Alameda’s C.J. and Lillian Smith House: Setting the record straight on C.C. Rich

When Dr. Charles Johnson Smith and Lillian Belle Guillford Smith built their mansion on Alameda Ridge in 1915, they had just come off his unsuccessful campaign for Oregon Governor, losing by a convincing margin to Republican James Withycombe, but considering a run for some other office or public service. They were also launching a new chapter in their lives—relocating to Portland from a quarter-century of public life and Dr. Smith’s medical practice in Pendleton.

Their new home at 864 The Alameda (readdressed during the Great Renumbering as 2834 NE Alameda) symbolized that ascendency: a graceful blend of English country house and Arts and Crafts style; a commanding view of downtown with a presence on the ridge among neighbors who were the captains of industry and Portland society; plenty of room to entertain.

The relatively unformed Alameda Park addition spreading out around them was just six years old and less than 15 percent of the available lots had been bought or built when the Smiths acquired two lots at the bend of The Alameda—as the street was known until the early 1930s—and hired local architect Charles C. Rich to design their dream home. Because of Smith’s prominence in the public eye, and the growing interest in residential development in this area, his real estate choices made news:

From The Oregon Journal, August 1, 1915

Homebuilding was in a slowdown due to economic conditions, so any building news was good news, and local newspapers paid close attention to milestones in their construction process. As the summer of 1915 unfolded, a series of short news items documented issuance of the building permit to builder James L. Quinn; excavation on the ridge and framing of the foundation as well as advertising for plumbing and electrical bids on August 25th; and construction of the retaining wall above Regents Drive on October 3, 1915. Capping off all the construction news coverage was this final piece, which appeared in the Oregon Journal on March 19, 1916:

In the 1980s, design of the home was mistakenly credited to Portland architectural giant Ellis Lawrence, who was active at this same time and in the same style, and who was friends with architect Charles C. Rich and with Smith family daughter Gwendoline (who in a big society wedding in the family home in 1917 married Harry Ashley Ely, another member of that friend group). All three men were involved in formation of the City Club of Portland. Rich and Lawrence were also faculty colleagues at the University of Oregon School of Architecture.

The original building permit documents, multiple news stories from 1915-1916, and the actual blue prints (which still exist, against all odds) make it very clear this house was designed by Charles C. Rich, not Ellis Lawrence. Just wanted to set that record straight.

The Smiths lived in the home until 1927, followed by the Arthur and Louise Nicolai family until 1946; Emily and Earl Grove until 1961; and the Kuzmaak family until 2019. The house was recently completely renovated by the Arnal family.

Carl F. Ruef, Alameda florist and builder

Five homes in the Alameda neighborhood were built by a multi-talented “moonlighting” florist during the boom years of the 1920s.

During the Great Depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Alameda florist and home builder Carl F. Ruef lost his fight with his Alameda neighbors and the City of Portland to open a greenhouse and flower shop at NE 24th and Fremont. But his local handiwork survives as a testament to the resourcefulness of that time, the chutzpah of his big mid-life move, and the boom times of homebuilding in the mid 1920s.

Ruef built and lived in the Mediterranean-style home at 2208 NE Regents from 1924-1930 before building and moving into the small Tudor revival style home at 2425 NE Fremont. Both homes survive today and were bookends of his Alameda experience.

​​From The Small Home: Financing, Planning Building, Monthly Service Bulletin No. 41, July 1925. Published by The Architects’ Small House Service Bureau of the United States, Inc. This was the home of Carl F. and Florence Nichols Ruef from 1924-1930. Prior to Portland’s Great Renumbering of 1930-1931, the home was originally addressed as 742 Regents. Today it is 2208 NE Regents.

Carl F. Ruef was a first-generation American from German immigrant parents who was born in Claremont County Iowa on May 20, 1879 and grew up in Salem, Oregon. With his brother Edward, Ruef established the largest floral greenhouse operation in Oregon outside of Portland near the intersection of 17th and Market Street in Salem, with a retail storefront in downtown Salem. In the 19-teens Ruef, built a reputation as Salem’s leading florist, knowledgeable about all aspects of flower growing, gardening, and the cultivation of fruits and berries.

From the Capital Journal, October 31, 1916.

Carl Ruef lived at home with his parents until age 39, when in a bold moment after their deaths he sold the Salem greenhouses and florist business, married Statesman-Journal newspaper social columnist Florence Elizabeth Nichols (ten years his junior), had a baby daughter Mary, and moved to Portland.

Once in Portland, Ruef first appears in city directories as a gardener, living with wife and daughter at 2328 SE Yamhill Street. Evidently, he was also preparing to launch a career as a homebuilder. In 1923, he built 1832 SE Hazel (where the family lived briefly), and two homes that share a back fence: 3527 NE 29th Avenue and 2816 NE Ridgewood. In 1924, Ruef is listed in city directories as a builder; the Ruef family was living in the home he built at 2208 NE Regents, which still stands today.

This third home known to be built by Ruef—located on the southeast corner of NE 22nd and Regents—appeared in several publications, including a catalog of building plans published by the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau. Accompanying the 1925 photo above is the following short story and a quote from Florence Ruef about the house and its landscaping:

1924 was a busy year for new homebuilder Ruef: he built the Regents, Ridgewood and NE 29th Avenue houses and the home at 3834 NE 23rd.

Starting in December 1925, the Ruefs attempted to sell the Regents house for $9,000, advertising it as follows: “Choice Spanish bungalow, a positive sacrifice by owner, tile roof, oversize grounds, gas fired hot water heater, illuminated at night.”

But the Regents house didn’t sell and the Ruef family continued to live there until 1930 when they moved into the final home he built, the tiny English Tudor at 2425 NE Fremont.

Meanwhile in the late 1920s, Ruef turned back toward the floral business, opening and then later selling the Irvington-Alameda Floral Company at 1631 NE Broadway.

The Great Depression years of the early 1930s were a challenging time for the Ruef family and for most families in Portland. They continued to live in the small English Tudor on Fremont where they rented out one of the three tiny bedrooms for $12 per month. On March 22, 1931 Ruef advertised the room for rent in one part of the classified ads, and in a different section sought a loan offering the house as collateral: “Want $2,750 on $8,000 new residence, 6 percent no brokerage fee.” He was evidently trying to capitalize a new floral business.

Working out of the small house on Fremont, Ruef attempted to turn his florist know-how into an income stream for his family, initially growing flowers in the backyard and eventually seeking city permission to put up a small sign advertising the business, and later to convert the garage into a greenhouse.

From The Oregonian, May 13, 1931

In May 1931 he requested a zone change and permission to put up a sign for his flower business facing Fremont: the lot to the west, location of today’s Childroots Daycare, was vacant during those years as was the residential lot to the east. But neighbors didn’t like the idea of businesses in the Alameda Park Addition period, stemming in part from the original deed restriction prohibiting businesses in the neighborhood, and complained to the city which in December shut down both the sign request and later the zone change which would have allowed Ruef to open a small flower shop.

From The Oregonian, December 31, 1931

This annotated photograph from a rainy day in 1935 (click to enlarge) shows the home Ruef built at 2425 NE Fremont where he wanted to establish a flower shop, and the home he built in 1924 at 2208 NE Regents in upper left. The vacant lots either side of the Fremont house would have been perfect for the greenhouse he had in mind. Note: the Broadway Streetcar waiting at the corner of Fremont and 24th in front of the Alameda Pharmacy; the gas station on the northwest corner; and the vacant lots on both the southeast and northeast corners. Original photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2005-005.1421.2. For more views of this intersection, click here.

Due to the strong neighborhood opposition, the Ruefs gave up on the home-based business idea and in 1932 rented space at 3125 East Burnside for a new business, Carl Ruef Floral. They continued to live at 2425 NE Fremont and grow some flowers under a revocable city permit. The 1940 census found all three there, listing Carl at age 60, proprietor of a florist shop; Florence, 48, was keeping house; and daughter Mary, then 20, was a model of ladies’ apparel.

From the Oregon Journal, August 29, 1939

When Carl died suddenly one year later in December 1941, the family was living at 1412 SE 25th. His death certificate notes he was a “retired florist and landscape architect.”

Florence and Mary continued to live together until 1943, when Mary moved to Chicago with her new husband Howard Fay, and Florence remarried Portland railroad dispatcher Olof Olsson. Mary was back in the Portland area in the mid 1970s, remarried after her first husband’s death, working as a real estate agent until her own passing in 1985. Florence lived briefly in the late 1950s with her new husband in a Las Vegas trailer park before returning to the Portland area where she died in 1989 at age 100.

Fixing the Perfect Labyrinth

Those nice sweeping bends leading north from Knott Street between NE 29th and 31st in the Alameda neighborhood are not there by accident: they were put there on purpose to solve a very specific problem.

But there was a slow-moving accident that made them necessary and it involved bad the absence of planning, perhaps a measure of greed and too little communication, plus the passage of time. Figuring out this back story has been a bit of a puzzle, which is fine because it represented an historic puzzle on a scale never attempted back in the day, more than 100 years ago.

You know the bends we’re talking about. Take a look:

Google Earth image showing the area bounded by Siskiyou, 29th, 33rd and Knott which posed major challenges to developers in the 19-teens until the city came up with a simple idea but hard-to-achieve plan. Toward the bottom of the photo, note the curved streets leading north off Knott at NE 29th, NE 30th and NE 31st.

Understanding Plats and Subdivisions

To understand what happened here, it helps to know about plats and subdivisions, which are different than actual neighborhood names. Portland is made up of more than 900 plats. A plat is a localized engineering plan and legal survey for development of a subdivision that shows the precise location of streets and lots. Back in the day developers gave these plats names that would catch a prospective home buyer’s eye, or that meant something to the developer.

Today’s Alameda neighborhood, for instance, is made up of 23 separate plats, all filed at different times by different developers who were competing with each other and speculating on market conditions when they bought chunks of what had been old homesteads and farms claimed in the 1850s and 1860s. There was indeed an Alameda Park plat (filed in 1909 by the Alameda Land Company), but it’s only one piece of what the City of Portland today refers to as the Alameda neighborhood. 22 other subdivision plats—with names now lost to time except on property legal descriptions—make up today’s neighborhood.

Here in today’s Alameda we’re made up of the following plats: Alameda Park, Olmsted Park, Meadow Park, Linlithgow Park, Homedale, Irvington, Irvingdale, Irvingwood, Edgemont, Charleston’s Addition, Pearson’s Addition, Stanton Street Addition, Hudson’s Addition, Gile Addition, Town of Wayne, Town of Wayne Replat, Quinn’s addition to Town of Wayne, Waynewood, Dunsmeade, Hillside, George Place, Bowering Donation Land Claim Tract, Norton’s Subdivision, and Gleneyrie. Phew. All filed by different owners/developers with the county surveyor in the 40 years between 1882-1922.

Remembering the deep history of these lands

Going back in time, it’s important to remember that before these lands were claimed as homesteads by the first white Euro-American arrivals, the federal government forcibly dispossessed the area’s indigenous people from these lands. All of us in the Portland area live today on lands ceded to the U.S. by Chinookan tribes and bands; their former home lands since time immemorial. Read more about this deep history here.

This area was part of the City of East Portland until 1891

The east side wasn’t actually Portland until after 1891, it was East Portland, a separate city. Prior to that, we were three separate cities sharing some limited common infrastructure, but with different character and focus: Portland (on the west side of the river), East Portland and Albina.

In 1891—in an attempt to roll together the greater Portland area population into one number that would intimidate rival Seattle which was growing fast—the three towns consolidated into one (46,385 people in Portland + 10,000 people in East Portland + 5,000 people in Albina = 61,385 people total in the Portland “metropolitan” area). Take that, Seattle (total 1890 population: 42,837).

There had been a boomlet of development about the time the transcontinental railroad arrived in Portland in the spring of 1882, when some plats were filed in East Portland including “The Town of Wayne” plat in the heart of today’s Alameda. After the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905, which put Portland on the map, a bunch more plats were filed, and then again during the 1920s, after the pandemic.

But let’s get back to the bends.

Too many disconnected plats – a real estate collision

Think of this accident of time as a kind of real estate development collision. The helter-skelter nature of platting before we became part of Portland—fueled in part by spikes in the real estate market which drove owners to create small, disconnected parcels on paper that were never actually developed—resulted in plats with different types of street and lot layouts. As larger, newer and better-planned subdivisions spread out to divide up more territory, the patchwork northwest corner of 33rd and Knott became a vortex of confusion. The city coined a perfect term for it at the time: misfit platting.

Some plats had alleys, some didn’t. Some had many narrow lots. Some had fewer larger lots. There was only one through street and it had varying widths. Corners didn’t line up. There was no street naming protocol. In short, it was a mess.

But the area was still just multiple hopeful plans on paper—these were open fields well into the late 19-teens, even though more than 45 owners had already bought in—and people continued buying, holding and even trading lots as a speculative investment. Here’s what it looked like by about 1915:

This diagram from the Oregon Journal on May 20, 1918 shows the jumble of plats that used to occupy the area bounded today by NE Siskiyou on the north, Knott on the south, 33rd on the east and 29th on the west. The plats include: Town of Wayne, (1882); Quinn’s Addition to the Town of Wayne, (1886); Hudson’s Addition, (1892); Fairview Addition, (1889); Meadow Park (1890); and Charleston’s Addition, (1895). A careful examination shows that each plat is organized differently. Note that the Fairview Addition even had alleys.

In the early 1910s, with construction and sales well underway in nearby Irvington, Alameda, Beaumont and Rose City Park, developers turned to the next nearby open lands in the pipeline for development and found this total mess.

There was only one real solution that came to mind: Go back to the drawing board and replat the whole area, something never done on this scale (and perhaps never since). But how you do that with specific lots already owned by dozens of hopeful investors in planned subdivisions that had been legally filed and on the books for as long as 30 years?

You see the problem now.

It first surfaced in the newspaper in February 1915:

From The Oregonian, February 12, 1915

The problem percolated among the property owners and the city engineering office for a while until they developed an ambitious plan about how to proceed:

From the Oregon Journal, June 20, 1915

Fisher’s meeting with the property owners went well and all but one got on board. A petition was signed a few months later to send a message of good faith to the city. The last line of the article summed up the problem nicely: the addition is said to be a perfect labyrinth.

From the Oregon Journal, January 9, 1916

The city engineers worked with the Title and Trust Company to do the necessary temporary title transfers to a holding trust that would allow a clean slate and then started drawing different lines, keeping everyone whole, eliminating the labyrinth, adding those curves, and retitling every single lot back out of the temporary trust. The result was a brand-new subdivision called Waynewood, a tip of the hat we suppose to the old Town of Wayne plat and the Irvingwood subdivision just to the north.

The official plat of Waynewood filed with the Multnomah County Surveyor on February 2, 1918 containing the brand-new retitled lots and redrawn streets. In addition to understanding how the curves came to be, the replatting process also explains the misaligned corner at NE 29th and Siskiyou.

A story in the Oregon Journal on May 30, 1920 explained the process and the benefits:

Today all of the energy and consternation that went into that process is completely invisible to us here in their imagined future (at least until now), our only clues the graceful curved streets that lead north from Knott Street. Those curves are reflected south of Knott as well, but they came later when the subdivision known as Dolph Park was platted in 1924, and that’s another story.

If you like neighborhood history puzzles like this as much as we do, check out the Prescott Jog, the Ainsworth Long Block, the Ghost of Crane Street and remembering Laura Hamblet.

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.

Adaptive reuse on NE 30th: A viable alternative to teardown

When the dumpsters and porta-potty arrived a few weeks ago out in front of the old house, we presumed the worst. We’d seen the 1921 Craftsman bungalow near NE 30th and Skidmore decline as bags of garbage piled up on the front porch, bushes grew up over the car in the driveway and the electricity was turned off.

This compact 1921 bungalow near NE 30th and Skidmore in Alameda is being revived from what looked like a sure path toward teardown. March 2, 2020.

Taken with its slow descent over the last couple of years, the recent signals seemed clear enough the property had changed hands and would be torn down to make way for another quickly-built three-story unit (or two) that maximized lot lines and financial returns. We’ve seen this story play out before, including for the old bungalow that used to stand right next door to this unlikely survivor.

But this story is headed in a different direction.

The 1,000-square-foot 1921 Alameda bungalow that looked like the next candidate for a teardown is now being revived, restored and repurposed by a nearby neighbor couple who couldn’t bear to see another teardown / big box happen and who wanted to make room for their extended family (they’re adding an addition to the back of the old bungalow to give the modern family a bit more space).

Harry Ford and Amy Garlock, who live in the house directly across the backyard lot line, watched back in 2016 as the former house kitty-corner across the backyard did get torn down and replaced by two three-story semi-attached boxes which sold for almost $1 million each. When it looked like the bungalow directly behind them was headed down the same path, they began to wonder if there was something they could do.

“We bought it partly so that there wouldn’t be another giant duplex in our backyard,” says Ford.

But Ford also explains the house—which will share a big now-open backyard with their own place on NE 29th—will help meet a very real contemporary need: a quality place to live for their aging-in-place parents.

It’s interesting to note that back in the day, a similar multi-generational family-as-neighbor arrangement was in place just around the corner with the family that once lived in the now-gone bungalow and their in-laws who lived right next door. Former residents of that house remembered dinners that went back and forth, the sharing of tools, supplies, grandparents helping with babysitting. It worked out great for everyone.

Today, Ford is looking forward to having his in-laws just across the backyard, and to interrupting the teardown trend by keeping—and adapting—the historic fabric of the neighborhood. He acknowledges that pretty much any other purchaser of the very run-down house would have razed, rebuilt and sold high to repay the construction loan, then moved on to the next project.

For his family though, the ability to acquire an existing older home at a reasonable price literally in their own backyard, combined with the ability to meet the families’ needs at the moment and for the foreseeable future, made this a reasonable thing to do. Ford and Garlock look at the investment in restoration as a good long-term proposition given the multiple types of “bottom lines” it helps them achieve: economics, quality of life, aesthetics and sustainability.

The origin of the house has an interesting story: when AH started exploring the home’s history this week, we determined that it’s a Sears Roebuck house, built in 1921 by builder Albert W. Horn. The floor plan is pure Sears Argyle, one of the company’s most successful kit homes, sold from 1917-1925. Here, take a look:

The Argyle page from a 1921 Sears Roebuck catalog. From 1908 through 1940, Sears sold more than 70,000 kit homes that were built in almost every major US city by homeowners, their friends and in some cases like this one, actual home builders.

 

1921 Sears Roebuck Argyle floor plan, from the catalog. A solid match with the NE 30th Avenue bungalow.

 

On a recent visit, the scope of the work necessary to bring back the 1921 bungalow was evident: Heating, plumbing, electrical, all interior walls, kitchen, bathroom, fireplace, chimney, exterior siding, finishes, window trim. The 100-year-old foundation and framing are solid. Everything else needs attention.

Standing in the kitchen looking toward the front door through the dining room and living room. There’s a bedroom in the front right, a bathroom down the hall and a bedroom in the back, just to the right in this picture. Turn 90 degrees to the right and there’s a stairway into the full basement. March 2, 2020.

“Sometimes, going down to the studs in an old house like this is just easier because you know exactly what you’re working with,” said Craig McNinch of McNinch Construction who is running the project utilizing drawings by Lynn Harritt. He also restored Ford and Garlock’s current bungalow on NE 29th. “This place has great bones,” says McNinch, gesturing to the full dimension 2 x 4 framing lumber, the solid oak floors and the foundation.

From the dining room looking into the living room. A portal wall framed the opening between the two rooms and came down to meet the columns that are atop the built-in cabinets. Behind the sheets of pressboard material on the left is a fireplace. Just like the historic Argyle plans. March 2, 2020.

McNinch has worked on many restoration projects in the area and acknowledges this one is indeed a challenge. But he likes the vision of restoring what was once a new and exciting home for a young family, the backyard connection of the two houses and families, and the constant stream of positive comments he’s had from neighbors and passersby who are happily surprised with the work. During a recent afternoon, we heard McNinch and his crew loudly encouraged to “keep up the good work” by a passing driver calling from a rolled-down window.

Asbestos abatement contractors recently removed the asphalt shingles revealing the original brown cedar shingle siding. March 2020.

Ford and Garlock’s project to revive the old place reminds all of us that there are alternatives to demolition; that it’s ok to adapt something old to meet current needs; that the grace and history of an old place adds its own kind of meaning to family life.

Stay tuned for updates and more on Sears Roebuck homes.

Oregon Encyclopedia adds Alameda

Students of Oregon history should know about the Oregon Encyclopedia (OE), our state’s comprehensive collection of on-line articles covering the history of everything from Obo Addy to Jan Zach and everything in between (some 1,694 topics, in fact, and 24 longer essays on various history themes). It’s a project of the Oregon Historical Society and a tremendous resource for students of all ages. And it’s just good reading.

We’re proud to serve on the Oregon Encyclopedia Editorial Board, and pleased to see OE has just published our essay on the Alameda Neighborhood. Click in and check it out. The article features a little-known photo of the Broadway Streetcar originally published in the Oregon Journal (we haven’t seen it and we’ve looked at lots of Broadway Streetcar photos).

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society Research Library, Oregon Journal, 49061, photo file 1686. Photo looking north on 24th as the streetcar rounds the corner to the west on Fremont headed for downtown. Autos to the right are parked in the former gas station lot now occupied by Childroots Fremont Center Daycare. Another view of this intersection is here.

Here’s an idea for your next trip across Oregon: there’s a great feature of OE called the Oregon History Wayfinder which allows you to identify articles by location. Next time you’re planning a trip, check out the history along your route.

On the topic of digital access to history stories, if you’re in Portland you should check out the excellent PDX Social History Guide, which is both website and ap and provides pictures, oral history audio snippets and other resources.

Rest of the Story: The Lost House at 33rd and Fremont

Our recent post about the old gravel pit and landfill at NE 33rd and Fremont produced some interesting mail and conversation that helps complete the picture of the house that once stood at the southwest corner of that intersection.

First, a photo from frequent AH source and long-time neighborhood resident John Hamnett showing the house. John and his father were out in the neighborhood with a camera on the sunny day following the great Columbus Day Storm of Friday, October 12, 1962 documenting damage and downed trees. John remembers they came upon this toppled fence and wall on the south side of the house. The blue and white enclosure surrounded the swimming pool. The Oregon Encyclopedia entry about the storm reports wind speeds were clocked as high as 170 mph.

Looking north at the southwest corner of NE 33rd and Fremont, October 13, 1962. Photo courtesy of John Hamnett.

Next, we re-discovered this 1954 photo looking north up the hill toward Fremont from the corner with Klickitat. When you click into this image, you can see both the mid-century modern house that was eventually removed from the site, and the house behind it, which still stands. Looks like a vacant lot just downslope.

Photo Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2005-001.955. Click to enlarge.

And last, this helpful comment from Judy Wathen, who used to own the house, and remembers it from its heyday of the 1950s.

My husband and I were the ones who bought the house with the swimming pool on the corner of 33rd and Fremont in the ’90’s. Before we bought it we had two different geological engineering firms test the soil and evaluate it’s stability. Both said that it was stable and leveling the house could easily be done. Both were wrong. The cost to stabilize the house was beyond our resources. Fortunately, a grade school classmate, Terry Emmert, offered to buy the house and move it to become the first remolded home on the Street of Dreams. We sold the lot with all the engineering studies to a builder who hopefully did what was required to stabilize the land before he build what is there today.

A little bit more history about the house. I grew up in Laurelhurst in the 50’s-60’s. Our family drove by that house regularly on the way to Riverside Country Club, where we were members. My father told us about the house. My father’s friend, who owned the well known Fox Furniture Co., built the house with the swimming pool  as a wedding gift to his daughter and her husband and that it was built and finished to the highest quality. That certainly was true, except for understanding the engineering of the foundation.

Gravel & Garbage: A history of NE 33rd and Fremont

Over the years, we’ve heard the notion that there was once a gravel pit and then a garbage dump at the corner of NE 33rd and Fremont. We remember in the 1990s when the house at the southwest corner—the one with the old swimming pool out back—was removed because of major foundation problems, which seems like reasonable evidence of the underlying problem.

But we wanted to know more, so we tracked down the details. Let’s start with a photo to put you in context.

Here is the area in a 1925 aerial photo, the earliest one we know of. There’s lots to look at here, but start at the large vacant lot in the lower right hand corner. The street running east-west is Fremont and the vacant lot just below it to the south is actually three blocks, between today’s NE 32nd Avenue on the left and “E 33rd” on the right. 32nd Place (then known as Glenn Avenue before the Great Renumbering) does not yet go through.

Detail from a 1925 aerial photo showing the intersection of Fremont and 33rd, two labels added for reference. Click to enlarge. Aerial photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

That’s a pretty steep slope to the south (just ask local kids with sleds hoping for snowfall) which is one reason it’s one of the few unbuilt pieces of ground you can see in this photo.

Back in the late 1890s and up until about 1910, that slope was heavily excavated for gravel, which makes sense. It’s right along the crest of the Alameda Ridge, which after all is one giant gravel deposit left over from the cataclysmic Lake Missoula Floods of 13,000-15,000 years ago. The Fremont gravel pit provided tons of rock for a young and growing Portland, which was busy building roads. In those early years, 33rd and Fremont even became known as Gravelly Hill, a name that stuck around for decades (we try to slip that name into a conversation whenever we can, you should try it just to keep it alive).

In the photo, you can see the disturbed area at the top of the slope all along the southern edge of Fremont. That was the top of the gravel pit. A few years later it was also the top of the garbage dump.

In 1910, Benjamin Lombard, who developed the Olmsted Park plat which you can see just up the hill in this photo (now considered part of the Alameda neighborhood), sued the city for violating its own ordinance that prohibited gravel pits within 100 feet of a public street. Fremont was a city-owned street, plus the city owned a good chunk (but not all) of that vacant lot to the south too. East 33rd had long been known simply as the County Road and was the county’s responsibility.

A letter to county commissioners in August 1910 reported “the roadway at Thirty-third and Fremont streets is in danger of caving in because of excavation in the Fremont gravel pit.” The county passed this complaint along to the city, which was also hearing from Lombard about the same time. Due to the undercutting of the slope required by the gravel mining operations, Fremont Street was just about ready to slide down the hill.

This 1910 kerfuffle ended the slope’s official function as a gravel pit, though other places—notably a nearby hollow on privately owned land at the corner of today’s NE 37th and Klickitat—stepped in to meet the gravel need.

Fast forward to the early 1920s. Portland was booming and rapidly running into a garbage disposal problem. The city’s Guilds Lake Incinerator, located in Northwest Portland at NW 25th and Nicolai, was operating at full capacity and the city needed to find another way to deal with garbage.

William G. Helber, Portland’s Superintendent of Garbage Disposal, had visited Seattle and seen a new technique called “sanitary fill,” whereby garbage was mixed with dirt and buried in layers on uneven ground. This had the double “benefit” of disposing of garbage and leveling off land that could then be used or sold for other uses.

When Helber looked out across the Portland landscape, he fixed on several locations he believed would function well as sanitary fills.

 

From The Oregonian, January 16, 1923

Because the city didn’t own the downslope part of the hill, it took some creative deal making with the adjacent private owner to make it all work. Downslope owners Joe and Frances Brooks also owned the gravel pit at 37th and Klickitat. They agreed to let the city use the lower end of the Fremont pit for the garbage fill as long as the city would also fill up their old gravel pit on Klickitat with garbage. This site became known as the “Beaumont Fill.” The Brooks were then free to sell that as viable real estate to the developer who wanted to build houses there.

Not everyone was happy with the idea of burying garbage so close to existing homes. Alameda neighbors, who were always ready to protest (schools, camps, churches), were particularly skeptical. But Helber took them out on the ground to have a look at what he had in mind and the neighbors seemed satisfied to give it a try.

From The Oregonian, January 20, 1923

Starting in February 1923 through June 1924, all non-commercial trash from Portland’s eastside was hauled to Alameda to fill up the old Fremont gravel pit.

From The Oregonian, February 7, 1923

When the summer of 1923 rolled around, everyone held their breath (and their noses) wondering if the heat and the garbage would create a smelly problem. No news must have been good news, because there was no further coverage.

 

From The Oregonian, June 6, 1923

 

Here’s a great photo from the early 1930s that shows both of the completed sanitary fills (and so much else to look at). We love this photo.

Aerial oblique photo from the early 1930s shows both former fill sites and a lot more, including a very brushy Wilshire Park and the new Beaumont School. Click to enlarge this amazing photo.

In 1924, one year after opening when it became time to shut down the Fremont Sanitary Fill, the city realized it had trained all of east Portland to bring its trash to Alameda, and that it would probably take some retraining and even some enforcement to break the habit.

From The Oregonian, May 30, 1924

In a final accounting contained in his January 1926 report to City Commissioner Charles A. Bigelow, Garbage Disposal Bureau Director Helber summarized the following statistics for the Fremont Street Sanitary Fill:

  • Estimated number of loads of garbage received: 1,618
  • Average number of loads received per day: 62 ½
  • Average tons of garbage dumped each day: 136
  • Estimated tons of garbage dumped: 3,541 ½
  • Average yards of dirt received per day: 3 ½
  • Total salary of all dump workers per month: $442
  • Monthly installment on new tractor used on site: $121.25

That’s a lot of garbage. Sixty-two loads arriving at the top of the hill on Fremont Street each day for more than a year, dumped over the edge, spread by tractor down the slope and covered over with a little dirt.

The city continued to use the sanitary fill method in other areas as it planned a larger incinerator—a long drawn out process because no neighborhood wanted it in their backyard—which was ultimately built in 1932 in St. Johns and is known today as Chimney Park.

But in the meantime while incinerator planning and location were being fought about in City Hall, the fill method was gaining critics. Here’s news of neighbors at NE 37th and Alberta (today’s Alberta Court) complaining about the stench to City Council.

From The Oregonian, October 20, 1927

Back at the Fremont fill in the early 1940s, home construction was just getting underway. Here’s a photo from 1943.

Detail from a 1943 aerial photo, green outline added to show former gravel pit and fill area.

Three Mile History Walk | Follow the Broadway Streetcar

Here’s a neighborhood walk that makes a nice outing and puts you on the well-worn pathway of earlier years—a history-hunt of sorts to bridge past and present and imagine a time when Alameda was younger and connected to downtown courtesy of the clanky, drafty, dependable Broadway Streetcar.

Broadway Streetcar 568 at the end of the line, 29th and Mason. This photo was taken soon after the line was built in 1911, prior to construction of homes and infrastructure.

You can enter this walking loop just about anywhere on the course of the streetcar’s roundabout transit through the neighborhood, and you can head either north or south. But, just to be orderly about it, how about starting at the end of the line: NE 29th and Mason. That’s where the Broadway streetcar stopped, where the motorman would step outside for a smoke and a look at his watch.

Here’s the same view at NE 29th and Mason, about 1912-13. Note paved streets, absence of mud and brush, and presence of two buildings. The house to the left stands today and is 4206 NE 29th. The building on the right was the Alameda Land Company tract office (a temporary structure at the southeast corner of the intersection), where prospective buyers who exited the streetcar could meet with salesmen and look at subdivision maps. Check out this post which has other views of this intersection and more about the early Alameda Park neighborhood.

From the end of the line, walk south on 29th to Regents, where the streetcar passed through the “Bus and Bicycle Only” notch at Regents and Alameda. The streetcar turned right and went down the hill here, and you should too, following Regents to NE 24th Avenue where you’ll turn left (south). Continue south on 24th to Fremont and then turn right on Fremont to go west for a couple blocks, just like the old 809 shown below. See if you can orient yourself in just about the same place.

Broadway line car 809 rounds the corner at 24th and Fremont, looking east, 1940. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2011-007.65. Click to enlarge for a better view. The Safeway building is today’s bank and Alameda Dental. The sign for Alameda Drugs is hanging on the side of today’s Lucca restaurant. Here’s a link to more views of the intersection at NE 24th and Fremont.

At NE 22nd, turn left (south) and enter the long southbound leg of the circuit. Note just how wide the street is: a clue that you are on the streetcar route.

Detail from 1945 Portland Traction Company Map. The green + signs illustrate bus lines. The yellow lines are streetcars. By 1948 Portland’s streetcars had all been removed.

After a good, long straight stretch, when you hit Tillamook and 22nd, you’ll find a modest “S” curve, where the streetcar zigged and zagged on its way south to connect with Broadway. Follow along just for fun. But instead of turning west on Broadway (right) like the streetcar did on its way downtown, turn left (east) and walk back to NE 24th, where you turn left (north) and head back through the neighborhood. Now you’re back on the path of the Broadway Car—the northbound side of the circuit—and headed toward the end of the line.

Believe it or not, this is looking southwest at the southwest corner of Broadway and 24th in the summer of 1929, before Broadway was widened. See the streetcar rails sweeping from west to north here in the lower right corner? This service station sits where Spin Laundry Lounge is in 2018. The man holding the number works for the city; the number designates that tract of property for further reference. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2209-009.3407.

Continue north on 24th, cross Fremont and turn right (east) on Regents, where you go back up the hill on your way to the end of the line. Here’s a cool view of NE 24th and Fremont looking north, taken in about 1921. Can you line up in the footsteps of the photographer? The houses you can see in this 1921 photo are still there today.

NE 24th and Fremont looking north, taken in 1921. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2009-009.1858

At the top of Regents, pass through the bus notch again and go a few more blocks to Mason, and you’ve arrived at the end of the line. Here’s a photo looking south on NE 29th, from the southeast corner of Mason. See if you can line up in the footsteps of history: pretty much everything but the streetcar and the rails are still visible today.

Turn-by-turn:

Start: 29th and Mason

  1. Walk south on 29th to Regents, turn right and go down the hill.
  2. At 24th, turn left (south off of Regents).
  3. Walk to Fremont and 24th, turn right on Fremont (west off of 24th).
  4. Walk two blocks on Fremont and turn left on 22nd (south off of Fremont).
  5. Keep walking south on 22nd to Tillamook.
  6. Navigate the zig-zag at Tillamook and stay south on 22nd to Broadway, turn left (east off of 22nd).
  7. Walk east on Broadway to 24th, turn left (north off of Broadway).
  8. Walk north on 24th, crossing Fremont, and turn right on Regents (east off of 24th).
  9. Walk up the hill on Regents to 29th, turn left through the notch (north off of Regents).
  10. Walk north on 29th to Mason and you have reached the end of the streetcar line.
  11. Tip your hat to the motorman and the generations of Alamedans who depended on this train.

Some things to look for on your walk…

Notice how 29th narrows on the north side of the intersection. The wider stretch of street to the south was necessary to accommodate the rails and the traffic. Have a good look at Northeast 22nd and you’ll notice how much wider it is than any of our north-south streets. There are other clues to be found in the alignment of power poles, and in the remnants of rail unearthed from time to time during street repairs.

A little more history about our streetcar…

Two generations of our neighbors grew up relying on the Broadway streetcar to take them where they needed to go. Ever-present, often noisy, sometimes too cold (or too hot), but always dependable, the Broadway car served Alameda loyally from 1910 to 1948.

Sensitive to the transport needs of its prospective customers, the Alameda Land Company financed construction of the rails and overhead electric lines that brought the car up Regents Hill to 29th and Mason. Developers all over the city knew access was one key to selling lots, particularly in the muddy and wild environs that Alameda represented in 1909.

In 1923, a trip downtown cost an adult 8 cents. Kids could buy a special packet of school tickets allowing 25 rides for $1. In 1932, a monthly pass for unlimited rides cost $1.25. Alamedans used the streetcar as a vital link to shopping, churchgoing, commuting to the office, trips to the doctor. Some even rode the line for entertainment. A few rode looking for trouble. And at least one elderly rider frequently took a nap in the front yard at the end of the line while waiting for the streetcar.

During the day, cars ran every 10 minutes, and Alamedans referred to them as “regular cars” or “trains.” During the morning and evening rush hours, additional cars called “trippers” were put into the circuit to handle additional riders. Trippers did not climb the hill to 29th and Mason, traveling only on the Fremont Loop to save time. At night, our line was one of the handful in Portland that featured an “owl car,” a single train that made the circuit once an hour between midnight and 5 a.m. Owl service was a special distinction. The downtown end of the line was Broadway and Jefferson.

The Broadway streetcar was replaced by bus on August 1, 1948. By 1950, all of Portland’s once ubiquitous streetcar lines were gone. In the early days of neighborhood life, our streetcar was indispensable. It was one catalyst that made development of Alameda possible. It linked us to downtown and to other neighborhoods near and far. To hear the stories of those who rode it frequently, it linked us to each other in a way too.

Here are a few other history walks you might enjoy.

Favorite views of NE 24th and Fremont

We love to find and collect old views that feed our curiosity and tell us something about the place we live. Today’s post assembles photos we’ve retrieved recently from a few archives that allow a look at changes at NE 24th and Fremont, which has always served as a kind of gateway to Alameda Park.

Here is the earliest view of this intersection that we’ve ever come across, taken in September 1921 from just north of Fremont, looking north along the Broadway Streetcar tracks toward Regents, with Ridgewood in the distance. It’s a good, sharp photo, so click into it and have a look around and we’ll take it apart in the way we usually do:

NE 24th and Fremont looking north, courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2009-009.1858

This image is labeled “PRL&P tracks, September 1921.” Like so many of the images at City Archives, it was taken to document the engineering, in this case the road and track condition. Maybe it was those bricks adjacent to the track that look sunk and a hazard for car tires. Or maybe it was just documenting the street scene before other work began.

PRL&P was Portland Railway Light and Power: they ran the streetcar system and were in frequent cooperation and conflict with the city about infrastructure. The brickwork bordering the rails is a signature of the system. These days you can still see the rails during street maintenance or sewer construction, like just up the hill from here in 2014. Look carefully here and you can see the tracks round the corner at Regents and head east and up the hill.

Your first thought as you look at this might be that the down slope from Fremont north to Regents is not quite that steep. But go stand and look at it and you realize that it is. The focal length of the lens and the absence of houses along the street trick the eye.

An Alameda elder we interviewed a few years back told us that when he was a mischievous teenager in the mid 1940s, he once released the brake on a momentarily parked streetcar waiting at 24th and Fremont (the driver had gone into the pharmacy to use the facilities) and the streetcar absolutely knew there was a slope: it drifted driverless down from Fremont and made it most of the way around the corner on Regents before its gravity was spent.

Both houses pictured here are still place, the one on the right is 3808 NE 24th built in June 1921. On the left, 3803 NE 24th, which was still under construction in the fall of 1921 (is that a for sale sign out front?).

The cutbank you see at the end of the street is where Ridgewood, running east-west, cuts along the Alameda ridge.

In the foreground to the left you can see planks placed over the curb that allow a tractor or wheeled vehicle to turn into the farmyard, which looks like it includes a small orchard. This open stretch of land was pasture for cows and orchards, as we learned recently about the adjacent Homedale plat.

Here’s another favorite shot, from not too far away from our first photo, looking to the southwest, today’s Lucca and Garden Fever. We wrote about the life of this building a few years back. Check it out.

Looking southwest at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont, early 1920s. Note delivery bike visible behind power pole. OrHi 49061.

These next two are pretty amazing. They’re from City Archives and our guess is they accompanied the building permit request associated with construction of the building that now houses Alameda Dental and Union Bank, which was originally a Safeway. You can read more about that in the post we mentioned earlier, which includes a drawing of that building from its grand opening.

Check out the view from the air on this rainy winter day in 1935:

1935 Aerial of NE 24th and Fremont A2205-05.1421.2. Courtesy of Portland City Archives. Click to enlarge.

 

There’s so much here to observe and wonder about, it’s hard to know where to start. This is 14 years after the first image in this post, and you can see both houses on NE 24th pictured earlier, and clearly locate the path of the Broadway Streetcar. In fact, look close and you can see the actual streetcar stopped there at 24th and Fremont.

Check out the notable empty lots, and how about that forest where the Madeleine soccer field is today? A billboard put up on the corner at 25th probably advertises property for sale. The filling station at 24th and Fremont. A few people out walking. A sharp eye will locate the Eastman House on NE Stuart Drive. What jumps out at you?

Down on the ground, still contemplating the coming changes at the intersection, we have this view, from January 28, 1938, another killer tack-sharp photo from a 5 x 7 negative you’re going to want to explore:

Looking west on Fremont between NE 24th and NE 25th. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2009-009.107

 

The same view in December 2018.

This 1938 image looks like it was taken from about where the front door of Alameda Dental is today. The elevation of the vacant lot to the left and its brushy slope is amazing. The building that today is Lucca—Alameda Drugs—sports the signs for Sunfreze Ice Cream and a pay phone, and the delivery bike is still there. Down the line is the shoe repair shop of John Rumpakis, a barber shop, and the stairs that lead up to the dentist on the second floor.

Across the street we have the Standard Oil service station that operated up into the 1970s and some people waiting for the Broadway streetcar.

Speaking of the streetcar, here’s another image we found, taken at this intersection in 1940.

Broadway line car 809 rounds the corner at 24th and Fremont, looking east, 1940. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2011-007.65.

In this shot we can see the corner of the Standard Oil station in the far left; a new building in the lot on the northeast corner—partially hidden by the streetcar—where Childroots Daycare is today (which was a Hancock Gasoline station up until the mid 1970s); the new Safeway building that had just been built; and the sign mounted to corner of Alameda Drugs. No telling if the delivery bike is still there.

Do you have a photo of this intersection or memory you’d like to share? We’re always on the lookout.

%d bloggers like this: