental Department, Repair Department, Loan Department, Financial Department, Insurance Department.” They even produced a monthly newsletter called “Keys to Success” which was sent to all stockholders. In one flashy newspaper advertisement, Jeffery boasted that OHB was the largest and best homebuilder in the Portland area. Discreetly placed classified ads sought additional salesmen:

“Energetic hustler who has ambition and desire to locate permanently with rapidly-growing institution. Splendid future to the right party. The Oregon Home Builders, 1330 Northwestern Bank Building.”

Other discreet ads, usually in the “Loans Wanted” classified section like this one from 1916, showed the company was still trying to find more money:

“Want $20,000 private money at 7 percent, best security offered. Financial Department, The Oregon Home Builders, 1330 Northwestern Bank Building”

For a time, the company contemplated creating a plans and kit home department like Charles Elder had in California. In late 1915 OHB produced an 86-page catalog of home designs called The Home Beautiful Book: “The best home plan book on the market” (which we have searched and searched for but never seen). In August 1916, Jeffery put his expansion ideas into words:

“We operate our own warehouse and mill for the construction of the built-in features of the homes we are building. These same facilities will permit us to build ready-built houses for export, about which we are having a flood of inquiries especially from the warring nations where labor is at a premium. We can take care of this business without additional investment in equipment and it will give us the opportunity to buy thousands of feet of additional timber for manufacturing these as soon as we can get the ships to deliver them. It means employment for several hundred more skilled workmen right here in Portland and the resulting increased demand for homes for these men.”

Playing against type, in 1915 OHB launched a rental department and brought in a high-powered rental agent from St. Louis named G. Gilbert Rohrer, who lasted about 12 months before leaving to start his own company. Given Jefferey’s expressed bias for home ownership, Rohrer may have never felt quite at home managing rentals at OHB. But as Portland’s building and buying economy began to slow down, the rental economy stayed strong and the company wanted to keep a hand in the rental business. After all, a percentage of home renters did become home buyers. Rohrer was replaced by John A. Gravley.

The peak of the company’s short life may have come in 1916 when OHB’s lead architect George Eastman designed and built a custom home for Jeffery and his wife Margaret: the three-story Dutch Colonial Revival that still stands at the corner of NE Bryce and NE Regents. The company had hit its stride: it was capitalized (or seemed to be), had a system for production and track record of well-made homes, and was extremely well networked. The new Jeffery home would be a showpiece of just what OHB could do. And it would be highly visible from the Broadway Streetcar line, a beacon to impress would-be investors and potential home buyers.

From The Daily Oregon Journal, June 6, 1915

The house is unique for many reasons, including its sheer scale and size, which is unusual for Dutch Colonial Revival-style homes. Its expansive grounds with reflecting pool and pergola. Its pie-shaped lot, which is actually three individual tax lots. Former residents Ted and Julie Seitz bought and restored it after two decades of decline and hard use and successfully nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. Quoting from its national register nomination form:

The Oliver and Margaret Jeffrey House is an intact Dutch Colonial Revival design drafted and built by the Oregon Home Builders for Oliver K. and Margaret M. Jeffrey in 1915-1916. This wood-framed, two- and-one-half-story residence is oriented to the southwest and has an unusual cross-gambrel roof form. It has specially milled 10-inch beveled siding, asphalt shingle roofing with attached copper downspouts and gutters, two external granite chimneys, porticoes supported by massive Tuscan columns on its front and west side facades, and a porte-cochere with Tuscan columns on its rear facade.

In an interesting Jeffery family note, in 1920, older brother Edward J. Jeffery Jr., a prominent Portland automobile dealer, moved in to a house within line-of-sight at the northwest corner of NE 29th and Bryce.

Not long after completing the Jeffery House, OHB built another stately and carefully constructed mega-house, this time for board member Thomas Prince, also visible from the streetcar line. This three-story brick Georgian looms over the Alameda Ridge at the intersection of NE Alameda and NE Regents. It’s also deservedly on the National Register of Historic Places, and also an Eastman design. A few years back we visited the Thomas Prince House and shared photos and insights about its early residents which you can read here.

From The Oregonian, July 22, 1917

 

In addition to the two beautiful houses near Alameda Ridge, 1916 may have been the year it seemed like OHB was everywhere. The company even premiered their own postcards to get the word out that they wanted to build you a house:

Postcard front and back featuring one of the most popular bungalow designs from the Oregon Home Builders, likely the work of George A. Eastman. Courtesy of Steve Dotterrer and the Architectural Heritage Center, used with permission.

 

1916 was evidently a successful time for Jeffery personally as well. A series in The Oregonian called “Prominent Portlanders Who Motor” featured information about his personal vehicles and association with the Rose Festival parade:

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1916

 

And then at Christmas 1916, in a major crossover not seen in the homebuilding business, OHB even opened a retail store reinforcing its brand and selling locally-made toys and decorations:

From The Oregonian, December 15, 1916

 

Despite the success and notoriety of the two mega houses on the Alameda ridge, Jeffery’s prominence and the company’s visibility in Portland life, by 1917 Portland’s economy and real estate market was beginning to slump and Jeffery’s path had begun to change.

Early 1917 saw an increase in the number of stockholders who were selling off large blocks of OHB shares by confidential blind box classified ads in The Oregonian. The county’s annual tax delinquency list published in February identified 15 OHB properties owing taxes dating back to 1915. And OHB’s “for sale” classified ads shifted away from homes and city property to agricultural acreage in the Willamette Valley and Montana. Something was clearly going on. And then this in a May 2, 1917 advertisement, as if to staunch any whispers:

“Guaranteed. That is what we offer you and stand back of with our reputation. We are here to stay—you can always find us. The Oregon Home Builders, established since 1911.”

In August, the company bought a brand-new Ford (listed in the new car purchase list in the newspaper…yes there was such a thing when cars were a new and uncommon thing). And then people began to leave. Salesmen first and then Alfred R. Johnson the general manager in early October. By then, the only name still associated with OHB was Earl H. Fry who specialized in agricultural land sales.

By late October 1917, the company dropped quietly into bankruptcy, taken over by a creditors’ committee. Jeffery’s name no longer appeared on OHB materials. No newspaper even mentioned the bankruptcy until four years later, though ads touting OHB farm properties appeared status quo in the newspapers until late 1917. The creditors’ committee was quietly maneuvering to sell off assets while it could in the months after bankruptcy.

By 1918, having financed the company’s operations but not received their promised profits, most stockholders were left with worthless certificates. Vacant lots that never sold had been fully mortgaged by OHB leadership and were accumulating back taxes. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Here’s the only printed explanation we’ve ever found about what happened, in the form of a letter to the editor from a disappointed stockholder and a response in January 1921:

 

From The Oregonian, January 21, 1921

So what happened to Oliver K. Jeffery?

In January 1918, the Jefferys sold the flagship Alameda Park home to the president of Inman-Poulsen Lumber Company. Then in early March 1918, in a spectacular public announcement covered prominently by the newspapers, Jeffery sued his wife for divorce, and her alleged lover for $100,000 for “alienation of affection.” One week later, with no discernable change in circumstances, he withdrew both suits, but not long after, the couple split. In October 1918, Jeffery enrolled as a corporal in the WWI tank corps and went to training, but was never assigned to duty nor sent out of the Portland area. His interest had fully shifted to flying his personal airplanes and thinking about airplane-related business ventures.

Oliver K. Jeffery, from Who’s Who in Oregon, 1911

 

In 1919 Jeffery traveled for several months in Mexico, the reason given in his passport application to “investigate Mexican lands.” Returning to Portland in the spring, he published a piece in The Oregonian entitled “Mexico, vast horn of plenty, with undeveloped resources needed in U.S.”

Later that year Jeffery formed the Pacific Aviation Company with the notion of running scheduled airline service, backed by powerful Portland business interests. When that didn’t pan out, he formed the Oregon, Washington, Idaho Aircraft Company to do the same, traveling to Bend and to La Grande to meet with local officials and investors about establishing a possible company headquarters. By 1920 he had moved on to form his own distributorship in Portland, “O.K. Jeffery Airplanes,” which sold several Avro and Curtis airplanes. Later that year Jeffery moved to Los Angeles, where he was listed for several years in city directories as “aviation manufacturer.”

From The Oregonian, October 28 1917. OHB was in receivership when this was taken. The story that accompanied the photo quoted Jeffery at length about his flying adventures and reported that he was visiting “various flying camps in the east” and was organizing a company to manufacture parts for airplanes. Nothing said about the company that just had crash landed taking investors funds along for the ride.

 

Jeffery eventually found his way back to Portland. In 1924 he was the general manager of a company that existed only on paper called Blue J which attempted to bribe Portland City Commissioner Charles P. Keyser with Blue J company stock in exchange for control of a series of automobile campsites the company hoped to build around the city. Keyser was exonerated. Jeffery and his fellow Blue J board members were publicly admonished by City Council for their carelessness and their intent to influence public decisions.

Two years later he entered the mortgage business, opening a company called First Bond and Mortgage, which did not survive the Great Depression. By then—after the divorce and another brief marriage that ended in divorce—he moved in with his mother Nautilla in a big house in Northwest Portland where he lived for more than a dozen years—referred to as a “capitalist” in business directories—until his death at age 46 in December 1936.

 

What remains more than 100 years later is a paper trail of news stories, advertisements and court cases that combine to tell the story of an ambitious but flawed and failed business venture. In an interesting post script, Jeffery’s California mentor Charles Elder was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 months in the federal McNeil Island Penitentiary.

Out on the ground in Portland’s neighborhoods where life goes on, the houses built by Oregon Home Builders—embodying the work of nameless crafts people—have continued to speak for themselves by being lived in and loved by their Portland families.

 

Listing of houses built by Oregon Home Builders

This list has been gleaned from a careful review of newspapers between 1912-1921 and from a study of building permits in the Alameda Park plat. In most cases, OHB classified ads did not provide specific addresses or even general vicinities. Any specific address listed here has been verified as an OHB-built home. We’re certain there are a number of OHB homes not on this list and we’ll do our best to keep it up to date as we find more. Our best guess is that during the arc of OHB’s existence, they may have built between 125 and 150 total homes.

 

1912 (~2)

Alberta Street (the listing did not provide an address)

4221 NE Glisan

 

1913 (~17)

Eight houses near NE 39th and Sandy, all believed demolished

3141 NE Multnomah

3211 NE Multnomah

3200 Block NE Multnomah (two homes, both demolished, built concurrent with 3211 & 3141; Jeffery lived briefly in 3211)

Near Jefferson High School (no address given)

Four cottages in Gearhart, Oregon (no address given)

 

1914 (~32)

Two houses at SE 28th and Tibbetts (not found)

Four houses at NE 23rd and Wasco (not found)

NE 33rd and Wasco (not found)

Five houses in Carlton, Oregon

Several houses in Astoria, Oregon

Purchased 18 lots in Irvington, no addresses given

2803 NE 24th

4323 NE 26th

4807 NE 29th

8719 SE Alder

1734 NE Broadway

836 N. Buffalo

3123 NE Dunckley

3135 NE Dunckley

3229 NE Dunckley

3259 NE Dunckley

2233 NE Mason

A house on SE Stark in the Altamead plat (not found)

916 N. Stafford

8730 SE Washington (postcard house)

8836 SE Washington

2314 NE Wygant

*In 1914, the company reported it had built 52 houses.

 

1915 (~20)

1216 NE Alberta

3024 NE Bryce (photo)

3033 NE Bryce

3128 NE Bryce

3140 NE Bryce

2931 NE Dunckley (Walkup/Thomas – photo 911)

3005 NE Dunckley (Lemkuhl – photo 931)

3115 NE Dunckley

8637 SE Morrison

3104 NE Regents

2523 Skidmore

2607 NE Skidmore

2613 NE Skidmore

2824 SE Yamhill

3407 SE 20th

SE 22nd and Hawthorne (two houses, not found)

4142 SE 25th

3535 NE 25th

3930 NE 29th

 

1916 (~15)

2903 NE Alameda (Thomas Prince house)

5927 NE Alameda (postcard house)

5935 NE Alameda

2915 NE Dunckley

5534 NE Hoyt

435 NE Laurelhurst Place

1923 SE Pine

2023 SE Pine

2043 SE Pine (demolished)

4706 NE Sandy (demolished)

2003 NE Stanton

2017 NE Stanton

8004 N. Van Houten

1632 N. Webster

225 SE 20th

235 SE 20th (postcard house)

3636 SE 21st

1816 SE 24th

3426 NE 21st

1726 NE 24th (photo – built for Prince)

3912 NE 32nd Place

1522 NE 49th

1534 NE 49th

 

1917 (~24)

2930 NE Bryce

3006 NE Bryce

3276 NE Bryce

3284 NE Bryce

3296 NE Bryce

5605 N. Detroit

2717 NE Mason

2807 NE Mason

54 NE Meikle Place

2409 SE Stephens

6822 SW Virginia

6834 SW Virginia

4815 NE 11th

3434 NE 17th

3444 NE 17th

3436 NE 21st

3446 NE 21st

1738 SE 24

1804 SE 24th

1816 SE 24th (photo and story)

1816 SE 24th

1826 SE 24th

5937 NE 30th

2112 NE 51st

SE 21st and Hawthorne (19-unit two-story apartment planned but never built)

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