Dairy & Orchards in the heart of Alameda | The Homedale Tract

Homedale is the name of the property plat—once part of an orchard and dairy—that occupies the landscape bounded roughly by Fremont and Ridgewood, between NE 19th and NE 24th. Today, it’s considered part of the Alameda neighborhood. Here’s a look at the geography.

Detail from the Homedale Plat, filed in 1921. Click to enlarge.

Think of a plat as a road map filed by developers for organizing property into individual lots and streets (read more about the relationship between plats and neighborhoods here). We all live somewhere in a plat and each has its own unique story, players and moment in history. We’ve created a category here on the blog (The Plats) to hold our ongoing exploration of these stories.

While today it’s an orderly grid of streets and homes dating from 1922, less than 100 years ago the sloping landscape just below Alameda ridge that you see here was an important part of Portland’s eastside agriculture. We’ve come across several interesting descriptions that will feed your curiosity and the way you think about this landscape. Read on, from local resident Rod Paulson written in January 1976:

“Before 1921 and 1922 when city lots were staked out, much of this was an apple orchard, the remnants of which can still be seen in some back yards. The trees grew right down to the edge of the Fremont Street [side]walk and there were several old buildings on the place, residential and otherwise, including a large farmhouse painted light brown which was located close to Fremont in the vicinity of 21st Avenue. This house dated back to the 1890s or before and people lived there in apparent comfort in a rural setting, yet in the midst of modern houses that [were being built] in all directions.”

“There was another farmhouse set back a considerable distance from the street more or less in the eastern part of the orchard, and a barn was situated opposite the end of 23rd Avenue.”

We’ve wondered about this: are isolated apple trees from the early orchard days still out there scattered across this part of the neighborhood? Can any readers confirm? In a happy coincidence, the Sabin Community Association has planted a small orchard of young trees near NE 19th and Mason, on ground that probably once was part of the old orchard:

The once and future orchard, near NE 19th and Mason, December 2018.

Owners Michael G. Munley and James T. Barron bought the future Homedale property in 1905 for $6,500 and kept it in agricultural use with an eye to eventual development, but market conditions didn’t make that worthwhile until the 1920s. Not coincidentally, Munley was son-in-law of E.Z. Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company which owned land just up the hill. Barron was a Ferguson business partner.

The Irvington Dairy operated from a barn situated at the northeast corner of NE 21st and Fremont from the 1890s until 1916 when a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the herd and the barn.

From the Oregon Journal, January 11, 1916. The address given–725 Fremont–is from Portland’s old addressing system and translates into the NE corner of 21st and Fremont. We did not find a follow-up news story about the fire investigation. The house remembered by Rod Paulson was home to dairy manager Grimm and his family.

Location of the former Irvington Dairy barn at NE 21st and Fremont, looking northeast, December 2018.

Between the terrible fire and an early 1920s resurgence in Portland’s real estate values, the time was nearing when Munley and Barron would execute the land use change and end the property’s agricultural past. In 1919, the Grimms and dairyman E.J. Bruns were selling off the last of the Munley herd:

From The Oregonian, March 30, 1919

A nearby dairy existed just to the east as well: the Pearson Place, the cow pasture where Alameda School was eventually built. The Pearson family operated their dairy there during this same time period and it too was subdivided into residential lots about the same time. You can read more about the Pearson Dairy and its time-traveling tree here (and we recommend putting on your walking shoes and your imagination to walk the perimeter of the farm).

Six years after the big fire at NE 21st and Fremont, Munley and Barron were underway with their plan to develop the property:

From The Oregonian, March 12, 1922

By the fall of 1922, the streets of Homedale had been carved into the south-facing slopes and the first homes had been built. Real estate ads even mentioned without explaining why that most lots had a fruit tree (but no mention of cows).

Interesting to note that prior to 1922, Regents Drive did not go all the way through to NE 21st because the orchard and open fields were in the way. Regents came down the hill and tee’d into NE 24th before heading south. Think of that next time you drive down Regents headed for NE 21st: the former orchard and pasture land you’re driving through.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve the reward of one of our all-time favorite news stories from that time illustrating the consequence of this early day change of land use from agriculture to residential (a subject that bears exploration in future posts). Dixon Place is the next subdivision to the west just a few blocks over, between Fremont to Shaver and from NE 15th to NE 19th, part of today’s Sabin neighborhood. What a great headline:

From The Oregonian, May 3, 1923

Dairies like the one at NE 21st and Fremont–and many more small dairies around town–occupied a unique niche in time as Portland grew between 1890 and the 19-teens. As population and growth exploded and property became more valuable for housing, the departure of the dairies was a bellwether of change. More from the front lines of subdivision-dairy conflict in the weeks ahead. It’s a fascinating story.

Mothers Against Alberta Pool Halls

During our recent research adventures on Alberta Street, we bumped into some stories about the perceived corrupting influence of pool halls, and the advocacy of local mothers. We were wandering around in newspapers from the 19-teens as we sought insights about Ford’s Pool Hall at NE 17th and Alberta. As it turns out, there were several pool halls along with all the other businesses on Alberta and local mothers were not happy about it.

We know the Fords got out of the pool hall business entirely in 1917. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall.

Classified ad from the Oregon Journal, June 28, 1917. George and Sylvia Ford were selling their pool hall business.

 

By the early 1920s, mothers of the Alberta area were concerned and brought their protests to City Hall.

From The Oregonian, January 27, 1921. The building at 212 Alberta has been demolished.

 

From The Oregonian, February 12, 1921. This pool hall was in located at 2038 NE Alberta, the building now occupied by Little Big Burger. Think about that the next time you drop by for a chèvre burger and fries…

Reading these two news stories, it’s hard to know what is most striking, the patronizing nature of the officials toward the obviously concerned mothers making the complaint, the admirable boldness of the women bringing their concerns directly into City Hall, or the notion that spending time in a pool hall would lead to the corruption of youth.

 

Oregon Home Builders: A Company History, 1912-1917

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

From The Oregonian, February 9, 1913

 

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

From The Oregonian, December 29, 1912

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

From The Oregonian, May 14, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Daily Oregon Journal, June 6, 1915

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

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

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

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

From The Oregonian, July 22, 1917

 

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

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

 

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

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1916

 

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

From The Oregonian, December 15, 1916

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From The Oregonian, January 21, 1921

So what happened to Oliver K. Jeffery?

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Listing of houses built by Oregon Home Builders

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

 

1912 (~2)

Alberta Street (the listing did not provide an address)

4221 NE Glisan

 

1913 (~17)

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

3141 NE Multnomah

3211 NE Multnomah

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

Near Jefferson High School (no address given)

Four cottages in Gearhart, Oregon (no address given)

 

1914 (~32)

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

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

NE 33rd and Wasco (not found)

Five houses in Carlton, Oregon

Several houses in Astoria, Oregon

Purchased 18 lots in Irvington, no addresses given

2803 NE 24th

4323 NE 26th

4807 NE 29th

8719 SE Alder

1734 NE Broadway

836 N. Buffalo

3123 NE Dunckley

3135 NE Dunckley

3229 NE Dunckley

3259 NE Dunckley

2233 NE Mason

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

916 N. Stafford

8730 SE Washington (postcard house)

8836 SE Washington

2314 NE Wygant

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

 

1915 (~20)

1216 NE Alberta

3024 NE Bryce (photo)

3033 NE Bryce

3128 NE Bryce

3140 NE Bryce

2931 NE Dunckley (Walkup/Thomas – photo 911)

3005 NE Dunckley (Lemkuhl – photo 931)

3115 NE Dunckley

8637 SE Morrison

3104 NE Regents

2523 Skidmore

2607 NE Skidmore

2613 NE Skidmore

2824 SE Yamhill

3407 SE 20th

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

4142 SE 25th

3535 NE 25th

3930 NE 29th

 

1916 (~15)

2903 NE Alameda (Thomas Prince house)

5927 NE Alameda (postcard house)

5935 NE Alameda

2915 NE Dunckley

5534 NE Hoyt

435 NE Laurelhurst Place

1923 SE Pine

2023 SE Pine

2043 SE Pine (demolished)

4706 NE Sandy (demolished)

2003 NE Stanton

2017 NE Stanton

8004 N. Van Houten

1632 N. Webster

225 SE 20th

235 SE 20th (postcard house)

3636 SE 21st

1816 SE 24th

3426 NE 21st

1726 NE 24th (photo – built for Prince)

3912 NE 32nd Place

1522 NE 49th

1534 NE 49th

 

1917 (~24)

2930 NE Bryce

3006 NE Bryce

3276 NE Bryce

3284 NE Bryce

3296 NE Bryce

5605 N. Detroit

2717 NE Mason

2807 NE Mason

54 NE Meikle Place

2409 SE Stephens

6822 SW Virginia

6834 SW Virginia

4815 NE 11th

3434 NE 17th

3444 NE 17th

3436 NE 21st

3446 NE 21st

1738 SE 24

1804 SE 24th

1816 SE 24th (photo and story)

1816 SE 24th

1826 SE 24th

5937 NE 30th

2112 NE 51st

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

Light Atop Mt. Hood

105 years ago tonight, Portland craned its neck and squinted to the east for a glimpse of a light atop Mt. Hood. Light rain fell in some places. But across Portland’s eastside at 10 o’clock p.m. many eyes were intently looking east.

During the previous week, an adventurous climbing party from the Portland YMCA had been making its way east first by interurban trolley car to Boring (along today’s Springwater Corridor) and then on foot and by automobile to Government Camp. It was no small task 105 years ago to reach the base of Mt. Hood—something we take for granted today—and the climbing party’s progress was noted in front page news coverage in The Oregonian.

The culmination of the group’s two weeks of hiking, camping and climbing, was to be a planned night-time ignition of 50 pounds of red flare powder atop Mt. Hood to signal all in Portland that the party had achieved its objective. The group carried bags of what reporters referred to as “redfire,” which was probably strontium nitrate powder, known to burn bright red: the same material as in modern road flares.

You have to read the build-up to this big event to appreciate the imaginativeness and chutzpah of this group, and the confusion and dueling stories that followed. Let’s start on July 15, before the group left for the mountain, as they were deciding that they would dig bunks atop the summit for a good night’s sleep.

From The Oregonian, July 15, 1913

 

The Oregon Journal sent reporters out across the eastside to talk to those who were watching. The next day, here’s what they reported, including eyewitness testimony from people who saw the redfire plainly.

From the Oregon Journal, July 22, 1913

But the real story of what happened, finally reported six days later when the group made it back to Portland, is a little more complicated, real and wonderful. Read on:

From The Oregonian, July 26, 1913 (click to enlarge)

With all the build up, neighbors were ready to see what they wanted to see, despite the sleet and the YMCA group’s turning back that night from the summit. Was it that people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, to close the distance between what was wild and the city? Or was it just the moon on a misty summer night?

Tonight at exactly 10 o’clock we’ll be watching.

Portland’s Horse Tethering Rings

You’ve probably seen those old iron rings tethering toy horses to curbs across Portland’s older neighborhoods, a kind of whimsical tip of the hat to our pre-automobile past. But that old hardware rusting on the curb in front of your house is more than just a quaint antiquity: it had an important job to do back in the day.

Many eastside neighborhoods like ours were conceived and built when horses and wagons ruled the streets. In the early 1900s, as Portland was expanding and our neighborhoods were the newly minted suburbs, cars were an unproven, mostly unavailable commodity. In 1905 there were only 218 cars registered in the entire state of Oregon. People got around on foot, horseback and by horse and wagon, but mostly our predecessors here in eastside neighborhoods got around by streetcar. And mostly, neighbors did not keep a horse and wagon at home. So, what’s with all the hitching rings embedded in our curbs?

Every commodity and supply that came to your house in those days was delivered by horse and wagon: firewood, coal, ice, groceries, dry goods, laundry, building materials, parcel post packages. A page of classified ads in The Oregonian from 1900-1910 looks like the land of opportunity for horse-wagon delivery teams and people with strong backs. If you had a horse and wagon, you had a job.

In 1907 Portland City Council passed an ordinance requiring that new curbs in front of houses have “ring bolts” installed every 25 feet so that delivery vehicles could be securely tied down to protect pedestrians and other wagons using the street.

From Ordinances of the City of Portland, 1910

Horse tethering rings weren’t quaint. They were the law.

Many delivery drivers also carried a heavy weight attached to a strap they would place out on the ground—kind of like an anchor—to prevent the horse and wagon from moving around when the deliveryman hopped out and ran up the steps.

Horse tethering weight. These typically weighed 25 pounds and were attached to a wagon by a leather strap. The driver placed these out on the ground when away from the wagon.

By the late 1920s, the automobile (and delivery truck) had almost completely replaced the horse and wagon. Interestingly, streetcar ridership also began to drop off in the late 1920s as more people bought cars and drove where they wanted to go—unleashing a raft of other problems—leading to the demise of Portland’s streetcar system by the late 1940s. But we digress.

When tethering rings became obsolete, the cities of Vancouver and The Dalles passed ordinances requiring their removal due to safety concerns. Here in Portland, one visitor’s misstep resulted in a similar proposed ordinance to do the same. This was actually a front page news story on August 16, 1938:

 

From The Oregonian, August 16, 1938

Editorial response to the proposed ordinance was immediate, sarcastic, nostalgic. The next day, this unsigned piece appeared on the editorial page, bearing the distinctive style and cadence of editor Ben Hur Lampman, columnist and editorial writer, and eventually Oregon’s poet laureate.

 

From The Oregonian, August 17, 1938

 

City Council declined to take action in 1938, but the topic re-emerged in 1947 on the editorial page rising from what appears to have been a chit-chat between Ben Hur Lampman and his grandson. Kind of wistful, we’d say…evidently a topic close to his heart.

 

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1949

 

Over the years, the city’s Public Works Department adopted an unofficial policy of removing tethering rings. Some were saved, but many were dumped. But in 1978, when the city went to work on a curb in Ladd’s Addition, one unhappy homeowner picked up the phone and called the newspaper. His complaint, and his desire to remember the past, caught the attention of City Commissioner Connie McCready (who went on to become Portland mayor). The ensuing dust-up put horse tethering rings back on the front page of The Oregonian. Who would have thought?

 

From The Oregonian, January 7, 1978. Click to enlarge.

 

In recent years, the rings have re-entered the public consciousness in the form of the Portland Horse Project, dozens of photos and entries about the tiny horses tethered to curbs all across town (just Google “Portland Horse Rings”), and hundreds of acts of creativity and imagination by horse and history fans across the city.

There’s some magic about all of this: the horse rings are here with us in this moment but represent and call to mind a totally different world and time. They ask us to step out of ourselves for a moment to put time and place into perspective, to contemplate both change and steadiness, to acknowledge that what we know about the world today is not necessarily all there is to know. Our old houses do that too.

We love the line from Lampman’s 1938 editorial: “Something there is about the past, there always is, that causes us to put the present to the question.

 

Alberta Lodge: Rescued and revived

Walking and wondering about history go hand-in-hand, especially here in Northeast Portland. On a recent adventure down Concordia neighborhood alleys, we came across a distinctive building at the corner of NE 23rd and Sumner that made us wonder: what was that? Too big to be a family house; too small and house-shaped to be an apartment building. Maybe you’ve seen this and wondered too. Take a look:

5131 NE 23rd Avenue

When you stand and stare for a moment, many possibilities come to mind: hostel, church, school, chalet, rooming house, theater. Hmm, what could it be?

How about fraternal lodge?

Yes, the two-story, bracket-eaved old beauty was purpose-built in 1923 as the home of the Alberta Lodge Number 172 Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. Here’s the news from July 1923 about the ceremonial placing of the cornerstone, and a construction rendering of the building:

From The Oregonian, July 8, 1923

 

Those big gable-ended walls at front and back: they’re made out of concrete, formed and poured in place (all four walls are concrete, making moving a window or door no simple task, just ask the current owners). Inside, there were small rooms and chambers for the various aspects of the secret Masonic rites, and a beautiful theater-like gathering space. A kitchen, offices, cloak rooms.

During its heyday, the Alberta Lodge No. 172 had 450 members and was jammed busy on multiple nights each week, often with a ceremony and the many social gatherings that preceded or followed: picnics, breakfasts, dinners, work parties.

In 1986, with Lodge membership dipping to just 150 members—most of them senior citizens—the Masons decided to sell the building and consolidate several other shrinking lodges under one roof in Parkrose. Masonic elders came to reclaim the ceremonial cornerstone and extinguish its service in one last ceremony. A January 14, 1986 news story in The Oregonian quotes the wife of one former Alberta Lodge leader: “It’s been our whole life.” Another, reflecting on our changing society: “People live a different lifestyle these days. All the fraternities are dwindling.”

Click to enlarge. From The Oregonian, January 14, 1986. 

Following its time as a lodge, the building was the Fellowship Church of God until 2005 when that growing community moved first to the Doubletree Hotel near Lloyd Center then to a new and larger facility on NE 122nd. The space was rented on and off for several years, and served as the home of Heaven Bound Deliverance Center before slipping into receivership and an accumulated ocean of deferred maintenance.

That’s where current owner Randall Stuart and his colleagues found it during their search for just the right building to serve as a convening space for art, theater, music, learning and community.

The 8,000-square-foot concrete building was headed for demolition when Stuart and his team purchased it in 2013 launching a two-year renovation effort that involved restoring virtually every surface and moving part in the place. And then some: new interior walls and spaces, including a major interior stairway; an ADA ramp and exterior access; outdoor spaces and landscaping; a total overhaul of building systems.

Prior to finding the Alberta Lodge, Stuart and his colleagues had formed the foundation that now runs it: Cerimon House is a 501(c)(3) humanities organization dedicated to creating and celebrating community through arts and humanities.

“It’s definitely been a labor of love. Our board is very proud of saving the building and keeping it aligned with a fellowship mission” he says, tipping his hat to the generations of Mason families who have gathered in the space.

Today, the old Alberta lodge building is definitely back to life as gathering space for art, music, readings and lectures—and lots of other interesting events, including weddings, meetings and family gatherings (the space is available to rent). Stuart invites neighbors who want to see inside Cerimon House to book a tour online at the website or take a virtual tour to learn more: www.cerimonhouse.org

Northeast Portland’s Foxchase: What’s in a name?

If we asked you to find Foxchase on a map, could you?

Here’s a clue: it was one of a dozen different subdivisions created more than 100 years ago that taken together today make up what we think of today as northeast Portland’s Concordia neighborhood.

Here’s a visual clue: then-and-now photos of the same place, separated by 63 years.

Then: Looking east on NE Killingsworth at 30th Avenue, 1954. Note stop signs faced traffic on Killingsworth. The building with the striped awning is today’s Cup and Saucer Cafe. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives, reference A2005-001.365.

Now: NE Killingsworth and 30th Avenue looking east, March 2017. Lots of change in this photo: the Shell station on the northeast corner (which we knew for years as a U-Haul rental place) has been replaced by a type of massive apartment block that has become ubiquitous on Portland’s eastside.

 

Here is the other then-and now pair:

Then: Looking west on NE Killingsworth at 30th Avenue, 1954. How about that stop sign? By the time this photo was taken, the Alberta Streetcar that traveled down NE 30th Avenue to Ainsworth had been gone six years, but the “through street” mentality was still more with 30th than with Killingsworth. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives, reference A2005-001.366.

Now: NE Killingsworth and 30th Avenue looking west, March 2017

An unscientific survey taken on a Friday morning walk with the dog turned up the fact that most local business owners at the increasingly busy intersection of NE 30th Avenue and Killingsworth know they are in Foxchase. There are some Airbnb’s in the area identifying themselves as being in “Fox Chase.” And maybe a few residents who think of themselves as Foxchasers too. But chances are if you tell a friend “I’ll meet you in Foxchase for a beer,” they’re going to need directions.

So when we came across the 1954 photos recently and were already doing some serious digging into how the Foxchase plat came to be—and it is a fascinating story—we thought it was time to set the record straight with a little history.

First of all, it’s Foxchase. That’s what the plat says, filed on April 1, 1889 by Eugenie M. and J. Carroll McCaffrey. Here it is:

Only the numbered streets retain their identity today. McCaffrey = Alberta. Junker = Sumner. Alvan = Emerson. Birch = Killingsworth. The intersection of NE 30th and Killingsworth anchors the northwest corner.

The 1889 Foxchase plat was actually filed in the town of East Portland. At that point we were a separate city distinct from Portland, as was Albina and several other outlying communities. In 1891—in an attempt to roll together the greater Portland area population into one number that would keep us ahead of Seattle—the three towns consolidated to became 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).

Not long after platting the property, J. Carroll McCaffrey started running classified ads in The Oregonian and the land speculation boom was on.

From The Oregonian, February 19, 1890. McCaffrey set up the Western Oregon Land and Investment Company for his real estate deals.

Dozens of Foxchase real estate transactions show up in the early 1890s. All speculation: the buying and selling of lots.

At that point in our history, there wasn’t much up here on these gentle slopes of the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River beyond. Fields, forests, a few dairies here and there; Homestead Act claims from the 1860s held by a couple dozen families. Alberta was a dirt track meandering 10 blocks between MLK (Union Avenue then) and what is today’s NE 15th Avenue. Across the Willamette River, the small grid of what we think of as downtown Portland was getting ready to explode, and investors like McCaffrey knew it. His business was to use other people’s money to buy up open land for the eventual grids of streets and lots that would follow.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

J. Carroll McCaffrey was a Georgetown-educated attorney, born and raised in Philadelphia, who kept a small practice there as well as here in Portland. He and his wife Eugenie were busy on the social scene of both communities and frequent travelers back and forth.

They showed up in Portland about 1886 and McCaffrey quickly became ingratiated with Portland business leaders as a likeable and cheerful person. That fall and through the winter of 1887, J.C. placed the same advertisement in The Oregonian almost every single day:

McCaffrey found what he was looking for and was quickly engaged in the development of Portland Heights (southwest Portland), being quoted in the newspaper about the availability and quality of artesian well water in the southwest hills, helping incorporate the Portland Cable Railway Co. to transport people up to the heights, and building a prominent mansion known today as the Markle House to entice development.

At the same time as he was speculating on property in the southwest hills, McCaffrey looked to the east side guessing Portland was headed that direction too. He acquired a majority interest in a 15-square block portion of what was the larger 160-acre Donation Land Claim of George Emerson. He and Eugenie platted these 15 blocks as Foxchase.

Here’s where the Philadelphia connection comes in. Fox Chase is the name of a comfortable neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia, named for an 18th century inn. During McCaffrey’s timeframe of reference—the 1870s-1880s—Philadelphia’s rich and famous were building their mansions in Fox Chase. He and Eugenie were trying to call that to mind.

Their choice of street names hit close to home too: Because Alberta didn’t exist except in the Albina area, they planned for that main street on the south end of the plat to be McCaffrey Street. Junker, the next street to the north, was Eugenie’s maiden name. Was Alvan the nick name for one of their four young children? And Birch? Hmm, no birch in that area. Choose any nice tree name.

McCaffrey liked what he saw in the land speculation business, and in 1890 incorporated as the Western Oregon Land and Investment Company (that’s his company in the 1890 classified ad up above). He was just getting rolling.

But not long after that, things started to fall apart. McCaffrey unsuccessfully sued his former partners in the southwest Portland cable railway enterprise and George Markle, who bought the mansion McCaffrey had built on Portland Heights. In 1892 McCaffrey was arrested for land fraud related to 80 acres he was trying to sell south of Oregon City, charges he wriggled out of on a technicality. In 1893 he was charged with embezzlement, which he tried to shrug off as a misunderstanding and escaped because of technicality related to evidence. That same year he was accused of fraud by two of his fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce. And, Eugenie was granted a divorce citing inhuman treatment.

When he was indicted on check fraud in February 1894, The Oregonian reported that in a period of a few years, McCaffrey had been remanded to a grand jury on a dozen fraud charges of various types. He was no longer able to secure a bondsman to keep him out of trouble, and business must have gotten tight as people discovered he was not a man of his word. Eventually, McCaffrey was convicted of check fraud and served a few months in the Oregon pen before winning on appeal on a technicality, when he fled to his native Philadelphia to resume his legal practice.

Here’s where it gets stranger than fiction (a small reward for those of you who have stayed with me this far): In 1895, McCaffrey was hired by the defense team of serial murderer H.H. Holmes (made famous in the book The Devil in the White City…about the “murder castle” near the 1893 Chicago World Fair) to try to persuade Pennsylvania Governor Robert Pattison and the Pardon Board to stay Holmes’s execution. We know McCaffrey was a persuasive attorney when it came to appeals, but not this time. Several months later, McCaffrey took his own life.

So, it’s probably OK McCaffrey Street never made it to the map. And interesting that Foxchase is making a comeback, though some still think of it as the northern part of Concordia.

We’ve written here before about the distinction between subdivision or plat names and neighborhood names. Most plat names have disappeared into the fog of the past, no longer used or even known by neighbors who occupy them every day. Plat names were provided by developers when they extended their portions of the grid into the fields and forests that were here before us. Just like the McCaffreys did, developers tended to choose plat names that sounded attractive or that called to mind the suggestion or essence of a special place.

Some of our favorites that exist invisibly under our feet here in northeast Portland today are Manitou, Railroad Heights, Spring Valley Addition, Town of Wayne, Durant’s Nightmare (yes, that’s a real plat name…referring to the nightmare the surveyor had in getting all the survey lines to meet up).

Long live Foxchase.

Old Vernon Part 2: The Practice Houses

Scattered and unidentified in File 1856 at the Oregon Historical Society are pictures of young people preparing food in an old house kitchen and lined up on a front porch looking very determined in their white aprons.

The pictures are piled into a dog-eared manila folder containing random old photos of schools in north and northeast Portland, so at first glance they seemed out of place. Why was a house in the school folder? The photos did have the name “Vernon” written on the back, but they were clearly of a house, not a school.

We made copies of these photos anyway and kept on in our search for information on the old Vernon School. That’s one of our rules of research: you never know how all the parts might fit together, so keep an open mind and gather up the pieces because eventually they might make sense, and you’ll need them to complete the puzzle.

As we’ve learned more about old Vernon School—which occupied the entire block bounded by NE 22nd and NE 23rd, Wygant and Going from 1907-1932—we found references to two different nearby houses, rented by the school board at different times, that provided a learning laboratory for “domestic science.” These insights helped us make sense of the photos.

Launched by Vernon School Principal William Parker, the program started in 1914 in a rented house at 4715 NE 24th (rent was $18 per month) where it ran under the supervision of Mrs. Caroline Redding. References in The Oregonian and a handful of national magazines referred to it then as the Vernon Community House.

In 1917, the program shifted to a different teacher—Mrs. Lois Swafford—and a different house, this one also rented, at 4545 NE 21st. This house was referred to as the Vernon Practice House.

Regardless of which house or what it was called, Vernon’s community-house-practice-house was a pretty resourceful little institution. Students built the furniture, dug, planted and weeded the vegetable garden, made the drapes, sheets and linens, planned and made the meals, planned household budgets and hosted dozens of teas and gatherings to practice their domestic arts. They developed systematic approaches to cleaning and maintenance. Principal Parker dubbed the insight and experience this created as “homecraft,” the art of running a household. Students had the responsibilities and the learning rewards of figuring out how to run a two-story, six-room house; to practice at some life skills that might come in handy down the line.

Over a period of four years between 1914-1918, old Vernon School was a kind of educational mecca visited by leading lights in the education world and the national press to see what this learning-by-doing house was all about. During those years, the neighborhood had an impressive list of visitors that included the head of the Education Department at Harvard University; Ladies Home Journal magazine; Sunset magazine; scholarly education journals; The Country Gentleman, a national-circulation magazine targeted at rural homeowners.

Here’s a July 1915 article from The Country Gentleman, that describes the Vernon Community House. Click the image to enlarge.

 

Below, an article from Sunset Magazine in October 1918 tells pretty much the same story of the program. Featured in the photo is the Vernon Practice House (the second of the two houses) at NE 21st and Going, which operated after 1917 under the leadership of Mrs. Lois Swafford (inset). Click the image below to enlarge.

 

Even though old Vernon School has been gone now for 85 years, we wondered how both houses were faring and if their residents had any inkling of the former role these houses played in the neighborhood. So with pictures in hand, we set out to find them.

Investigation by bike, some walking around, a quick look at old city directories and a pre-address change cross-reference turned up the locations pretty quickly. We wondered if the students from the 19-teens would recognize the houses today. Judge for yourself:

 

From The Oregonian, January 24, 1915

 

4715 NE 24th Avenue today

We visited briefly with the homeowner here on NE 24th, who has lived in this house for 20 years. He had no idea his house was once part of a school program or, for that matter, that there had been a school just one block over. Most people we talked to, and those we’ve heard from since posting our story on Old Vernon, had no idea of the school’s former presence in the neighborhood.

 

 

Continuing on our hunt for old houses, we found and knocked on the front door at the second Vernon Practice House, where we met homeowners Ann Gravatt and Brad Ouderkirk, who were not aware of the home’s history but were interested to learn more. Again, no indications from their knowledge of the house that it was long ago the focus of so much attention.

The second Vernon School Practice House (after 1917). Detail from October 1918 Sunset Magazine (above), and today (below).

4545 NE 21st Avenue today

We shared more vintage photos from the Oregon Historical Society file (below), which they were excited to see. Their children are about the ages of the students in the photos from 1917, which prompted Ann to ask her son if he was going to be cooking dinner for the family…

Written on the back of this photo: “Vernon School boys, Portland, Oregon, who have been learning ‘fantastic cookery.'” Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, file #1856. Our best guess is that these photos were taken by Portland Public Schools in fall 1917 or spring 1918.

 

When the current homeowners saw this photo: “Yes, that is definitely our dining room.” Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society, file #1856.

After several feature-length stories in The Oregonian in the mid 19-teens, and many blurbs promoting upcoming community teas, fundraisers and social events at the house (all catered and staffed by eager students), newspaper references to the house stop in late 1918. No clues in the archives, and no one to ask about what it all meant or how the Vernon Practice House ended.

Did Mrs. Swafford leave? Did the return of soldiers at the close of World War I swamp the rental market and return the practice house into actual use? We know that Principal Parker, a key leader of the effort, was at Old Vernon until 1920 when he was transferred to the Albina Homestead School at NE Beech and NE Mallory streets. Did he take the program with him when he left?

Hmm.

 

 

 

 

 

Old Vernon – Forgotten Neighborhood Ghost

The old Vernon School, located south of Alberta between Going and Wygant, was the center of community life for two decades. Evidence of its presence has faded to invisible today.

Everything about the old Vernon School (1907-1932) has made us want to know more:

It’s gone now, slipped below the surface of living memory leaving few traces, so we’re going to have to reconstruct a sense of it through research, experience and a little imagination, which is what we love to do.

The original Vernon School, built in 1907-1908, was located on the block bounded by NE 23rd, NE 22nd, Going and Wygant. This view of the school’s south side is looking north-northwest about 1912. The main entrance was on the north side in the center. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.

As a public school, it was both cornerstone and hearth for the community. During the day, Old Vernon was filled with the neighborhood’s young people: in class, outside on the grounds, in the portables, in the “manual training” rooms, walking home for lunch. In the evenings, every community group, service club, parent gathering, neighborhood concert, tea, dance, or lecture drew people from the surrounding blocks into the building. It was a place and institution that connected people to each other.

Vernon School Art Classroom. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

There was the sadness at the end of its time. Many families didn’t want to leave the big old building and its traditions in favor of a promised new brick school a half-mile away.

And then there was the way it went: destroyed by an arsonist on a hot summer night with the entire community looking on, in fact, jamming the streets as they streamed in to watch, unwittingly hindering the fire department’s three-alarm response.

 

 

You probably know the vicinity of the old Vernon school south of Alberta Street, but you probably never knew it was there, occupying all of Block 54 of the Vernon Addition, bounded by NE 22nd and NE 23rd between Going and Wygant. Old Vernon was a giant, imposing wood frame building that commanded the center of the block, its main doors and prominent stairs facing north. The auditorium took up the entire top floor, tucked in under the hipped roof, dormers letting in light all the way around. Periodic construction added space over the years, eventually 17 classrooms in the main building, and several outbuildings for shop, cooking and a play shed. It was a big place.

 

Sanborn panel 567 from 1924 shows old Vernon School and its outbuildings in upper right corner occupying the full block. Click on image for larger view.

Today, if you walk that block—as we have so many times looking for clues and trying to imagine the big old barn of a school—you’ll see how the brick and Cape Cod-style homes and duplexes on today’s Block 54 are different from the Craftsman and Old Portland style houses across the street built three decades earlier. Now you’ll know why.

After Old Vernon was abandoned in 1932, the school district tore down the wreckage and traded all 18 vacant lots of Block 54 (plus $2,000) to a developer for six lots adjacent to Thomas A. Edison High School, which during the 1930s-1940s occupied the corner of NE Beech and Mallory. This seems like a sweetheart deal to us, and we note the Portland School Board was split on the sale when they approved it on the night of April 11, 1940. Soon, new home construction was underway on the Old Vernon site, which was then fully built out with the houses we see today by 1945, erasing all traces of the old school.

 

 

The early story of old Vernon School is much like other eastside neighborhood schools. A building boom followed the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, which put Portland on the national map as a desirable place to live. Open lands within four miles of downtown were bought up and platted for new development. Streetcars were the arteries of progress. And as people moved into the new neighborhoods they pushed for schools and parks.

Old Vernon opened as an eight-room school on September 15, 1908 with 324 students, many of whom were exports from Highland School (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. School at NE 6th and Wygant), which had overflowed with more than 700 students. By 1909, The Oregonian reported Vernon itself was already crowded and plans were being made to add 10 more classrooms, a covered play shed, three portables and a manual training (shop) building.

By 1914 Block 54 was a campus of four buildings, bulging at the seams with new students. Enrollment boomed, with more than 800 students at Old Vernon by the late teens. Meanwhile, plans were being made to build other nearby schools to take the pressure off and create closer-to-home options for local youngsters. Kennedy School on NE 33rd was opened in 1915 as part of this push.

Glimpses of life at Old Vernon can be found in recollected memories and newspaper clippings, including these postcard-like tastes:

“Many of the children who attended Vernon School helped in the barn prior to school each morning and weren’t always too careful about cleaning the manure from their shoes.”

“In the early years, there was one playground for the girls and another for the boys.”

“The old school had electric lights in the hallways, the principal’s office and the gymnasium where community programs were scheduled in the evenings. The classrooms had no lights. In the wintertime, when we lined up in the basement before going to class in the morning it was gray, almost too dark. If it got too dark in the classroom, we sang or listened to stories. This was good. We learned to listen.”

After arriving at school first thing, children stowed their coats in cloakrooms then lined up in the basement before marching in straight lines to their classrooms while a teacher or student played the hallway piano. One student remembered that if you stepped out of line, “you got the stick.” Old Vernon’s favorite march-to-class song was the Percy Grainger tune “Country Gardens” (which you have heard before even though you may not know its name).

“Students could roller skate or play games under a play shed in the back of the school, unless the piles of newspapers collected for periodic paper drives were too large. That was about the only time boys and girls could mingle with each other outside the classroom. Even cloakrooms were separated.”

“One teacher in a top floor classroom permitted her students to climb down the outside fire escape—quietly to avoid disturbing other classes—as a treat for being especially good.”

“Old timers recall a disciplinary ruckus which had strong repercussions in the community. This involved an older boy who defied the principal’s efforts to take him to the office. A wrestling match on the stairs between boy and principal [they reportedly fell down the stairs injuring the boy] spurred a pupil walkout, and the boy’s parents pressed charges. A hearing board exonerated the principal, but teachers and principal were reluctant to use severe punishments afterward.”

Year after year, students from Vernon School won the maypole dance competition during Rose Festival:

Maypole dancers from Vernon School won first prize at the Rose Festival in 1911. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

 

The Oregonian, June 10, 1911

 

Apparently, Old Vernon’s academics were as strong as their maypole dance:

The Oregonian, April 3, 1927

 

By 1926, trends in school construction, safety and changing demographics were shaping the next generation of area schools.

Disastrous school building fires in other cities had galvanized the national building codes community—and Portland Mayor Harry Lane—into calling for “fireproof” buildings. Code changes were made: away from wood frame to concrete, steel and brick, and lowering the profile from multi-story to one or two stories. In 1926, some school board members proposed abandoning the existing building and locating a new Vernon School close to Alberta Park, an idea that didn’t go over well in the community. An article in the April 14, 1926 edition of The Oregonian chronicles opposition from the Vernon Daddies’ Club, a position they developed and had approved at a school-wide parent meeting:

The Oregonian, April 14, 1926

But the Daddies’ Club and the Vernon school community were on the losing end of the argument.  By 1927, the school board was on the hunt for property and wanted the city to carve off the southern five acres of Alberta Park on Killingsworth between 19th and 22nd for the new school site. The community pushed back on this—whether to protect the park or because they just didn’t like the idea of losing Old Vernon we’ll never know—and was upheld by City Attorney Frank S. Grant, with a finding on October 15, 1927 that Alberta Park, which had been acquired through condemnation in March 1921, must be protected as park land and not used for a school

After being spurned by City Attorney Grant at Alberta Park, the board focused on a two-block area across the street, bounded by Killingsworth, Emerson, 20th and 22nd, where almost two dozen homes had already been built and 13 vacant lots were ready for more home construction.

A late-night meeting of the school board on December 2, 1929 heard several hours of public testimony on the acquisition, and according to The Oregonian, spiraled into “a sharp verbal combat between the directors,” but ultimately resulted in direction to move forward on the Killingsworth property. Gaining this site for a new school meant major work for school district staff, which they took on, eventually acquiring the property, demolishing the homes and getting the city to vacate NE 21st Avenue where it bisected the site. This took two years of wrangling.

Sanborn panel 533 from 1924 shows the area of today’s Vernon School prior to acquisition by the Portland School District. Today’s Vernon occupies the two blocks between 20th and 22nd, bounded by Emerson and Killingsworth. The large empty block at the top left is Alberta Park. Click on image for a larger view.

Meanwhile back at Old Vernon, students continued to fill the aging, creaking classrooms, play outside in the sheds and open fields, and gather in the top floor auditorium. The city granted authority to temporarily close East 22nd Street during the school day so students could play in the street. Community clubs, concerts, lectures and Boy Scout troop meetings continued–the headquarters of Troop 33 was the Old Vernon basement.

On April 8, 1930, after acquiring the Killingsworth property, the school board auctioned off the remaining abandoned houses.

A $250,198 contract for construction of new Vernon was awarded on July 6, 1931 to F.S. Starbard and Company of Portland, and activity began on the new site targeting a September 1932 opening.

In March 1932, with construction going full steam, school leaders planned to mark the coming transition and perhaps heal the community with one last big gathering at the old school that would be both homecoming and forward-looking celebration. There’s no one around to ask how that went, nor any reporting that might reveal what that last evening was like, so that’s one for your imagination. Here’s the preview story:

The Oregonian, March 8, 1932

A cornerstone ceremony and time capsule placement was held at the new building on June 6, 1932 with all 500 students from Old Vernon looking on and checking out what was about to become their new school.

 

 

With school dismissed for the summer of 1932, the Portland School District had options. For the first time—with new buildings coming on line—they didn’t need to jam students into every available building space. Facility planners could contemplate the next move with properties. Bids were out for demolition of the buildings now empty on Block 54, but there was no hurry: New Vernon over on Killingsworth was ready.

Just after dark on Sunday, August 14, 1932, someone broke the glass in a basement door and let themselves into Old Vernon, ascended the stairs to the second floor, and set a fast-moving fire that lit up the night sky for miles. The three-alarm fire drew thouands of spectators and 19 engine companies. The morning newspaper was delayed to include the news. The Oregonian was swamped with calls resulting in an explanation for the delivery delay in a prominent boxed message on the paper’s front-page masthead: “Pardon Us – But our telephone exchange was swamped when the Vernon School burned.”

Front page breaking news coverage on Monday the 15th, and a follow-up story about the fire investigation on Tuesday, August 16th, tell the grim story:

The Oregonian, August 15, 1932

On Tuesday, the story had moved inside the paper to page 6 for more details on the investigation and cause:

The Oregonian, August 16, 1932

A year-long battle with the insurance company followed while the burned hulk of the building sat untouched. Originally insured for $70,000, the insurance settlement paid only $31,039.41 with underwriters arguing the building had been abandoned and that arson changed the equation. In March 1933, the board let a contract to Rose City Wrecking for $100 to demolish and haul off the remains, though the manual training building and the portable were salvaged and removed. The site was cleared by June 1933.

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.

 

It’s hard to read the dozens of newspaper stories between 1908-1932 about the vibrancy of Old Vernon and what it meant to the community, and not want to slow things down a bit, to hear more from the decision makers, to ask a few more questions of the neighbors, to see what we might be able to work out on Block 54. Eventually, all of the multi-story big-barn type schools built in Portland between 1890-1915 either burned or were replaced. Neighborhoods changed, as they continue to do today.

Two time travelers still around from the Old Vernon era are nearby houses leased by the school to teach girls and boys about home economics. In our next post we’ll share photos and stories about how these houses gained national notoriety for Portland as an innovative education pioneer, and what the house can tell us today.

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