Taking Stock of Oregon Home Builders

We’re always on the lookout for further insights into the Oregon Home Builders Company, a prolific builder of quality Portland eastside homes from 1912-1917 and a cautionary story about the sometimes thin line between reaching and over-reaching.

Over the years we’ve been writing about OHB and it’s interesting founder Oliver Jeffery; the rest of the story of his aircraft factory, which is today covered with colorful art and graffiti at the southeast corner of NE 33rd and Broadway; its talented architect George Asa Eastman.

Recently, an AH reader shared with us another small piece of the story: a stock certificate from the company, signed by its president Oliver King Jeffery. Have a look:

1915 stock certificate from Oregon Home Builders. Courtesy of Steve Rippon Collection.

It looks to us that on November 18th, 1915, Leo V. Rich was the lucky owner of 493 shares of company stock, valued at 25 cents each, or $23.25. That’s $2,578 in 2021 dollars.

Rich, age 44 and single in 1915, was a foreman at Portland Woolen Mills, living in St. Johns on North Jersey Street, where he apparently had been saving his money. Maybe he read an edition or two of Keys to Success, the Oregon Home Builders newsletter and decided to invest. We hope he diversified.

Jeffery would have been pleased. He never missed an opportunity to encourage people to buy stock:

From The Oregonian, December 8, 1912

Unfortunately, when the company went bankrupt in 1917, even though Jeffery was still in town assembling funding for his next enterprise, stockholders were left perplexed and wondering how to redeem their attractive but worthless stock certificates, like this one once held by Leo V. Rich.

One of those stockholders wrote The Oregonian a few years later with a question about where the company went:

From The Oregonian, January 21, 1921

Keys To Success – Oregon Home Builders Newsletter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arnt Anderson: Talented Builder + Con Man

We’ve just finished a detailed look at local builder Arnt Anderson, which we’ve added to our section on The Builders. Anderson was responsible for about 20 large Craftsman-style homes in Alameda, Irvington, Beaumont and Montavilla between 1912-1915. These durable and graceful homes were some of the first built in the newly-established plats, including the plat known as Gleneyrie, which today is part of Irvington and Alameda.

Back then when the neighborhood was just starting out, the Tate Investment Company wanted you to come see Gleneyrie. And to have a look at a big house by Arnt Anderson. Check out this ad which includes a genuine Anderson and a stylized look at NE 24th Avenue (complete with the Broadway Streetcar).

From The Oregonian, April 20, 1913

We’ll be writing more here soon about development of Gleneyrie (which sits between NE 24th and NE 29th, from Knott to Stanton).

But for now, check out this biography (and list of houses) of the builder-turned-con artist who built some nice homes here in the neighborhood, but left town on a scam spree across the West and Midwest that ended in a Billings jail, a felony conviction and trip to the Washington state pen in Walla Walla.

New Builder Bios: Edward R. McLean and Earl A. Roberts

In our continuing quest to learn more about the people who designed and built homes here on Portland’s eastside, we’ve just published two new profiles: Edward R. McLean, who was an active and prolific homebuilder between 1922-1970; and Earl A. Roberts, who ran a residential design-build company with his dad and brother from 1908-1910 before his break-out success as an architect of high-end westside homes that vaulted him into a successful commercial architectural practice in Seattle between 1918 until his death in 1939. He also designed several prominent buildings in the Roseburg, Oregon area.

A listing of homes designed and built by the two men appears at the end of each biography. If you live in Beaumont, you better check out the list of McLean’s homes because you might live in one: he built quite a few in Beaumont. If you know something about a McLean house or the McLean family, drop us a line.

Interested in the story of who built your home or commercial property? Research Services.

More about kit homes and standardized house plans…

The recent discovery of the Sears Roebuck Argyle home just up the street—which is maybe more of a realization than an actual discovery…it’s been there for 100 years—got us to thinking about and looking around in search of other Sears Roebuck cousins.

There are plenty of them, which should not come as a surprise. Here’s a helpful field guide to identification.

In the same way that all art is derivative of other art, so too with residential architecture, defined by the period, the market, the ways of living at the time. As we’ve discussed in the profiles we’ve written about eastside builders, most used widely available sets of building plans.

Page through any of the catalogs from the early years and you’ll see lots of familiar designs, including maybe your own house. For a time during the building boom of the 1920s, The Oregonian actually published sets of plans of example houses, many of which were indeed built on the eastside.

A page from the 1936 Sears Modern Homes Catalog.

Here’s a link to the best repository of old house plans we’ve found (with many thanks to the folks at Antique Home Style). If you haven’t seen this, it’s going to be a rabbit hole you’ll want to go down, there’s so much to see and think about here. Even the marketing language from the catalogs will make you smile. The Wikipedia piece on Sears Modern Homes is actually pretty good as well.

And here’s another good local source of information about mail-order homes, and all things related to older buildings in our fine city.

Here’s the invitation and challenge: Next time you’re out for a walk (good for you and a great way to experience neighborhood history), see if you can find built versions of any of these plans. We’ll welcome any insights or photos of matches you find.

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 Home Builders Company: The rest of the story

If you’ve been following along on our exploration of the various builders who shaped our neighborhoods long ago, you’ve seen the pieces we’ve written about both the Oregon Home Builders Company and their factory building at NE 33rd and Broadway. This high-profile Portland company built more than 100 beautiful homes during its five years of operation from 1912-1917.

When we first dove in with both feet to explore the company, its people, its houses and its legacy, we were hooked by their compelling story; by their five-year arc from an auspicious launch with great promise, to their design and construction of durable and beautiful homes, to an embarrassing end, crashing in a mess of bankruptcy, unfulfilled promises and questionable business practices.

From The Oregonian, May 13, 1917

Recently we’ve come across some further insight which confirms our belief there was something fishy about company finances that led to their demise, despite their quality designs and construction methods.

A bit of background is necessary to fully appreciate this, so bear with us:

One of the fine homes the company built was for eastern industrialist Thomas Prince: it’s called the Thomas Prince House and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and we’ve written about it here.

From The Oregonian, July 22, 1917

Prince was a wealthy and successful captain of heavy industry from Massachusetts. In 1895, he retired to Oregon with a small fortune and with his son to grow walnuts near Dundee, which he did on a grand scale. By the time Oregon Home Builders was formed in 1912, he was 72 years old. Company president Oliver K. Jeffery knew him from real estate circles and somehow convinced him to serve on the company’s board and to invest his own funds in getting the company started.

From the Oregon Daily Journal, November 15, 1907

The company built a house for Thomas Prince in perhaps the most visible place in the Alameda Park subdivision: right at the top of Regents Hill at the crest of the ridge where the Broadway Streetcar passed by dozens of times a day. It was a trophy house for the company, built to show investors and potential clients they knew what they were doing.

When this house was built in 1916, Prince was 76 years old and in ill health physically and cognitively. He lived there only briefly, before dying of a stroke in California. But still, it’s the Thomas Prince House—as it should be—named for its first owner and occupant. Somehow, in Prince’s final years, the persuasive Jeffery convinced him to invest in the company at a very large scale. We’ve recently come across court documents that provide a bit more insight about what happened.

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

Thanks to an Oregon Supreme Court Case heard on appeal of a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling about Prince’s guardianship, we’ve learned the full story about where the company’s money was coming from. Read on:

“In 1915 his [Prince’s] faculties had become impaired by ill health and advanced age, in which condition he was induced by one O. K. Jeffrey to consent to finance the construction of dwelling-houses situated upon lots in Portland, Oregon, which lots, were acquired or controlled by Jeffrey. The money so advanced was to be repaid upon the sale of the dwellings so constructed. The enterprise was conducted under the unincorporated firm name of Oregon Home Builders, Jeffrey being the active head thereof: the dwellings did not sell readily, and from its inception, the concern lost money.”

“In May, 1917, Mr. Prince suffered a stroke of paralysis, in connection with which he was compelled to undergo a surgical operation, whereby he was confined in a hospital for several months. During that time, Jeffrey acquired a tract of land, and while Mr. Prince was convalescing the Oregon Home Builders erected a plant thereon for the manufacture of aeroplanes; Jeffrey prevailed upon Mr. Prince to advance the funds required to construct the plant and also to agree to advance the money necessary for the weekly pay-roll of those employed in the manufacture of aeroplanes, amounting to about $1,000 per week.”

Former Oregon Home Builders warehouse and workshop at NE 33rd and Broadway, briefly a factory to build World War 1 aircraft parts. Photo taken in 2012.

You may have known this building as Gordon’s Fireplace Shop, now closed. Oregon Home Builders built and used this building for almost two years as warehouse and workshop where the company constructed its built-ins and kitchen cabinetry until Jeffery transformed it—briefly in 1917 until funding reality caught up—into a place where spruce aircraft parts were built.

Photos from a January 1, 1918 spread in The Oregonian about the factory.

In an August 5, 1917 story in the Oregon Journal, Jeffrey was quoted as saying his workers were cutting 25,000 board feet of spruce parts daily for airplane stock and that the product would be shipped to eastern finishing plants. He told reporters: “Large orders for finished material have been secured by my company and the present force of 26 men will soon be doubled.”

Many different products have been manufactured in this building over the years: excelsior, pasta, furniture. It’s even hosted street-facing retail including barber shops and diners.

But let’s get back to the Oregon Supreme Court document for the clincher:

“By January 1, 1918, Mr. Prince had advanced in cash to the Oregon Home Builders about $157,000, and in addition had incurred a number of large obligations.”

“In part payment of the funds so advanced, Jeffrey, in the name of the Oregon Home Builders, conveyed to Mr. Prince, at excessive prices, nineteen or more dwelling-houses in Portland, Oregon, with the land upon which they were situated and a tract of acreage in Clackamas County, also eight sales contracts for the sale of dwelling-houses. All of the properties so transferred were already encumbered. Mr. Prince was compelled to borrow large sums to meet the demands for money made by Jeffrey.”

The brief goes on, but to summarize, a Prince family member from back east came to help the ailing Thomas, saw what was going on and immediately shut down the airplane factory and established a guardian for Prince, cutting Jeffery off.

This is what was actually going on behind the scenes, not reported on by any of the papers. And here’s what it looked like in The Oregonian during that time, with Jeffery as the prominent young businessman, patriot and pilot hero.

From The Oregonian, August 1, 1917

Did you catch the last two sentences? Sheesh.

“As president of the Oregon Home Builders, a concern which has gone far toward aiding those of small means in home building and owning, Mr. Jeffery is well known. The airplane factory is distinctly his own, although he will still retain his interest and presidency in the first firm.”

You can read the company history to see how it all ends (which we’ve updated with this new nugget). Proof that the early neighborhood-building years were a little crazy as investors and speculators jostled to get in on the profits.

At the moment—among several other research topics—we’re focusing in on another series of amazing neighborhood homes from the same era built by another company—Arnt Anderson’s construction company—which appears to have traveled a similar path, though Arnt was convicted and served time in a federal prison for larceny. More to follow.

Saturday program: Exploring the Oregon Home Builders Company

Our friends at the Architectural Heritage Center tell us there’s still room this coming Saturday morning (10:00 a.m. December 7th) for our program on the Oregon Home Builders Company, which is our deep dive into the story of this high-profile Portland company that built many beautiful homes during its five years of operation from 1912-1917 before crashing in a mess of bankruptcy, unfulfilled promises and questionable business practices.

Here’s a taste of the OHB vision and operation, from an advertisement in The Oregonian on April 28, 1912:

On Saturday morning, we’ll explore the business side of the company’s operation, its charismatic president Oliver K. Jeffery, and its homes, which have stood the test of time. Read more about Oregon Home Builders and its work on the AH Builder’s page.

New Builder Biography: Sam Olimansky, 1882-1974

We’ve been researching an Alameda home built by Russian-immigrant homebuilder Solomon “Sam” Olimansky who built dozens of homes, apartments and duplexes across Portland between 1919 and the 1950s, several of them notable for their whimsical use of clinker brick and storybook cottage house design.

Olimansky was a cagey, talented builder and charismatic businessman who spoke fast in his native Yiddish, loved to laugh, and was known to present building inspectors with house plans sketched on scraps of paper pulled from his pocket.

From a September 5, 1971 story about Sam in The Oregonian.

Sam began his building career in his native Poland as an apprentice violin maker. Later in Portland, he built everything from cabinets and display cases to homes, duplexes and apartment complexes. Sam was a natural builder, and a character.

We’ve added a biography of Sam Olimansky to our growing collection of homebuilder biographies you can find in The Builders section.

With thanks to the current homeowners for commissioning the history study that led to insights about Sam, and to his grandson Gil Olman for sharing memories about his grandfather.

Beaumont Market Corner: Two buildings as one

On a recent visit to City Archives, we turned up a great old photo of a local landmark you’ll recognize, and some amazing drawings that allow for Beaumont neighborhood time travel and trivia. Let’s start with the photo (from 1929) and its companion view today:

Looking south at NE 41st and Fremont. Top, September 1929. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, A2001-062.46. Bottom, same view in March 2019.

This building was designed and built by Shipley & Snashall, a partnership between two carpenters operating from 1922 until 1931. George Shipley and Valentine G. Snashall specialized in design and construction of eastside retail spaces, though they built several residences as well.

Their most well-known work is the building that in 2019 houses Peet’s Coffee and several other shops at the northwest corner of NE 15th and Broadway—you can see clear family resemblances—which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Shipley & Snashall completed the Beaumont building—which in our opinion is also likely register-worthy—in September 1928.

Our other recent archive discovery relates to the Beaumont Market building due east of the Shipley & Snashall building and which most people assume is all part of the same structure. Amaze your friends and neighbors with local trivia by explaining how the market building was actually built seven years after the signature buildings at the corner.

In January 1935, before being issued a building permit, architect Charles Ertz had to demonstrate how his adjacent market building would meet a contingency in zoning requirements at the intersection and be “in harmony” with the older buildings. So he submitted these colored-pencil renderings on onion-skin paper, which just about left us speechless when we found them recently. Click into these for a good look:

 

Here’s the related correspondence: a “do pass” recommendation from the Commissioner of Public Works and lead building official giving City Council a thumbs up to proceed, which they did unanimously.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, reference A2001-062

Like many of us, you may have thought all those storefronts at NE 42nd and Fremont were one single building. Now we know. Tip of the hat to the architect!

If you haven’t already seen them, a ways back we shared a half-dozen or so photos of Beaumont from the 1920s along with a deep dive into the retail history of the intersection. Be sure to check them out here, here and here. And our short biography of architect Charles Ertz.

 

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