Keys To Success – Oregon Home Builders Newsletter

The Oregon Home Builders was a full-service development, design and construction real estate outfit that operated in Portland from its auspicious start in 1912 until bankruptcy in 1917. During that run of profit-making, the company also built more than 125 homes, mostly on Portland’s eastside, (and several in Gearhart at the coast), many of them durable and attractive. We did a deep dive earlier this year into the story of OHB and its interesting president, Oliver K. Jeffery.

AH readers will recall Jeffery was the builder of the Aircraft Factory building at NE 33rd and Broadway, which in reality produced aircraft parts for just a few months in the arc of its full life (which appears to be on hold during the pandemic under multiple layers of street art and graffiti).

OHB was prolific in its advertising and marketing—and selling of what became worthless stock. Hundreds of advertisements in The Oregonian and The Daily Oregon Journal during its five-year run were as focused on selling stock in the company as they were on selling the real estate and houses it was developing.

One of OHB’s tools for promoting itself was a newsletter called The Key to Success, that included what was packaged as news about the homebuilding business, other editorial thoughts and a continued drumbeat of encouragement for investors to sign up now for monthly company stock purchases.

We’ve often wished for a look at this newsletter and recently came across Volume 1, Number 9 of Keys to Success, published on May 15, 1913, thanks to Val Ballestrem and the Architectural Heritage Center Library. We think you’ll enjoy reading it, with grain of salt and benefit of hindsight clearly in mind.

A few things to look for as you click into these for a better look:

  • The many-obstacles pathway version sketched at the bottom left of page 1—offered as the way the average stock company operates—turns out to have been the actual way it worked for OHB, as opposed to the envisioned low-overhead pathway on the right.
  • The Los Angeles Investment Company offered as OHB’s model on page 3 went bankrupt too, and its president Charles Elder was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 months in the federal McNeil Island Penitentiary.
  • There’s two great Craftsman-style homes pictured on page four from somewhere in Laurelhurst. We haven’t gone looking for them yet, but readers might recognize them. It’s possible the one on the left is gone now under commercial development at NE 33rd and Sandy.

The irony about all of this is that the headline “Homes of Merit,” is actually right on. The homes the company built have indeed passed the test of time, some even made it to the National Register of Historic Places.

When we get on the other side of the pandemic, I have an OHB walking tour ready to go, and an illustrated presentation that tells OHB’s fascinating story ready to share.

Always looking for more editions of Keys to Success or other insights about OHB…

Lead paint sinks Billy Rowe’s wall mural

We’ve heard from the property owner working on restoration of the former Billy Rowe’s Tavern building (recently known as Bernie’s Southern Bistro) at the southeast corner of NE 29th and Alberta.

Unfortunately, the mural on the west wall must go.

We’ve been watching this week as an amazing wall-size advertisement from the 1940s has resurfaced during restoration, and as we’ve learned more about Billy Rowe.

O’Cardinal Properties—the current building owner—was as amazed with the find as the neighborhood was, and intrigued with the possibility of incorporating the original material of the painted wall into the renovated space. But testing for lead late last week returned results that have ruled that out.

“We love the signs and would like to preserve it,” wrote O’Cardinal’s Property Manager Monica Geller in a weekend e-mail exchange.

“However, last week we got the paint tested for lead and it came back with extreme lead paint ratings that will not allow us to retain the mural as is, even with a strong clear coat intended to contain the lead paint.”

Geller and her colleagues are disappointed, especially given their interest and track record of adaptively re-using and renovating older buildings. In southeast Portland at SE 14th and Stark, O’Cardinal updated the 1929 Luxury Bread Building, carrying forward aspects of its history—including old siding, photos of the old bakery operation and family photos and stories from the former owners. Here’s a photo from inside Luxury Bread showing how O’Cardinal used a former painted mural there:

Repurposed wall siding inside the Luxury Bread Building recently restored by O’Cardinal Properties, 1403 SE Stark. Due to high levels of lead found in the Billy Rowe’s mural, something like this is not possible, according to O’Cardinal.

“We have a plan to take a hi-res photo and reproduce the image to use on the building to retain some of the heritage, “Geller continued.

“I know it is going to be hard for the neighborhood to see the boards come down,” she acknowledged, “but there is no feasible way for us to keep the mural in place, so it will be removed.”

Still walking

Back in March when the pandemic changed the way the world works, we were amazed and inspired by all the walkers, runners, riders and extra-neighborliness afoot in these Northeast Portland neighborhoods. With all of us under shelter-in-place orders back then and still trying to come to terms with what was going on around us, we needed a new routine, some activity, a little uplift to our spirits and some exercise.

That’s walking.

Back then, we wrote up a few exploratory history walks around the neighborhood, and a little historical perspective on pandemics from 1918. If you haven’t walked those walks, they’re still there for you: the Broadway streetcar loop, the jaunt around the Pearson farm, the Alameda Park perimeter walk.

This afternoon when we were out for a long walk at dusk–which begins about 4:15 p.m. here at the bottom of the year–we were once again impressed with just how many people were out, even in the cold. Most everyone was wearing masks, all of us politely shifting to the other side of the street or up the middle, often with a wave, to make way for walkers headed in our direction. It’s the new social compact: we wondered how in a post-pandemic environment we’re going to train ourselves out of what has become an instinctual response to cross the street.

There’s plenty of other interesting history walks you might add to your walking routine. Don’t forget about the system of alleys between Ainsworth and Prescott from 33rd to 24th. You could cover a lot of territory in that network and get a whole other perspective on the neighborhood. Maybe walk the old Alberta Streetcar route. Or go find and walk around the block where Old Vernon School used to sit and see if you can find the clues of change.

Here’s another idea for a build-your-own history walk: There’s a section here on the blog called The Builders that features biographies of 12 of the most prolific homebuilders in this part of Northeast Portland. With each builder, we’ve also included a pretty complete list of houses and addresses built by that person. Pick out any of the builders and go walk by their work, spot the design or construction similarities.

Go, for instance, to the Kenny Birkemeier entry and string together a route past the addresses of 20 homes he built, all within walking distance. There’s even some old photos to compare against when you get there. You’d get a chance to climb some hills. Could be fun for an old house wonk like you.

If you have a young person in your midst looking for a lesson plan that’s a little different, check out the seven Home History School lesson plans we put together this spring. Good for kids of all ages.

How to get started? Start small with a simple stroll around your own block. There are intriguing clues to look for.

Stay well. Wear the mask. Keep walking.

One more for Billy Rowe

Like a giant postcard from 1946, the western wall of the former Billy Rowe’s Tavern reappeared yesterday at NE 29th and Alberta as workers removed shingle tiles during a major building renovation. When we visited yesterday morning, workers had exposed the vibrant colors of the Coca-Cola ad painted in 1946, but something more had yet to be revealed. Check it out:

The former Billy Rowe’s Tavern, in restoration November 25, 2020.

Naturally, we wondered about Billy.

William Chauncey Rowe and wife Doris Isabelle Rowe opened the tavern at 2904 NE Alberta in 1943. Billy was a commissioner in the Boy Scouts, a member of the Portland Elks lodge and an active member in the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Doris was a member of the Elks Auxiliary. Before going into the tavern business, Billy was vice president of Ballif Distributing Company, a beer distributor based in southeast Portland.

Maybe he’s one of the overcoats here in this photo, from the incredible collection of Oregon Journal photos at the Oregon Historical Society. This photo is not specifically dated, but caption information indicates sometime between 1933-1941 (old car aficionados could probably pin that down, guessing late 1930s).

Photo credit: Oregon Journal Negative Collection; Org. Lot 1368; Box 372; 372A1164

After leaving Ballif Distributing, Billy and Doris operated the tavern until their sudden death on the night of January 2, 1951 in a road accident north of Klamath Falls while returning to Portland. Newspaper reports describe a head-on crash in icy conditions. They were survived by two sons, Earl and Calvin.

The tavern appears to have passed out of Rowe family hands after that, but the name stuck (perhaps because it was painted in three-foot letters across the side of the building…the place was a local institution). In 1957, new owner Joseph Hoover was arrested on charges of promoting gambling on the premises and having a horoscope machine that made small payoffs to customers. Later that year, Portland City Council refused to renew Hoover’s tavern license.

Sometime after that–perhaps when the shingles went up on that west wall covering up Billy Rowe’s name–the place transitioned to Duke’s. Any AH readers able to share a story from the Billy Rowe era?

Update: On December 6th, the owners let us know the mural wall will have to come down due to high levels of lead paint. Click here to read more.

Peeling back the layers

We always love to see layers of history being revealed in buildings and places we think we know. Check out this view from today’s walk up Alberta. Here we are at the southeast corner of Alberta and NE 29th, the building that used to house Bernie’s Southern Bistro.

Looking at the west side of the building from NE 29th. Sunshine!

Workers were carefully removing the green shingles, exposing a huge advertisement for the real thing painted directly onto the original shiplap siding.

According to the permit, it looks like the building is getting a complete renovation, with all interior walls, stairs and fixtures on both floors coming out; construction of a new stair, an upgrade to the old storefront and a complete seismic upgrade. Big job.

Built in 1921-1922 by D.L. Duncan, the building housed multiple businesses in its early days: a repair shop, a shoe store, a print shop. In its middle years and most recently it’s been a place to meet for a drink or a meal. From about 1940 until the late 1960s, it was Billy Rowe’s Tavern and then Duke’s Tavern before becoming Bernie’s Bistro.

Small lettering just below the real thing suggests this advertisement was from the Billy Rowe’s era. Can you read the lettering? Looks like June 11, 1948. We know a few sign painters and will ask around for insights…there’s more to this story.

Alberta was a busy place in the 1920s-1930s. Research we’ve done shows that in 1930, there were more than 200 businesses on Alberta between MLK and NE 33rd, from pool halls to bakeries to grocery stores.

Here’s a post-script on Billy Rowe with another photo of the building later in the day.

Just for fun–and you’ll be forgiven for being distracted by what’s in the foreground–here’s another view of the same building. Yep, that’s the corner of Billy Rowe’s Tavern there on the left by the streetcar, on February 3, 1948, at NE 29th and Alberta. The photo was published in the Portland Transit Company’s 1947 Annual Report to illustrate the end of an era. The caption: “Walt Baker, trolley skipper since 1911, greets Merritt Lutman, pilot of a new Mack bus.”

Steeplejack Brewery coming soon to the church building at NE 24th and Broadway

For more than a century, the old church at the southeast corner of NE 24th and Broadway has been one of our neighborhood’s most visible landmarks, its distinctive Arts and Crafts steeple and bracketed gables signaling “turn here” to generations of neighbors heading home to Irvington, Alameda and points north.

Looking east on Broadway at the corner with NE 24th Avenue, about 1930. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, image 1999-004.319

Built at a time when much of the surrounding land was in transition from agriculture to residential and all the surrounding streets were gravel, this time traveler has witnessed generations of change.

Today, the old church is in the middle of its own significant change, having narrowly avoided being torn down and replaced by a five-story condominium. The Metropolitan Community Church sold the building in April 2019 to two northeast Portland business partners who are now adapting the old church into a brewery.

If you’ve recently passed by in the evenings and seen the stained glass windows all lighted up, you might have wondered what was happening. Neighborhood residents Brody Day and Dustin Harder have been busy taking things apart inside to see exactly what they have to work with and to coordinate with architects, engineers and designers as they develop the concept for the Steeplejack Brewing Company, which they hope to open in the summer of 2021.

The main sanctuary with pews (left), and recently with flooring material removed revealing floor joists. Photo courtesy Harder-Day.

Harder and Day are old college roommates from UC Santa Cruz who shared their first beer together in Austria way back when during a memorable study abroad term. That experience ignited a passion for brewing in Day who went on to become an accomplished home brewer and nationally recognized judge for brewing competitions. Over the years, Day has traveled across North America judging beers (and visiting breweries) and has always thought about how he’d like to start a commercial brewery of his own.

Following a move to Portland, Day connected with Harder and the two started planning a brewing business. In 2018 they began looking at properties and found the old church for sale, then owned by the Metropolitan Community Church of Portland. The congregation had been in the building since 1977 and had made the difficult decision to downsize to a building in Southeast Portland, putting the old church on the market for just over $1 million.

Day and Harder were one of two bids for the building: the other was from a local developer who wanted to demolish the church and build a five-story condo on the site. In April 2019, following a meeting with the pastor and the congregation—and assurance that Harder and Day wanted to keep the building intact—they successfully closed the deal.

Since then, it’s been a flurry of design activity, permitting meetings with the city and explorations of the old building to discover what they were working with structurally, and with the building’s fascinating history.

Opened in October 1909 as the First Universalist Church of Good Tidings, the building has been home to four separate church congregations over the years: First Universalist Church from 1909-1917; Grace English Lutheran Church 1919-1963; First Church of Divine Science, 1963-1977; and Metropolitan Community Church of Portland from 1977-2019.

The church cornerstone was laid by U.S. President William Howard Taft on October 3, 1909 in front of a crowd of 15,000 onlookers who crammed the streets in all directions to watch and listen as Taft set the stone and told the crowd he hoped the church would thrive.

From The Oregonian, October 4, 1909. Taft is pictured here during the cornerstone ceremony. Note church construction still underway in the background (click to enlarge).

A time capsule set by Taft in the cornerstone has since been opened by earlier church congregations.  But the building remains one of few in Portland with the distinction of having been dedicated by a U.S. President. Day hopes to re-establish a time capsule in the same location when the business opens in the summer of 2021.

Over the years, the church has been a source of community and a venue for so many rites of passage: baptisms and christenings, weddings, funerals and the day-to-day offering of hopes and prayers. Day recognizes and affirms the sacred aspects of the building’s former life and wants to honor the space and the stories in a respectful way. His hope is that the building can once again be a community gathering spot, a comfortable place where neighbors of all ages—including families—just want to be.

One key element of the interior will be the brewing deck, which will be front and center at eye level in the bar, allowing visitors a close look at the brewing process.

Rendering of the brewing deck area above, and bar below. Courtesy Harder-Day and Open Concept Architecture.

Steeplejack will serve its own beers brewed on site and will feature guest taps as well. In his years as judge and beer connoisseur, Day has found there aren’t enough breweries who make great tasting low-alcohol content beers. Steeplejack intends to have the finest selection of excellent “sessionable” beers (which means you can have a few without being over the limit for the drive home).

The food menu is still in development, but Day says he’s thinking about a simple and affordable menu of a few excellent dishes that will make people want to come back.

He’s also thinking about how adaptive re-use of the building can carry through to other aspects of the new brewery. All of the tables, chairs and furniture, for instance, will be built from wood salvaged during the interior remodel.

One of the spaces Day is most excited about is the bell tower and steeple itself, which will be opened up from the inside so visitors can look up and admire the matrix of full-dimension structural wood—all cut and placed by hand in a time before power tools.

“The biggest surprise in all of this for me is how extremely well this building was built,” says Day. “So much of what we’re doing in the design is to showcase the quality of the craftsmanship and the pride they took in their work.”

And the name? A steeplejack was the most daring and accomplished worker on a job willing and able to climb to the highest and most precarious perch. To take a risk, to climb with confidence, to get a job done that most others couldn’t or wouldn’t want to do.

The pandemic has slowed things down, without a doubt, but Day is philosophical and feels the unanticipated interruption has actually allowed time to work out the details of their designs and plans, and to prepare the permitting pathway with the city. Watch for construction to begin in earnest soon with significant maintenance and upkeep on the exterior walls, windows and roof, and interior construction to create a tap room, brewing area and other interior brewery and restaurant spaces.

Another Williams Avenue View – Looking South

We’ve come across another outstanding early 1900s vantage point from Williams Avenue that you’re going to want to see (thanks Norm). This one is a nice southward-looking companion to the northward shot we featured a few months back. Be sure to study both and to take a good look at the Sanborn we assembled to get a feel for this long-gone place that was once a hub of activity for this part of Portland.

First, have a good look at the south view; then check out the north view that we’ve seen before. Then let’s discuss.

Looking south on Williams Avenue from Graham. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston.


Looking north on Williams Avenue from Russell. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston.

What do you see?

Let’s start by looking at the northward image, where you can just about see where this southward view was taken. See the picket fence that appears below the steeple of the Immaculate Heart Church and the bushy tree? Nearby, check out the utility pole that is leaning toward the street.

Now, look at the southward view: there’s the picket fence and the bushy tree behind our man in the hat scratching his face (and the leaning utility pole). That should help put things in perspective and establishes the photo was taken from the corner of Graham and Williams.

The crank on the pole (you can see others like it in the northward photo) allows for periodic maintenance of the carbon arc streetlight hanging overheard.

Look how fresh and clean those curbs and sidewalks look. Chances are they were built by Elwood Wiles, a household name you can still see today stamped into sidewalks all over the eastside.

The Willliams Avenue streetcar tracks owned the middle of the street, with streetcars headed north/south to St. Johns, which were shifted over to Union Avenue about 1911. No automobiles to be seen.

Look at all the awnings: in the southward photo shading the west side of the street from morning sunlight (and it might still be somewhat early judging on the length of the shadows that spill out into the street).

Check out the onion-shaped dome from the old Hill Block building at the corner of NE Russell and Williams, which can be seen today in Dawson Park. That intersection was the center of the universe for early Albina and a crucial part of the African-American cultural landscape well up until when it was torn down in 1969. That block has been vacant ever since, but planning conversations are underway.

Beaumont Corner, 1928

Photo friend Norm Gholston has shared another view of a favorite corner, this one shows something important that’s missing, which gives us a good clue about when it was taken. Do you see it (or rather not see it)? Have a good look.

NE 41st and Fremont Avenue, looking southeast, about 1929. Photo courtesy of Norm Gholston Collection.

What’s missing is the Beaumont Market, which exists today immediately adjacent to the far left of this building. Here’s a post we wrote last year that includes a similar but slightly later photo, and beautiful color-pencil renderings of the market building (which came along seven years after the pharmacy), submitted to the city in 1935 by architect Charles Ertz.

Other things to note in this photograph include the absence of the McMarr Stores sign, which was present in the 1929 photo. Our hunch is that this photo was taken soon after construction–late 1928 or very early 1929–and used by J. Benjamin Lowe, Proprietor to get the word out about his new pharmacy, and his phone number. Note the Beaumont exchange was GA (someone trying to phone Proprietor Lowe would pick up the phone and say to the operator, “please ring Garfield 1614”). Do you know about old phone exchanges? Read more here.

The hinged box sitting on the curb: in more snowy climates, a box like this might hold gravel or sand for when the crosswalk and intersection become hard-packed and slippery, but Portland? Maybe. A drop box to keep the bundle of early-morning newspapers dry until the owner opened up? Other ideas?

Our Legacy

It’s 1953.

An African-American family is looking at a home for sale in Northeast Portland’s Alameda neighborhood. A real estate agent takes the family in for a visit, they like it.

Remember what it’s like when you’re checking out a new place hoping you can make it your home? Maybe you think about carpets, curtains, the garden, the view out the window. Where the kids are going to play. It’s exciting and hopeful.

The realtor agrees to write the offer.

But other forces quickly intervene: Portland’s formal and informal systems of racial and economic oppression.

Realtors start talking to realtors. Neighbors start talking to neighbors.

By the end of the week, families on the block have met and decided to pool their money to buy the house out from underneath the African-American family’s offer. Weeks later, the neighbor-owners turn around and sell it on contract to a white family. For several years, envelopes of money pass back and forth across the street and up the block as loans are paid back, knowing glances exchanged.

Welcome to the real world.

The children of those neighborhood families—now in their 70s—shared this story with us, sheepishly. Another example of Portland’s long line of racial intolerance.

As we look back across the years, we must acknowledge the exclusion and privilege that has shaped these neighborhoods as surely as any architect, builder or crushing windstorm ever did.

These layers of racism and intolerance are here with us too, right along with the memories and hopes of the generations. Moving forward means keeping this history visible through an ongoing acknowledgement of its legacy and a conscious commitment to a different response in our daily lives.

Time to make art – Engage in The Change

A few months back we participated in Concordia Conversations, a program about how change has affected Northeast Portland neighborhoods. It was a helpful and provocative gathering involving multiple generations, cultures and perspectives. Our message—as you might guess—was that this has always been a place of change.

Program host, neighbor and artist Jordana Leeb shared a great 25-minute documentary about how recent changes have affected her part of the Concordia neighborhood, which we recommend (you can watch it here).

Continuing to build on the theme this summer, Jordana is curating a community art show called “Engage in the Change.” For now, it will be virtual but later this summer and fall (think Phase 2 opening) she’s hoping to exhibit the art somewhere in the neighborhood.

She’s asking for creativity from you and your family members–art, poetry, music–to explore the topic of neighborhood change. And there’s a chance you might even win some $ for your submittal.

Here are the guidelines:

  • Artwork can include visual art of any kind, written poetry, spoken word, video or music. Cash prizes are available (and there’s a category with a $100 prize for artists under age 18).
  • Art should explore what community means; how our community has changed; how neighborhoods bring us together (or keep us apart); changes you have seen and how they have affected you; what makes us resilient.
  • Deadline for submittal is August 15, 2020.

Here’s a link for more information about this community art show. Plenty of time yet for your creativity, and it would be great to see a bunch of submissions from young people!

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