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.

Albina’s Williams Avenue, 1909

The loss and complete transformation of what was once a vital Albina main street will always haunt this North Portland neighborhood, in so many different ways. Important chapters of Portland history have played out here, from the early days of being its own city before becoming part of Portland, through waves of immigration, to Civil Rights protests and the vibrancy of African-American owned business, life and culture.

Today, if you don’t know this history, you might drive north on Williams past Emanuel Hospital and not know you are traveling through a kind of sacred ground.

To help us imagine this lost place, here’s a pretty amazing photo from AH photo friend Norm Gholston, and a then-and-now shot we matched up during a recent outing. Norm shared this great old pic recently: it’s the image side of a “real photo” postard, popular in this era. Click to enlarge and take a good look.

Taken from just north of the intersection with Russell Street, the 1909 photo features a look at the Kennard and Adams department store on the left, which carried a little bit of everything. The first intersection in the distance is Knott Street. That’s the Immaculate Heart Church steeple at Williams and Stanton you can see in the distance, the only common denominator that really jumps out at you from the two photos (known back in the day as St. Mary’s Church, not St. Mark’s as the Sanborn implies).

Here’s a composite of several Sanborn maps we put together to be able to visualize where Norm’s 1909 photo was taken. The red box indicates the approximate photo point. Click to enlarge.

Details from Sanborn plates 268, 273 and 274, from 1909.

If you ride, walk or drive this way—or if you didn’t know the history of this amazing stretch of street—take a moment to check out the following  multiple sources of insight about what this neighborhood meant during its heyday, and how its loss has affected the people who knew it:

Historic Black Williams Project

An article about Albina in the Oregon Encyclopedia

A nice rewind that looks back across the years by The Oregonian

Reflecting on 1918

With many of us home for a while—as life slows down in deference to the social distancing required to reduce spread of the coronavirus—we’re taking stock of just how many interesting blog posts we have on the drawing board, from the history of the Vernon Standpipe to some incredible photos from our history friend Norm Gholston to three new profiles of neighborhood builders and more. Might just as well make good use of this time, right?

But before we do that, it’s appropriate and necessary to make note of this unusual moment in our world (and in the neighborhood) in the midst of a global pandemic. For the record, in March 2020 Portland has come to a stop: schools closed, sports leagues cancelled, workplaces shuttered or greatly limited. Empty grocery store shelves signal our collective desire to get ready for what feels like the leading edge of a slow-moving blizzard about to descend for a while on our city, state, country and beyond. The rhythms of our day-to-day lives now feel uncertain.

Because we often like to look back as a way of seeing our way forward, we’ve been reading news coverage of the 1918 flu pandemic when it descended on Portland. We thought you might be interested in seeing a few clips.

The first mention in the papers in early October 1918 was a simple sentence buried on an inside page: “Seattle thinks it is getting the flu.” At first, the news percolated in conversation and people weren’t sure what to make of it. Jokes were made in small talk:

But on October 10th, Portland Mayor George Baker implemented an order that required downtown businesses to close by late afternoon each day, and completely closed “schools, churches, lodges, public places of meetings, and places of amusement.”

From The Oregonian, October 11, 1918

Needless to say, this was very unpopular and most of the ink we saw in local papers was about the disruption to sporting events. Tensions in the community as people sought “social distance” were captured by W.E. Hill, an artist for The Oregonian who captured this scene on a streetcar in late October 1918. The caption reads: “With all this Spanish influenza around, it was not time for the delivery boy at the other end of the car to choke on a chocolate almond and start coughing.”

From The Oregonian, October 25, 1918

 

A near daily recitation followed in November about the number of new cases diagnosed, and the number of deaths, with victims and addresses named. Auditoriums and gyms were converted to makeshift hospitals. Coos Bay ran out of coffins.

From The Oregonian, October 24, 1918

 

But by mid-November–more than a month after Baker’s complete shutdown–the ban was lifted and life seemed to get back to “normal.”

 

 

From The Oregonian, November 17, 1918

 

There were false starts with plenty of ups and downs–and more deaths–as localized outbreaks continued to be reported through November and December and into the new year. This article from December 1918 indicates school was back in session and the city had progressed to locally specific quarantines when cases of the flu were diagnosed. Signs were put up on individual homes.

From The Oregon Daily Journal, December 12, 1918

 

It was well into 1919 before local newspapers stopped writing about the flu on a daily basis and the former rhythms of life in Portland resumed.

We know the 2020 outbreak is its own thing and the world has changed in the last 100 years. We’re making history right now, which is an unpredictable business. There’s solace, we guess, in knowing our homes and neighborhoods have endured these uncertainties before, and that spring and warmth (despite this morning’s snowfall) are right around the corner.

Now, back to the life of old buildings and neighborhoods. Stay tuned.

Oregon Encyclopedia adds Alameda

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

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

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

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

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

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. Jeffrey 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. Jeffrey, 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.

Upcoming Local History Programs, Fall 2019

We’re working on two upcoming public programs that may be of interest to AH readers, and that continue our ongoing exploration of local history:  the evening of Monday, November 25th at Northeast Portland’s Kennedy School; and the morning of Saturday, December 7th at the Architectural Heritage Center.

The History Pub program at Kennedy School on November 25th will explore the layers of history in Alameda, Sabin, Beaumont, Wilshire, Concordia, and Vernon neighborhoods to examine how changes in the physical and human landscape have shaped the places we know today (and how little we actually know about earlier lives lived here).

The Architectural Heritage Center program on December 7th is our deep dive into the story of the Oregon Home Builders, a 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.

Mark your calendars!

Remember the ANP Market at 15th and Fremont?

We’ve been focusing this spring on NE 15th and Fremont, which has seen significant change during the last 100 years, including zone changes, multiple demolitions and major commercial construction, and the coming and the going of the Irvington Streetcar.

Throughout all this change, there’s been one steady witness at the northeast corner of the intersection that has seen it all: the former Anderson’s Grocery Company building, 1501 NE Fremont. Today it’s Daddy Mojo’s Cafe, and it’s had a long and interesting history. Here are two views about 20 years apart that will help turn back the clock.

Looking east on Fremont at NE 15th, May 1963. Taken as part of a petition for a zoning change that would eventually remake this intersection. Courtesy of City of Portland (OR) Archives, (ZC 4309). A2011-013. Click to enlarge the photo…there’s lots of detail there.

 

A similar view from 1985. In this photo, the ANP Market was in the process of becoming Roxanne’s, and the Fremont Pharmacy was the Full Holy Ghost Mission Church of God, Inc. Courtesy of City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2008-008.2113.

 

Contemporary view, April 2019.

 

Built in 1923 by Andrew W. Anderson, this Mom-and-Pop corner grocery fed the neighborhood for many years, first as Anderson’s Grocery Company and then as the ANP Market. In the 1970s it served as a district office for the Multnomah County Juvenile Court.

 

Today’s sushi restaurant next door was Fremont Pharmacy from 1923 well into the early 1960s when it became a variety store. During the early pharmacy years, the business also doubled as the designated public polling place for the neighborhood in the mid-1920s.

We’re digging deep into the various chapters of this building’s stories (Anderson’s Grocery Co., the ANP Market, the district office Roxanne’s, Mojos and everything in between) and welcome memories and stories from AH readers. Drop us a note with your recollections (doug@alamedahistory.org) and we’ll share what we learn.

NE 33rd and Killingsworth: From rural road to busy intersection

In our ongoing pursuit of insight about the early days of Northeast neighborhoods, we’ve come across a zoning change petition filled with photos and maps from 1929 that allows an interesting glimpse into the evolution of today’s busy intersection at NE 33rd and Killingsworth in the Concordia neighborhood.

We’ll whet your appetite with this 1929 photo of a fine bungalow, owned by Frank and Louella Watson that was located at the northwest corner of NE 33rd and Killingsworth (facing 33rd), on property now occupied by the Mud Bay pet store.

Looking west across NE 33rd at the Watson house, a tidy-looking bungalow surrounded by highly manicured hedges and gardens, that occupied what is now the parking lot for Mud Bay. Photo taken on August 15, 1929. The sidewalk running off into the distance at left parallels Killingsworth. Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2001-062.57.

At the turn of the last century, John D. Kennedy owned much of the land between Killingsworth, Ainsworth, NE 33rd and NE 42nd, which he platted as the Kennedy Addition. By 1910, he was carving up the fields into building lots and a handful of houses were being built. In 1913 he sold the city a four-acre parcel that is now Kennedy School, which opened in 1914. Kennedy knew an emerging neighborhood would need a school and he was, after all, in the business of selling lots for homebuilders.

The Oregonian reported at the time this part of NE 33rd—which was also known as the Sunderland Road north of Prescott—was still unpaved and mostly used for moving cattle and sheep, and that the surrounding area was heavily wooded with only a few scattered houses.

By the mid 1920s, more homes had been built in the area, particularly along NE 33rd. At the southwest corner of 33rd and Killingsworth was a small Red and White Market. At the southeast and northwest corners, bungalows had been built. At the northeast corner of Killingsworth and 33rd pictured below, Kennedy owned an open field that once housed a barn (a kind-of local landmark known as “Kennedy’s Barn”). You can see some of the wood left over after the barn’s demolition.

Looking east across 33rd at the open lot at the northeast corner of 33rd and Killingsworth where Kennedy’s barn once stood, June 15, 1928. The street running off into the distance at right is Killingsworth. Taken from the Watson home pictured above. Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, A220-062.54. Contemporary photo showing the same view today.

Even though the area still had a strong rural residential feel, Kennedy could already visualize how things would go: the school and homes were ripe for their own commercial district. So, in the summer of 1929 he put the re-zoning wheels into motion to get his parcel ready for commercial development.

Here’s a look at the area from a 1925 aerial photo:

Detail of a 1925 aerial photo. Kennedy School is visible in the upper right corner. Kennedy’s field appears just above the “NG” in the original hand lettering on the photo (now a 76 gas station). The red dashed line indicates the location of present day New Seasons Concordia. Click for larger view. Aerial photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

In 1929, Portland’s zoning code was fairly simple: Zone 1 was for single-family residential use; Zone 2 was for multi-family residential use; Zone 3 was for business and manufacturing; and Zone 4 was unrestricted. (Here’s a link to a great history of zoning in Portland).

At the time, the northeast corner of the intersection owned by Kennedy had been zoned for residential use, but he wanted it to be Zone 3 to develop the property for commercial use. In his petition, Kennedy described his vision to build a commercial corner just like the one in Beaumont at 42nd and Fremont (he actually included a photo of that building), or a filling station. Kennedy pledged that if the zone change was allowed, he would personally see to it that “no cheap construction will be permitted,” and that “it will be so kept that it will be an attraction to any business Street intersection or residence district.”

Neighbors weren’t wild about the idea.

On October 12, 1929, adjacent property owners submitted a hand-drawn and color-coded map that recorded exactly how they felt. Owners with properties shaded green wanted the area to stay restricted to residential. Those shaded yellow were in favor of Kennedy’s petition for zone change to commercial. Have a good look and you’ll figure out pretty quickly which properties were owned by Kennedy. It’s also interesting to note the third category (yellowish green), which were neighbors in favor of the Kennedy petition at first but who then changed their minds.

Map drawn by neighbors showing opposition to rezoning of the Kennedy property for commercial use. Click to enlarge. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, File A2001-062.

Here’s where it gets visually interesting.

Along with their map, neighbors submitted photographs to help the Planning Commission understand the residential character of the neighborhood and the potential impact of a zone change. We paired these with similar views photographed on a snow day in early February 2019.

5434 NE 32nd Place (formerly 1160 E. Glenn Avenue, the Svensen family home). The southeast corner of NE 32nd Place and Killingsworth. Photographed on August 14, 1929. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2001-062.60.

 

5506 NE 32nd Place (formerly 1150 E. Glenn Avenue, the Eaton family home). The northeast corner of NE 32nd Place and Killingsworth. Photographed on August 14, 1929. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2001-062.61. We wonder if the homeowner realizes the house once had an extended front porch and pergola, and a completely different siding material.

 

5526 and 5606 NE 34th Avenue (formerly 1166 and 1168 E. 34th Avenue, the Nellie White and C.C. Cooper family homes, respectively). Photographed on September 19, 1929. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2001-062.65.

 

What was then a newly constructed building at the southwest corner of 33rd and Killingsworth, known as Hollinshead’s Corner, named for the developer who built the building. Looking southwest across Killingsworth. Note the entry archway and façade that is still standing. Photographed on September 30, 1929. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2001-062.67.

 

The market at Hollinshead’s Corner, looking west across 33rd, just south of Killingsworth. The edge of the decorative archway is visible at far right. Photographed on September 30, 1929. Courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2001-0672.66.

 

5343 NE 33rd and 5407 NE 33rd (formerly 1137 and 1139 E. 33rd Avenue, homes of Mrs. Mercier and H.C. Wright, respectively). Directly across from present day Canon’s Ribs. Photographed on August 30, 1929. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2001-062.63.

 

The neighborhood submitted these photos and the map as the battle about Kennedy’s requested zoning change played out in late October 1929:

From The Oregonian, October 29, 1929.

Because of the local turmoil and the fact that any Planning Commission recommendation would have to come before City Council for a vote, the electeds took the item off the agenda for several months, and then wanted to come out and have a look for themselves. Action on Kennedy’s petition dragged into 1930.

From The Oregonian, March 15, 1930.

 

When City Council visited the site in March 1930, they had in hand the following do-pass recommendation from the Planning Commission:

Inasmuch as the southeast and southwest corners of this intersection have been changed to zone three, the Planning Commission recommends this change be granted providing the petition agrees to set all buildings fifteen feet back from the street lines on both 33rd Street and Killingsworth Avenue. This requirement was agreed to by property owners on the south side of the street when their change was granted.

Following the visit, Commissioner of Public Works A.L. Barbur recorded the following in support of Council’s eventual decision to approve the change.

The members of the Council viewed the site of the proposed change of zone, and after careful consideration of the matter were of the opinion that the zone change should be allowed provided the property was used for either of the purposes outlined by the petitioner in his letter, and a fifteen-foot set back line established.

Neighbors around 33rd and Killingsworth and teachers at Kennedy School couldn’t have been very happy, but the story fades into the background. The Great Depression intervened and the thought of any commercial construction was put on hold. Aerial photos from 1936, 1940 and 1951 show the intersection unchanged, Kennedy’s open field on the northeast corner still very much open. By 1956, filling stations had been built on both northeast and southeast corners, but Watson’s tidy bungalow was still there.

Meanwhile, there was either solidarity or sour grapes when in 1932—two years after the Kennedy petition decision—City Council denied a similar zone change request just a bit farther south on 33rd at Knott Street:

From The Oregonian, July 1, 1932.

Interesting how decisions from long ago do affect the way the landscape has turned out today (and the corollary that our decisions today shape future outcomes). Imagine if these council actions had been just the opposite, with 33rd and Knott transformed into a busy commercial intersection and Killingsworth and 33rd the quieter residential area.

Next up: How other decisions made by John D. Kennedy gave Concordia some of the longest blocks in the area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

From The Oregonian, January 16, 1923

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

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

From The Oregonian, January 20, 1923

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

From The Oregonian, February 7, 1923

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

 

From The Oregonian, June 6, 1923

 

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

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

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

From The Oregonian, May 30, 1924

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

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

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

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

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

From The Oregonian, October 20, 1927

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

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

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