Finding Ford’s Pool Hall | Adventures on Early Alberta Street

Here’s another outstanding turn-back-the-clock view of a business on NE Alberta Street: George and Sylvia Ford’s Pool Hall, Lunch Counter, Confectionery and Cigar Store, mid-block between 17th and 18th on the south side of Alberta, taken in September 1909. Click into this photo and have a good look around, there’s so much to see.

In front of Ford’s Pool Hall, 658 Alberta Street, 1909. Photo courtesy of the Gholston Collection, used with permission. Click to enlarge.

Things that jumped out at us: reflections in the windows showing the north side of the street; the faces and clothing of the men; the small advertisement in the left window advertising the “Special Masquerade” on Saturday evening, October 9th (that’s how we know this is 1909); that’s George Ford, by the way, in the middle of the group in the apron with his hand on the older gentleman’s shoulder. We guess the confection guy is on the far left in the bowtie and the cigar guy is holding the cigar. George and his friend (is he the baker from next door?) might be running the lunch counter.

Thanks to AH reader Norm Gholston for sending this photograph our way. Norm knows we enjoy being photo detective, and this one took some digging to make sure we were in the right place. Here’s the same view today:

1718 NE Alberta, formerly Ford’s Pool Hall. November 2018.

 

When Norm sent this one along, he knew it was on Alberta. And we could see the address over the door—658—which translates to today’s 1718 NE Alberta. Remember that all of Portland’s addresses were changed in the Great Renumbering of 1930-31.

With the current address in hand, we went out to take a look, and that’s when this got a bit puzzling because the next door neighbor building to the east—the one that houses Earl’s Barbershop—has many similar features to the building in the 1909 photo. Look at the dentals under the first and second level soffits and the short horizontal brackets that support them; the column-like pedestals along the building edges. On first glance at that block today, you’d say Earl’s is the right place, especially when you look at the modernized front of the Maggie Gibson Plaza building just to the west. Both buildings are owned today by Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc.

South side of NE Alberta showing the entire block between NE 17th and NE 18th. Maggie Gibson Plaza building (on the right) once housed five distinct store fronts on the first floor and a large meeting space known as Baker Hall upstairs. In later years, the space was home to the Royal Esquire Club of Portland. Photo taken in November 2018. Click to enlarge.

 

But that notion doesn’t hold up when you dig into the details of building permits, city directories and old newspaper stories. 658 was clearly housed in the building to the west (right). Interesting to note that both were built in 1909 by the same builder for the same owner. Our hunch is they probably looked alike way back when.

The clincher is the old Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1924 (below), which shows all of the side-by-side stores in both buildings. You’ll find 658 on the east end of the Gibson Plaza building and there’s five feet of space to the next neighbor to the east. Remember that these maps were drawn primarily for fire insurance underwriters, so they show building proximities, location of plumbing, fire alarm systems, heating systems. S = shop; D = dwelling; FA = fire alarm box; F = Flat.

Detail from Sanborn Fire Insurance Plate 550, 1924. Click to enlarge.

 

The Sanborn (and city directories) show there was a lot going on in this block, on both sides of the street. Here’s a run down of the Ford’s Pool Hall neighbors, by address:

650      Vernon Drug Company

652      Peterson & Jackson Grocery, later J.H. Belshiser Grocery

654      Grite’s Barber Shop and entrance to Baker Hall, which was upstairs. Encompassing the second floor of the building was an open meeting space known as “Baker Hall,” which in the early days was where the Alberta Oddfellows Lodge met before building their own space, and in later days the first home of the Royal Esquire Club of Portland. In the 19-teens, Baker Hall was the frequent site of lectures, dances and community meetings.

656      Alberta Market, later Higbee’s Electric Radio and Hardware

Next door to the east in the building that houses Earl’s today:

660      Gabel & Son Bakery, later Alberta Bakery

662      Dr. William Luzader, Optometrist

The house on the corner to the east—addressed as 666 in the Sanborn plate—is still there today and was Freda’s Beauty Shop and home to Freda Baker.

Across the street:

651      Love’s Confectionery, Fountain and Deli

653      General Sewing Machine Repair Shop

655      Carl Nau, Taylor,  and Bell’s Reliable Hemstitching Shop

659      Alberta Realty Co.

661      Alberta Sheet Metal Co.

663      S. Salmonson Hardware and Appliance

665      Victoria Theater (with full stage and space for “MOVIES”)

The FA in front of the Victoria Theater was a fire alarm pull box.

Once we figured out the location of Ford’s Pool Hall, we wanted to know more about George and Sylvia. We found them during the pool hall days living just up the street at the corner of NE 18th and Wygant. Here’s the couple on their wedding day in Colfax Washington, October 26, 1892:

George and Sylvia Ford, October 26, 1892. Photo courtesy of Ford family.

 

George and Sylvie (as she was known) farmed for a while near Lapwai, Idaho in the 1890s and early 1900s before moving to Portland. They opened the pool hall, confectionary and lunch counter in 1909 and later ran a confectionary and cigar business at NE 21st and Alberta (two business lines that were frequently found together in the same retail store, candy and smokes). The Fords raised two children—George B. and John J.—and Sylvie had a busy dressmaking business as well. George died on July 23, 1937. His obit reads:

George P. Ford, Businessman, Passes Away

Geo P. Ford, who has conducted a cigar and confectionary store at Alberta and 21st Ave., for a number of years, and an old resident of this district, passed away at his home, 4925 N.E. 19th Ave., last Friday, at the age of 74 years. He leaves to mourn his death, his wife, Sylvia Ford, and two sons, George and John Ford, and several brothers and sisters. Funeral services were held Monday afternoon, Vault entombment, Riverview Abbey Mausoleum. Heartfelt sympathies goes out to the bereaved family in this, their sad bereavement.

We’re ready for the next photo mystery.

When the east end of NE Alberta was a railroad spur line…

We’ve had the opportunity recently—thanks to Portland City Archives and a sea of digital copies of early newspapers—to become fully immersed in the layout, feel and day-to-day life of the neighborhood in the 19-teens. It was a busy place: not unlike today, but busier, dirtier and a bit more helter-skelter as the landscape transitioned from brush and trees into a neighborhood of homes and people. Oh, and very few cars. Imagine our now-jammed streets without the lines and lines of parked cars.

The sound of construction filled the daytime air as houses and business rose to life. The Alberta streetcar was omnipresent—every 15 minutes clattering down Alberta to NE 30th and then turning north down the gentle slope to Ainsworth, and back. It was our connection to Portland and beyond and everyone rode it. Portland Railway Light and Power (which ran the streetcar system in our part of town) had to add extra cars on the Alberta line to carry the abundance of neighbor/riders, and they were still packed in.

In 1915, even in the midst of all this “progress,” Alberta Street was still just a dirt road between NE 33rd and NE 30th (western portions were paved in 1911). Portland Railway Light and Power was holding out the possibility of constructing a new streetcar line in that stretch of Alberta, and then down 33rd (which never happened) and wanted to keep its options open. But nearby homeowners and merchants in that area approached the streetcar company with another idea:

What if we turned that stretch of street into a railroad spur where flatcars of firewood could be parked? About this time of year everyone was thinking about staying warm, and firewood—along with sawdust and coal—were Portland’s fuel of choice. Piles of cordwood, hauled from the forests and stacked in the parking strips to season since late summer, were being brought inside garages and basements for the winter ahead. In 1918, an attorney for the company wanting to sell the wood from parked flatbed cars on Alberta wrote the city for permission:

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

A cooperative engineer from the city’s Department of Public Works wrote back noting how little car traffic there was on Alberta (it was all streetcar and by foot) and approved the move, asking only that the street be promptly cleaned up after the flatcar was unloaded.

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

 

With this green light, Monarch Lumber moved their flatbed car onto this quiet stretch of Alberta and went into the firewood business.

Meanwhile, the wood yard mentioned by Engineer R.W. Kremers a few blocks west at East 26th and Alberta, had ramped up its own firewood business, but was apparently making a mess and was being protested by most of the neighborhood. The city wrote the business in October 1920 with a strong message, cc’d to the Chief of Police.

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

 

Next time you pass that way, near the Alberta Rose, Cha’Ba Thai or Vita Café, imagine a street filled with flatcars and firewood, and neighbors readying their furnaces and warm homes for winter.

Alberta Street Photo Sleuthing | Found!

A friendly AH reader has shared an amazing photo with stories to tell, so have a good detailed look at this (click to enlarge), and then we’ll take it apart and do some sleuthing. There are so many things to think about here.

NE 26th and Alberta looking north/northeast, 1909. Photo courtesy of the Gholston Collection, used with permission.

In past entries, we’ve delved into mom and pop groceries, delivery horses and carriages, and the bustling early Alberta Street. Each is present in this picture taken at the corner of NE 26th and Alberta in 1909, three years before the Broadway Bridge was built and at a time when Portland had only 3,540 registered automobiles (so everyone was on foot, horseback or streetcar).

Just so we’re clear, Lester Park (the location painted on the side of the wagon) wasn’t a park, it was the name of a plat or subdivision, contained in today’s Concordia neighborhood (just one of multiple plats that make up today’s neighborhood). Here’s a look at that plat, filed in 1906 by H.L Chapin of the Arleta Land Company. It’s a compact little rectangle, running from Alberta on the north to Prescott on the south and between NE 25th and NE 27th, 145 total lots.

Lester Park Addition Plat, 1906. North is to the left, east is up.

The Lester Park Grocery was a dry goods and butcher store that stood in what is today an empty lot just west of the Waffle Window, 2624 NE Alberta. Its original address was 834 Alberta to be exact (remember that all of Portland was renumbered in the 1930s, so this address was before the change). The shop that H.L. Reynolds, his wife Carrie and her daughter called home also included several rooms for the family to live.

We’ve walked all over this part of Alberta with this picture in our hand, consulted early Sanborn maps of the neighborhood, examined building permits and local buildings to make an informed statement about exactly where this is. Here’s what we see and why we believe this view is looking north/northeast from out in front of Reynolds’s shop at NE 26th and Alberta:

  • There are some distinctive houses in the background of this old photo, including a church steeple, which we believe is the building on the southeast corner of NE 27th and Sumner known today as St. Luke Memorial Community Church of God (2700 NE Sumner), but was then the newly constructed United Brethren in Christ Church, built in 1910.
  • Appearing directly in front of the carriage driver in the old photo is a light colored home. This small hipped-roof house with chimney slightly off center and front dormer is today’s 5028 NE 26th (painted red) with the front porch now enclosed. This house was built in 1906. Here’s a look from Google streetview. See it under all that?

Current photo of the small house that appears just above the horse’s rump in the 1909 photograph. Look carefully at the hipped roof, mini dormer on top and slightly off-center chimney. Yep, that’s the same house. Built in 1906 by Mary L. Coger. Thanks to Google Streetview.

  • We know that in 1909 the Alberta Streetcar line (visible in the foreground of the photo) was still just two rails in the dirt; and we know this part of Alberta was not paved until the summer of 1911).
  • We also know that H.L. Reynolds, who may well be the man in the photo, was associated with the grocery until about 1910. The 1910 census shows him (age 36) and his wife Carrie living in the residence associated with the shop.

That would make the corner of the house you can see just above the horse’s head about where the corner of Mae Ploy Thai Cuisine is today (obviously a different building).

Reynolds was arrested in April 1909 for assaulting his wife and stepdaughter and disappears from the Portland scene the next year. Meanwhile Carrie takes over the shop (and probably the horse and carriage) and decides to sell it all off. Check out this series of classified ads from The Oregonian where she almost pleads for a buyer:

March 31, 1911

 

April 8, 1911

 

April 21, 1911

Carrie did eventually sell the place and leave town. The shop was taken over in 1913 by Mrs. Edna Albertson who ran it as Albertson’s Dry Goods Store (not related to today’s Albertson chain) until 1921 when she was killed in an automobile accident while traveling to Tillamook. How this photo has come down the years–who saved it and why–remains a mystery.

This picture is definitely worth 1,000 words. Thanks to Norm Gholston for the opportunity to take a trip back through time. We love this photo and are always looking for views like this that help us think about the past.

The Disappearance of Vernon Avenue

During our recent explorations of Vernon, we came across a street with a story to tell:

Wait, what? There’s an actual Vernon Avenue? Photographed April 2018, looking southeast at Emerson Street.

We’ve tripped over this place in early editions of The Oregonian—references to builders, families, homes and interesting things happening over on Vernon Avenue—but it’s a ghost that no longer exists in the real world.

Vernon Avenue sounds like a street that you should know where it is, especially since we have a whole neighborhood named Vernon. But it’s just an echo because the actual Vernon Avenue was silenced on September 2, 1931 when City Council passed ordinance 61325 readdressing all of Portland’s streets and calling for multiple street name changes. The six-block Vernon Avenue went extinct and became today’s NE 14th Place, running between Prescott and Killingsworth.

We know the renumbering aspect of the 1931 ordinance was long-overdue. But losing the name of your street, that one really stung.

In January 1933, neighbors along Vernon Avenue, angry about the change and still using their original addresses, presented a petition to City Council protesting the switch to 14th Place. Commissioner of Public Works Asbury L. Barbur reviewed the protest, but was not moved:

The Oregonian, February 26, 1933. Several other neighborhood streets were renamed by the ordinance, including Glenn (now NE 32nd Place) and Marguerite (now NE 35th Place).

We haven’t yet come across anything on the record about how neighbors responded. Eventually the passage of time dulled the loss as Vernon Avenue families grew old, grew up and moved on—but it’s worth noting that articles in The Oregonian well into the 1940s referred to addresses on Vernon Avenue when reporting births, marriages, deaths and social occasions.

Vernon Then and Now

While the pace and scale of change can often take your breath away (for good and not so good), it’s surprising how some aspects of our neighborhood landscape are recognizable from a distance of more than 100 years.

We’re preparing a program for Wednesday night, April 18th about Vernon neighborhood history—come on along if you like, 7:00 p.m. at the Leaven Community Center, 5431 NE 20th Avenue—so we’ve been out recently scouting around. Vernon is the neighborhood loosely bounded on the north and south between NE Ainsworth and NE Wygant, and the west and east from NE 11th to NE 21st. Walkabouts for us usually begin with finding a handful of old photos, reference points or things to look for and then sleuthing around the neighborhood looking for the right vantage point. Here’s a couple examples.

We love this old newspaper advertisement placed in the Oregon Journal on October 25, 1908 by developers of the Vernon addition. Imagine: $1,000. The house was built in 1907 for O.G. Goldberg.

Here’s the Goldberg House today:

 

And here’s another great pair, just a few blocks north, this time looking at the heart of the Vernon business district, from the Oregon Journal on October 30, 1920. Check out the streetcar tracks and overhead lines.

And today:

Looking east on Alberta at NE 16th Avenue, April 2018. The distinctive building on the northeast corner (left) was built in 1909 during the rise of the Vernon-Alberta business district.

Some of our favorite stories are from Vernon: the ghost of Old Vernon and its practice houses, the Alberta Streetcar, the mystery of Crane Street, Alberta storefronts, Alberta Park, opposition to (and even arson at) the new local fire station. So many stories to tell, including an upcoming post that shares the intriguing real estate drama about how Vernon almost didn’t become Vernon. Stay tuned.

 

In praise of alleys

Here’s something you probably have not spent much time thinking about: Northeast Portland alleys.

It’s OK that you haven’t been thinking about them—it’s hard to know exactly where they are, some neighborhoods have them and some don’t. And even where they do exist, they might be hidden behind a wall of blackberry bushes, or garbage cans, or yard debris.

But now it’s time to think about alleys and to go out of your way a bit to appreciate and understand their history, demise and possibility. Along the way, we should also examine the question of why one neighborhood has them and another doesn’t. Mull that over a bit while we explore this topic.

First, an important fact about Portland alleys: virtually all of them are on the eastside.

Downtown Portland, known for its small and walkable 200’ x 200’ blocks, has never had alleys, to the chagrin over time of some business owners and public works officials who have complained that our downtown grid makes deliveries and trash removal too complicated and public. If our city blocks had alleys, they’ve argued, those essential but less desirable functions could take place out of view, giving the front of the business more leeway and prominence.

Here’s a great map that shows the extent and location of Portland’s alleys. Have a good look at it then come back here and we’ll continue our exploration.

There is at least one common denominator in this map’s seemingly random purple grid segments: they exist in neighborhoods platted before 1909. In Portland, as in so many other US cities, alleys were a utilitarian feature designed before the age of automobiles. The barn out back that might have housed a horse or wagon also contained garbage and other chaos that you didn’t want to have out front. But when the car came along—a symbol of convenience, independence and even status—garages began their migration from out back to the front of the house.

After about 1910, land development companies platting Portland’s eastside neighborhoods responded to this shift by dropping alleys and back garages from their plans. Not incidentally, this allowed houses to be a bit larger and to shift back farther from the street allowing for front yards and landscaping, as well as driveways and garages.

Alameda and its neighborhoods immediately to the north are a perfect illustration. Vernon, Elberta (not a typo) and Lester Park—the subdivisions just to the north across Prescott—were platted between 1903 and 1908 and they have alleys and 40′ x 100′ lots. Here in Alameda, platted in 1909 and built starting in 1910, there are no alleys, but 50′ x 100′ lots. North of Prescott, smaller houses crowd the street and yards are small. South of Prescott in Alameda, houses are larger and set back farther. No alleys. (Check out our Maps page and scroll down to find the original plats for Vernon, Elberta, Lester Park and Alameda Park.)

Yes, there are other contributing factors at play: Alameda has the ridge, which breaks the rectangular grid pattern. Plus, Edward Zest Ferguson and his Alameda Land Company wanted Alameda to be an upscale addition of larger homes, as opposed to the more compact homes and lots in subdivisions to the north. Irvington, for instance, platted even earlier than all of us above the ridge, does not have alleys. This was a function of the size and siting of much larger and costly homes on relatively constrained lot sizes. It’s hard to have both large homes and alleys given our compact grid.

The presence or absence of alleys was central to the question of site and building design, real estate value, and marketing potential at the turn of the last century. Throw in the advent of automobiles and you’ve crossed a tipping point away from alleys in the minds of early property developers. Why bother with alleys anymore?

So, there’s our answer to why some eastside neighborhoods have them and some don’t: it’s largely related to timing (pre- and post-1909 as the key date), with the advent of the car looming large, and a few other considerations like targeted market sector and house size. Bottom line is that after 1909, no more new alleys were built on Portland’s eastside.

Here in Northeast Portland you’ll find two types of alleys: the obvious ones that are a long straight laneway right up the middle of the block adjacent to back yards and paralleling the length of the fronted street (typically the numbered street). You’ll find these between Prescott and Alberta, from 24th to 33rd. Another form you’ll find is the tee alley, on either side of Ainsworth between NE 23rd and NE 33rd. This form provides a shorter cross alley (like the top of a letter T) that bisects the long laneway. These are interesting to explore and are in pretty good shape.

Once you start walking our alleys, you begin to see clues to the past and to future potential, and you can see how different neighborhoods have responded to their alleys. While we haven’t walked every Portland alley, we’ve explored a lot of them, and offer these observations as an enticement.

This alley is just off Alberta between NE 29th and NE 30th. Looking a bit like a gallery, the pools of light here illuminate boards that advertise the adjacent T.C. O’Leary’s Irish Pub. It’s an enticing sight.

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Most of the alleys between Prescott and Alberta from NE 24th to NE 33rd look something like this one: muddy ruts, grass, brush ready to grow over.

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Here’s one just north of Alberta between NE 27th and NE 28th. The entrance is crowded with garbage cans and recycling bins but adventure up a bit and you see a kind of graffiti gallery.

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Here’s one that has grown over. Looks like that laurel bush has eaten the garage too.

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The Piedmont neighborhood has great alleys that run south from Rosa Parks to Killingsworth between MLK and N. Commercial. Lots going on here: powerline corridor, pavement and some interesting ADUs.

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We came across quite a few alleys that had an entry threshold like this one with the gridded pattern scored into the sidewalk. This signaled the alley opening to passing pedestrians.

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Some alleys like this one in Portsmouth have become debris dumping zones for neighbors, with piles of clippings, dirt and other debris forming impassable mounds. No more cars up this alley.

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This Portsmouth alley is so well used and traffic-friendly that residents have built a driveway off the alley that seems like a primary entrance to their house. No need for a front yard here.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in alleys as public spaces that connect neighbors and neighborhoods. In many ways they are a hidden resource, public spaces in out of the way places. A few years back a consortium of city planners and urban design professionals launched the Portland Alley Project, which led to several alley maintenance and recovery projects. Here’s another great blog by San Francisco urban designer David Winslow with passages from his book Living Alleys: A new view of small streets.

Check these out, look at the map and then go for a walk. Get out there into this ready-made local trail system where you can slow things down and experience a completely different neighborhood than the one you think you know.

A Concordia alley

“Our old synagogue of blessed memory”

We’ve been exploring the history of a 110-year-old building in the Vernon neighborhood at NE 20th and Going, once home to Congregation Tifereth Israel, an eastside Jewish community, and then to several African American Christian congregations.

We’ve always been interested in transitions between building uses and occupants: what creates them, how they go, how people feel and react, what happens after.

In this case, the transition from Jewish synagogue to African American church brought out the best in the respective religious communities, but was a low-water mark for enlightenment in the neighborhood, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise given Portland’s troubled history of official and unofficial racism.

The Tifereth Israel community had its roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Many of its earliest members were immigrants who fled discrimination and violence there at the turn of the last century. As families became established in Portland, and new generations came along, the Tifereth Israel community grew to a point where they needed more space than the 1,000-square-foot Alberta Shul could provide. Congregation leaders—many of whom lived in the surrounding neighborhood—focused on a slightly larger building at NE 15th and Wygant, which was then the Redeemer Lutheran Church, a community that was about to move out and up to provide space for its own growing membership.

In December 1951, Tifereth Israel leaders announced they were going to buy the nearby Redeemer Lutheran building, and sell the Alberta Shul:

The Oregonian, December 29, 1951

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The move to the new venue apparently went fine, with services starting up there in 1952. But things got complicated that fall when the empty Alberta Shul went up for sale. Another growing church community, the Mt. Sinai Community Church, made an offer on the former synagogue, which ignited concern in what was then a mostly white neighborhood.

The realtor handling the sale dropped the deal like a hot rock once the neighbors started to push and as they were quoted in the newspaper with thinly-veiled reasons for opposing the African American church, which had gone out of its way to keep the peace in the neighborhood. Read this next story carefully.

 

The Oregonian, October 8, 1952

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Tifereth Israel leaders and others stepped in when the real estate agent stepped out, and the deal went forward.

The Oregonian, October 10, 1952

Lest you think this was just a real estate transaction for an empty building, have a look at the following passage of a letter from Tifereth Israel leaders to real estate agent Frank L. McGuire, which reads as true and important today as it did in the 1950s.

At the time said agreement was entered into, this congregation had no knowledge of the purchasers other than their name and that they were a Christian congregation. Later it developed that the members of Mount Sinai Congregation are Negroes and pressures have been put upon us to back out of the deal for no other reason than that the purchasers, though Christian, are also Negro.

We regard such pressures as being violative of the principles of Americanism, of Judaism, of Christianity and of common decency…Man has no dearer right than the privilege of worshiping God in his own way. To deprive any group of people of the right to meet and to worship merely because God chose to make them a part of the colored majority of mankind is repulsive to Americans who love their country and the great principles of democracy which distinguish our land from the totalitarian states wherein liberty and religion are destroyed.

In welcoming our colored brethren to our old synagogue of blessed memory, we are mindful of the quotation from Hebrew scripture, “Have we not all one Father; hath not One God created us?” We hope that they also will find God within its walls and that He will answer their prayers and ours that He teach us “to love one another.” In the event you refuse to close the sale, we desire to be released from our listing agreement so that we may ourselves consummate the moral agreement we have entered into.

 

Irate the deal was progressing, neighbors upped the conflict further by taking a petition signed by 90 residents to City Hall. Portland City Council refused to take it up.

The Oregonian, October 24, 1952

Even thought the Alberta Shul transition did go forward, deep currents of racism were affecting Northeast Portland neighborhoods, home mortgage lending practices and individual real estate transactions. The Tifereth Israel letter, written by elders who had survived generations of their own discrimination, encouraged a higher ground.

We’d like to learn more about Mt. Sinai Community Church and to hear from any who have known this building in the past.

Restoring a hallowed neighborhood building: The return of Alberta Shul

Past and present are on course to connect in a humble 110-year old building on the southeast corner of NE 20th and Going in northeast Portland’s Vernon neighborhood.

This long, narrow, white clapboard-sided building was built in 1907 and purchased in 1914 by Tifereth Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation with roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Later it served as an African American church.

This undated photo shows Tifereth Israel, a synagogue from 1914-1952. The building later became home to several African American church congregations, and most recently an art gallery and studio. A group of Jewish community leaders is now working to purchase and restore the building. Photo courtesy of University of Oregon—Building Oregon Collection.

 

The building in November 2017. Developers have been eyeing the corner lot for a tear-down. The Alberta Shul Coalition has secured an agreement with the current building owner to purchase and restore the 110-year-old building.

We bet you’ve seen the old building’s patient but somewhat tired grace, just west of the Vernon Practice House (from Old Vernon fame). Clearly not a residence, it presides over the intersection from its corner height.

Originally the center of Jewish life for a small handful of families on Portland’s eastside–many of whom lived within walking distance–the congregation expanded over the years to include up to 100 families. Known during those early years as the Alberta Shul (a Yiddish word meaning a place of study and prayer), the building drew together the eastside Jewish community. By the early 1950s, Tifereth Israel had outgrown the building, so the congregation purchased and moved into the former Redeemer Lutheran Church at NE 15th and Wygant.

From 1952 until the early 1980s, the building was home to several African American congregations, including the Mt. Sinai Community Church. In 1980, when it was sold to its current owner, the building was rented out for various purposes including religious gatherings and then eventually as storage space. In 2010 it became home to Xhurch (its current incarnation) a gathering and workspace for resident artists and musicians.

When the property was placed up for sale in 2016, members of Portland’s Jewish community learned of its availability—and its history—and began to organize an effort to purchase and restore the building. Their purchase proposal was in competition with developers interested in tearing it down and redeveloping the site, but the current owner was intrigued with the restoration project and has since entered into a contract with the coalition for purchase.

Today, the Alberta Shul Coalition is raising funds and support to transform the building back to its earlier role as a place for meeting, learning, community and prayer for the eastside Portland Jewish community.

Eleyna Fugman is one of the founders of the growing coalition. Her vision is for a special, simple gathering place for local Jewish residents to connect through a variety of community-driven programming, as well as a space that northeast neighbors could rent and use for meetings, classes and events.

“The fact that we could work, play and practice in a building that our ancestors built and made into a Jewish home is very important,” says Fugman. “There are many young Jews who are looking for a place to be Jewish, who are yearning for Jewish community in some format.” The coalition’s vision is that Alberta Shul can be a cultural venue for Jewish art, music, learning, and gathering as well as a place for traditional and alternative religious services and prayer.

The coalition is interested in gathering insights about the history of the building and the generations of families who knew it first as a synagogue and then later as a church. During its years as a synagogue, the 1,000-square-foot building drew people from many areas east of the Willamette River, including neighbors who lived just across the street, and some who came from as far away as Oregon City.

As we’ve seen, the Alberta business district exploded about the time this building was built, and Going Street was known for its neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery.

Eleyna Fugman is intrigued with the eastside presence of a vibrant Jewish community during those days, notable since the most established Jewish neighborhoods—and largest synagogues and congregations—were in south and southwest Portland.

Rosters of past Tifereth Israel members—which can be cross-referenced against city directories from earlier years—can help better illuminate the presence and extent of Portland’s eastside Jewish community. Some original records and other items survive from the early days and were saved when Tifereth Israel was absorbed into northwest Portland’s Congregation Shaarie Torah  in the 1980s. Stories and memories are beginning to emerge. The Alberta Shul Coalition has begun to find and meet a handful of former Tifereth Israel members who recall the building and its community.

The current building resident, Xchurch’s Matt Henderson, has been in touch with pastors from the building’s days as an African American church, and has helped connect and open conversations with members of the Alberta Shul Coalition. The coalition is interested in knowing more about the transition from synagogue to church, which was strongly supported by the Jewish community at the time and which created consternation in the then largely white neighborhood (more on that in next week’s post, which will open a window into the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and discrimination of the mid 1950s).

We had a chance to visit the building recently and found some tantalizing clues to its former lives:

A stained-glass window in the eastern wall. Alert AH reader Robert Stoltz recognizes this as the Harp of David, a metaphor from Jewish tradition for physical and emotional health and healing. We’re working on understanding the un-accounted for seven years between 1907-1914 and how this building started its life, stay tuned for more on this. It’s pre-Great Renumbering street address was 972 East 20th Street North.

 

An interior that is alive at the moment with Xhurch art and music. The windows are tinted green producing an interior glow. Check out the original light fixtures with hanging chains and shades (the fan-fixture is relatively new). Not pictured here is a raised platform or bimah that may have also held the altar in later years. Original? Maybe. 

 

Beautiful and unusual rounded window trim, unlike anything we’ve seen in a building of this era. We’ve had a quick look at several interior photos from the 1950s (hoping to be able to share those here soon) that also show this distinctive woodwork. Could the trim have been original? Five windows in the north wall, five in the south wall—and interior doors—all similarly trimmed out. And all frosty green.

 

The entry, featuring weathered crucifixes from earlier years, a new grid of tiles from the Xhurch days, and clear indications of the restoration work necessary to upkeep the siding, trim, stairs, fascia boards and soffits, roof and just about everything else. Fortunately the building does not have a basement: no downstairs foundation walls that need to be shored up.

The Alberta Shul Coalition seems undaunted by the restoration work ahead. They’ve already raised about $40,000 toward the purchase and are targeting another $136,000 by March 2018 to fulfill the first part of their purchase agreement with the owner. After that, the coalition has set its sights on raising another $250,000 to begin the restoration.

We’re donating some research time to help learn more about the stories of the building and the families who knew it over the years. Maybe you’d like to make a donation toward purchase and restoration of this almost-forgotten neighborhood institution. To learn more, visit the Alberta Shul Coalition on Facebook. More to come about this time traveler here on AH.

Next up: The transition between synagogue and African American church in the 1950s brought out the best of both religious communities, but the worst of the neighborhood.

 

In the footprint of Old Vernon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Storefronts of Northeast Alberta

There’s something about the pride of ownership, of hopefulness, of service that comes through in simple portraits of small business owners standing near an open door, their businesses behind them, wares in the window. We loved the recent photo of John Loyd, arms folded, in front of his butcher shop at Killingsworth and NE 15th. We could look at and wonder about pictures like these all day.

Thanks to the City of Portland Archives, we’ve come across a few more—taken on NE Alberta in the early 1930s, between NE 20th and NE 23rd. The photos came to us without any identification—a challenge we love—so we’ve spent some time this week in research mode and revisiting these places trying to piece together the basics of their stories. Each image is worth taking time with. Click in and have a good look around for the details, sense that pride of ownership, look for clues, watch for the reflections in the window. And think about change, which is so clearly evident on ever-changing Alberta.

F.L. Carlo Shoe Shop – 1931

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.34

How can you look at this photo and not smile back? The proprietor’s friendly smirk, hand jammed in pocket of pin-striped trousers, carefully organized window tableau of shoe care products, orderly line-up of tools on the wall. I’m bringing my shoes here. This is 749 Alberta, which after Portland’s Great Renumbering became 2215 NE Alberta (north side of the street). While the building is still there, its façade has been reconfigured several times over the years. This is about as close as we think we can come today:

2215 NE Alberta (detail), 2017

Here’s what we learned about our smiling shoe repairman. While the name on the window says Carlo, we believe he is actually Ciarlo, one of a family of Ciarlos who ran shoe repair shops in several Portland neighborhoods during these years. Emilio and Mary Ciarlo and their seven children lived in southwest Portland’s Italian neighborhood. The couple immigrated to the US in 1900 from Serra Pedace, Italy (in the south), and Emilio set up a shoe repair shop downtown near SW 2nd and Madison. Two of his sons (all of the kids were born in Oregon) Giuseppe and Vincent, also had shops in Westmoreland and out on SE Foster.

City directories for the early 1930s list this Alberta address as “Emilio Ciarlo,” but here’s what we think: Emilio helped set up his younger sons here on Alberta as they got their start. We don’t think this is Emilio: in 1930 he was 57 years old, plus his immigration papers indicate he was missing most of his left hand. Our guess is that this is son Louis Ciarlo (age 21 in the 1930 Census), who along with his 19 year-old brother Frank were just starting out in the shoe repair business. Our guess is that “F L Carlo” is likely Frank and Louis Ciarlo. It was not uncommon for immigrants of the day to simplify or “Americanize” their names. In fact, Giuseppe’s shop in Westmoreland was called American Shoe Repair.

The “rest of the story” on this is that their business operated at this address from 1930-1932, but the storefront was vacant after that until the late 1930s. Later city directories show Louis as a driver and Frank as a machinist, though brothers Giuseppe and Vincent stayed with shoe repair throughout their lives.

An unknown in the midst of this and the other two moments in time is the motive and identity of the photographer. Was he walking up the street taking pictures for a small fee? Was he as fascinated as we are in the stories and adventures of the small business owners? Was he thinking about the future? Look carefully in the reflection of the window at Ciarlo’s and you can see the head, cap, white collar and shoulder of our photographer (you can also see a billboard reflected from across the street). Hmm.

 

H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.32

One block west and across the street from Ciarlo’s was H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker at 734, which became 2112 NE Alberta. Built in 1908 when Alberta was still a dirt road, this building still stands though it has seen major modifications and better days. A small residence is located at the rear of the shop and on the second floor. It’s just next door to the east from the American Legion Post 134. Here’s the same view today:

2112 NE Alberta, 2017

Halver B. Olsen and his wife Marie immigrated to the US from Norway in 1902 and lived in Minnesota before moving to the Portland area in 1926. When this picture was taken, Marie had recently died and H.B. had moved from the upstairs apartment attached to this business where the two lived into a rented room in a family house just up the block. He was 52 years old in 1930, no children. H.B. ran his watch and jewelry repair at this address until 1935 and then he disappears from the city directories.

The rest of the story on this building is described by another old photograph fanatical researcher like ourselves like this:

It also served as a “restaurant & deli (1916), shoe repair shop where one of owners died of stroke on premises (1917-1922), “store” (1924), coppersmith’s shop (1924), barber shop (1925-26), “Alberta Food Lockers” (1948), “Bud’s Plumbing Co. (1956), upholstery shop (1983). The property was for sale and vacant for several longish intervals during 1960-64. It had a 2 BR, 2BA apt. upstairs.”

That excerpt, by the way, is taken from comments posted on an outstanding blog we follow and recommend called Vintage Portland, which is run by the City of Portland Archives and Record Center and regularly features old photos drawn from the city’s collection. This one appeared there in November 2013.

 

Irving Market and Grocery – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.31

Of all three photographs here, this building façade is closest to its original shape, at least for the moment. When we dropped by recently, construction was underway. Whenever we see chain link fence out in front of an old building, we get nervous.

2022 NE Alberta, 2017

This original old photo came with little identification, simply the “Red and White Store, 718 Alberta.” We’ve determined it was actually known as the Irving Market and Grocery during its short life, operated by David and May Irving, who we suspect are the couple to the right. His military records—he was a WW I soldier—indicate he was six feet tall. David was born in Canada and May was from England. Did they meet during the war? In the 1920s, they ran several small grocery businesses in Portland. The couple owned a home not too far away in Rose City Park.

We’ll remember from our recent post about Gwaltney’s Red and White Store on Killingsworth that these independently owned stores were everywhere. The Red and White franchise enabled Mom and Pop businesses like the Irvings to set up shop by buying Red and White branded merchandise, marketing materials and even store shelving. In the mid 1930s, there were 6,700 Red and White markets nationally. We had several in the neighborhood.

This building on Alberta was vacant in 1930 before David and May were on the scene, and the Irving Market and Grocery’s life was short: by 1933, the building was vacant again and remained so until 1937 when the Ray-o-Sun Grocery moved in, and David had gone to work for a large wholesale grocery company.

The subject of small neighborhood grocery stores, as AH readers will know, is close to our heart. We’ve taken an interest in understanding the life stories of local Mom and Pop grocery stores in the neighborhood. Understanding the ecosystem of small grocery businesses at the time also points to how shopping trends, the larger economy and day-to-day life in the neighborhood have changed over the years.

In 1930, we count 208 businesses along Alberta between MLK and NE 33rd Avenue. We’ve gone back through city directories of the late 1920s and early 1930s and have found a vacancy rate for any one year between 15-20 percent, highest in the early 1930s.

An analysis like this also turns up some interesting trends. Here’s a listing of the types of businesses on Alberta in the early 1930s, in descending order by type: 15 grocery stores; nine beauty shops or barbers; seven shoe repair shops; seven tailors or sewing shops; four butchers; four bakers; four pharmacies; four filling stations; four variety stores; four sweet shops; three hardware shops; three auto repair garages; three dentists; three furniture stores; two doctors; two theaters (including the Alameda Theater, which we’ve written about here on the blog); two radio shops; two restaurants; one ice delivery station; and a hodge podge of single shop fronts for plumbers, electricians, painters, real estate agents, sign shops, pool halls, watchmakers (our Halver B. Olsen), hat shop and others, including quite a few residences. And a busy streetcar line connected these businesses with local residences and beyond.

There’s some perspective for you. Radio, ice, hardware?

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