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.

 

The Disappearance of Vernon Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backstory of one street’s renaming: From Laura to Edgehill

In the joyful and serendipitous way so much research happens—bumping into one thing while looking for something else—we’ve run into a short article from April 1920 that sparked our curiosity about the renaming of a short street here in Alameda. Take a look:

From The Oregonian, April 7, 1920

Elsewhere here on AH you’ll find a piece we’ve written about the naming of Alameda’s streets. It seems all of the names in the Alameda Park plat have a connection with the founders of the Alameda Land Company: Hamblet, Dunckley, Bryce and Gile were either investors, family members or business partners of company president Edward Zest Ferguson. A bit self-important maybe, but not so unusual back in the day.

But Laura has always been a mystery. Glenn Avenue is a head-scratcher too, but that street—today known as NE 32nd Place—starts and ends in subdivisions well away from Alameda. Laura is a local name on an 800-foot long street that begins and ends descending the Alameda Ridge from Regents to Fremont.

Before we could get to the question of why her street was renamed, we first had to address the question of Laura: who was she? We’d looked before, but not hard enough. This time, equipped with a hunch and some genealogy tools, we found her.

Our namesake Laura was Laura Hamblet, daughter of Harry Hamblet, the money man behind the Alameda Land Company. Born in Astoria on February 22, 1895 to Harry L. and Mary A. Hamblet, the young Miss Hamblet was 14 years old when her family moved to Portland and her dad and his partners named a street after her. The Hamblets never lived in Alameda, though Laura must have always felt unusually connected to a place featuring streets with her own first and last names. The Hamblets lived in a fine large house on SE Harrison Street at 7th Avenue, which is now a parking lot.

Laura and her younger siblings Edwin and Mary (and their domestic helper, a young woman from Sweden named Anna Shalin) lived a comfortable life in their Harrison Street house. Based on the number of references to the Hamblets in the social pages of The Oregonian, Harry and Mary were successful and influential. While trying to get a sense of these people, we even ran into a photo of Laura Hamblet on the first day of riding season at the Portland Hunt Club, February 20, 1916. She was 21.

Miss Laura Hamblet. From The Oregonian, February 16, 1920.

With the first mystery solved—a question we bet hasn’t had a living answer for many years—we could move on to reading between the lines of the April 7, 1920 news story to figure out who, and why someone would want to rename Laura.

That trail led us to the City of Portland Archives and Record Center, which is a good place to find yourself if you’re out of living answers. The Oregonian reported that a petition had been raised in protest by residents of Laura Avenue, so we launched into microfilm of Public Works Department records from March and April 1920, and sure enough, there it was: a letter from Dr. Thomas Wynne Watts, resident of 874 Laura Avenue, today’s 2840 Edgehill Place (remember, Portland’s streets were renumbered in the early 1930s).

In 1920, just 10 years after Alameda was platted and before the homebuilding boom of the 1920s, Thomas and Helen Watts and their family of five were the only residents with a Laura Avenue address. Read his letter carefully:

Letter from Thomas Wynne Watts to Portland City Council, March 5, 1920. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

So, did you catch that? Watts and his family had been ordering their groceries by phone, some of which were probably delivered by bike from Anderson’s Grocery at 24th and Fremont, which was the done thing in those days.

That fact alone got our attention, a pre-Amazon moment of local delivery. Imagine the delivery person either on a bike or in a “machine” as autos were called then, mistakenly heading off to Laurel Avenue, wondering why someone almost all the way to the top of the hill on Southwest Vista, or on a short two-block street just south of Johnson Creek near SE 60th, would be ordering groceries to be delivered from the Alameda neighborhood.

Or maybe that was just Watts’s cover story for not liking having to explain to his colleagues that he lived on Laura. Who knows. The piece in The Oregonian implies they just didn’t like the name. Did the Watts know Laura Hamblet? Possibly.

Watts was a well-known Portland dermatologist who moved to Laura Avenue in 1919, just one year before filing the petition, and moved away to southwest Portland in the early 1930s. His children—son Holbrook and daughter Hannahsue—were elementary school age at that time and must have ranged free across the empty sloping lots of Laura Avenue before houses began popping up in the mid-1920s. In a sub-current of personal tragedy that surely eclipsed the petition and renaming, the Watts four-year-old daughter Sara Margaret died in the home on March 9, 1920, four days after her father submitted the petition letter, following a short bout of influenza. A younger son, Thomas Jr., who also became a doctor, was born in the house in 1921.

Four weeks after receiving the petition from Dr. Watts, Commissioner of Public Works Asbury L. Barbur responded with this recommendation to City Council:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives

City Council agreed and on April 21, 1920 unanimously passed Ordinance 37170. Laura was out and Edgehill was in.

City Ordinance 37170, Courtesy City of Portland Archives

No explanation remains of how Watts came up with Edgehill, or other possibilities he may have considered (did he think of Holbrook, or Hannahsue, or Sara?). The topography of the street seems self-explanatory enough.

Nor is there record of how Miss Hamblet felt about the renaming. Later that year she married Fred Breske and they began their family—welcoming her own daughter Laura—and lived out their lives here in Portland. Laura Hamblet Breske died in October 1963. Did she ever come back to visit her namesake street?

Evidence of Laura Avenue is still around, stamped clearly into the curbs of Edgehill Place, reminding us of another time and a different reality.

And lest you think we planned to write about two young women whose names are cast in concrete all in the same week: nope, just an unusual confluence of research and observation.

Long live Josie and Laura.

Before Concordia there was Irvington Park, and an even deeper history

We’ve had the opportunity recently to look into the origins of what is known today as the Concordia neighborhood, and even though it had different names way back when, no big surprise that today’s neighborhood draws its name from nearby Concordia University.

Opened in 1907 on six acres of land that was then at the edge of Portland city limits, Concordia College was a simple two-story wood frame building home to the Oregon and Washington District of the Evangelical Norwegian Synod. Operating primarily as a high school program for young men until the 1950s, Concordia gradually evolved into a junior college, added a co-ed mission and additional facilities in the 1950s, and became a full-fledged four-year college in 1977.

Here’s an article from The Oregonian on December 15, 1907 that provides some context and mentions a few early references that AH readers will recognize. Have a look (click to enlarge).

 

We’ve written about that stop at the end of the Alberta carline mentioned above, which was the corner of NE 30th and Ainsworth. Check out our post and a 1944 photo of the streetcar parked there.

So ok, no big surprise about the Concordia name we know today. But peel back a layer of history to reveal earlier names, and it gets interesting.

Back then, if you lived in the area north of Killingsworth and south of Dekum between 20th and 33rd, you would have told someone you lived in Irvington Park (not to be confused with Irvington), or maybe the Town of Creighton, or the Heidelberg Addition, or even Foxchase, all place names making up today’s Concordia neighborhood that stem from the title of survey plats filed by the real estate operators who gridded out the fields and forests on these gentle south slopes above the Columbia River.

The Town of Creighton (like the Town of Wayne adjacent to Alameda) wasn’t actually a town, more like the idea of a town, hatched by property speculators in 1883, drawn out as a kind of map and filed with the Multnomah County surveyor. Remember back then this neck of the woods was well outside the city limits. The Town of Creighton plat is unrecognizable today: its tentatively drawn tree-related street names didn’t carry through time: Maple, Walnut, Beech, Locust, Birch. Creighton’s only legacy is the location of boundary lines on today’s map: north of Killingsworth, east of 25th, south of Rosa Parks and west of 33rd.

Take a look below at the Irvington Park plat, filed in 1890 and trading on the name of Irvington, a subdivision south of Fremont (the same one we know today). Note that in this view of the Irvington Park plat, west is up. You’ll see some familiar names, and some that didn’t make it through the years, Click to enlarge, it’s a big file:

Maybe you’ve figured out that “Riggen Street” is today’s Holman, and that “North Street” is Rosa Parks Way. 33rd on this plat is actually today’s 32nd place and 34th is 33rd. Details, details.

One of the interesting aspects of Irvington Park was how aggressively real estate man F. B. Holbrook marketed it during its early years, and how he coat-tailed on Irvington, located more than a mile south as a crow flies, which he had no actual business relationship with. Have a look at this ad, which ran in The Oregonian on July 10, 1907:

And here’s another gem, from September 16, 1907.

Yes, there were lots of trees: a nice way of saying this subdivision was way the heck out there.

Trading on the name of someone else’s success wasn’t a new idea. Alameda Park developers did the same with their own outrageous 1910 brochure, plus when Alameda was plumbed for sewers back in 1910, they even attempted to freeload (so to speak) on Irvington’s existing sewer system.

Even The Oregonian got into the act of promoting Irvington Park. Here’s a piece from July 23, 1913.

There’s a fascinating history to the Irvington Park lands that runs deeper, to 1866 when 49 acres were transferred from the United States government to Henry McIntire as part of a bounty land claim deed that was a reward for McIntire’s military service. The lands changed hands quickly after that, owned briefly by a private individual, then by Willamette University, and then by the Salem Flouring Mills. During the early 1880s the lands were even owned by William H. and Jennie Creighton (of “Town of Creighton” fame) before they defaulted on a mortgage payment to the Salem Flouring Mills. Mr. Creighton started out as a produce and shipping broker and proceeded into real estate speculation, as it seemed every Portland businessman did in those days.

By the early 1890s, the lands were in the hands of an unimaginatively named group called the Investment Company, owned by big-time Portland developers including William M. Ladd (who incidentally was a principal in the Salem Flouring Mills) and Edward Quackenbush. Selling lots in Irvington Park was just one of their many enterprises.

And deeper yet: elderly residents of Irvington Park we have interviewed report that when the ground was first disturbed to make streets and lots almost 100 years ago, Native American objects and artifacts were frequently found, which makes sense given the proximity to the Columbia Slough and Columbia River. These lands, like every inch we live on today, are part of the ceded lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Unfavorable treaty agreements in the 1850s removed indigenous people from these original homelands and then systematically broke the lands up to development through actions like the Donation Land Claim Act and related bounty land claim provisions. Any stone tools or arrowheads found today should rightly be returned to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

Over time, as Concordia College’s physical presence began to expand, the underlying plat names in the adjacent neighborhood fell out of usage in favor of what was becoming a local landmark, as in “we live over near Concordia,” and the previous deep history was forgotten. The mid-1970s marks the first official reference to the Concordia neighborhood that we could find either in daily news reporting or in city reference documents.

The mystery of Crane Street

On a recent walk, we encountered some buried Northeast Portland history that demanded investigation and made us think of a scene from an old movie.

Do you remember that last shot at the end of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes when a distraught, time-traveling Charlton Heston collapses to the beach as the camera pans back and in the distance we see the top of the Statue of Liberty, half-buried, sticking up through the sand revealing the beachy landscape he was riding across was actually the middle of New York Harbor? Kind of like that, but not really. We did not fall to the ground.

In this case, sticking out of the pavement and sidewalk in an otherwise normal neighborhood block were remnant clues to a stretch of street that no longer exists: NE Crane Street where it once passed through the southwest corner of the Alameda Park subdivision. It was called East Crane Street before Portland’s Great Renumbering created the four quarters of the city we’re familiar with today. Take a look at what we found:

Clues to what once was. Curb corners mid-block on NE 24th Avenue where Crane Street used to pass through. Today, the former street is occupied by houses, garages and driveways like the one shown here. Looking north on the west side of the street.

 

Cast into the this corner curb now marooned mid-block is a barely visible “CRANE ST.” Today, the nearest part of Crane Street is three blocks west.

Today, Crane Street makes a short run from NE 19th to NE 21st, but it used to go all the way through to 24th. It’s always been a narrow street, a bit wider than an alley, but not much. Go check it out, and then walk NE 22nd, 23rd and 24th and look hard along the alignment of where Crane used to go, you can see clues to its past: fully formed curb corners that are now driveways. CRANE ST. stamped into the abandoned curb at mid-block. Even the crown of now-gone Crane Street—the gentle sloping away from centerline—can be seen on NE 24th where Crane used to intersect.

When we found those clues, we had to know more, so we visited our favorite source of official documents: City of Portland Archives. From official records—ordinances about renaming and street abandonment (a process called “vacation”), and petitions from neighbors—we were able to piece together an understanding of Crane Street.

First, let’s remember—from our earlier exploration of what we’ve dubbed the Prescott Jog—how strange things can happen when adjacent development plats filed at different times by different developers bump into each other. This unique little stretch of Crane Street exists at the junction of four plats, each filed by a different developer at a different time: Hillside, 1894; Vernon 1903; Alameda Park, 1909; George Place, 1910. (Check out our collection of local plats that might be of interest.)

It’s probably also worth noting the topography here: this is the edge of Alameda Ridge where other streets have a hard time getting off the hill: NE 21st zigs and zags and feels like an alley as it tries to find the crest of the ridge before becoming a real street and heading downhill to the south. Mason doesn’t even bother going through: it turns into a footpath through the former orchard on the slope of the ridge. And NE 19th is impassable: it gets stuck in a cul-de-sac where it gives up and becomes a flight of stairs.

This detail of the Vernon plat shows it all. Crane Street (once named Mason) appears at the bottom of the map, with detailed notations of a name change and two “vacations” or street closures and abandonments. Click to enlarge. Yes, this is part of the Vernon plat, though the city thinks of this area as Alameda. Read more about the difference between plat names and neighborhood names.

The Hillside plat of 1894 locked a single slice of Mason Street onto the map that other developers tried to line up with in the following years. In 1903 when the Vernon subdivision was carved from the surrounding forests and fields, Crane Street first appeared as Mason Street, trying hard to line up with the short stretch of existing Mason Street in Hillside and the Mason Street further west in an existing plat called Irvington Heights. Because the new Mason and the old Mason were so far out of alignment, local residents at this very south edge of Vernon petitioned the city in 1909 to just change the name of the street (which was still gravel) from Mason to Crane in an attempt to reduce confusion. When Alameda Park came along a few months later, the newly re-christened Mason became the chosen alignment for the Mason Street we know today.

Eugene Snyder, Portland’s leading authority on street naming, suggests the Crane namesake may have been either George Crane, an agent for Equitable Life Assurance Co., or Samuel Crane, agent for New York Life Insurance Co. We couldn’t find any logical connection to the area for these two Cranes, or any other Crane for that matter.

In 1921, a majority of property owners along East Crane asked City Council to vacate the stretch of Crane between NE 22nd and NE 24th. Along with the citizen voices was a strong letter of recommendation from Commissioner of Public Works A.L. Barbur, explaining: “this portion of Crane street is slightly less than 28 feet in width and does not in any manner form a ‘through’ street which can be rendered useful for general traffic.” Council unanimously approved the request on August 31, 1921. Soon after, the property formerly known as Crane Street between 22nd and 24th was purchased from the city, added to the Vernon plat as new lots, and homes were built. The left-over stretch of Crane between 19th and 22nd was still gravel.

In July 1930 another group of neighbors brought a petition to vacate their own stretch of Crane between NE 21st and NE 22nd, and another recommendation letter from Commissioner Barbur: “This portion is not improved and its vacation will in no wise affect the remaining area of the street, which connects with East 21st street on the east, thus affording a connection to the streets to the south. The property in this vicinity is all in residential usage and the proposed vacation will not be detrimental to the value of the surrounding property.”

A page from the petition signed by neighbors in 1930 to vacate East Crane Street between 21st and 22nd. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Council unanimously approved the request on October 15, 1930, and that property was purchased, replatted and built.

Today, five houses sit at least partially in the middle of those two vacated stretches of the former East Crane Street between 21st and 24th, made possible by the involvement of neighbors trying hard over 20 years to enforce order on a jumbled (and frankly bumbled) set of plats symptomatic of Portland’s chaotic early planning history.

Makes us wonder if maybe today’s Crane Street neighbors between 19th and 21st ought to get together for a block party to have a chat. Someone send for Commissioner Barbur…

Alameda sewer geek-out

We’ve been spending some time at the City of Portland Archives lately, which is something we recommend. The staff there are always helpful, knowledgeable, patient and friendly too. One of the nice things about visiting is that you might run into something you didn’t know you needed to know, and that might just amaze you when you really think about it. Like this:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives file AP/25016, January 5, 1934.

The same view, looking north on NE 24th at Alameda, in December 2017.

On a recent visit, we bumped into some old city documents and photographs that provide a major archival document and engineering geek-out for us and possibly for one or two AH other readers: 110-year-old sewer plans for Alameda and repair photos from the 1930s.

OK, we know this isn’t going to interest everyone, but the drawings below pertain to the very earliest construction activity in our neighborhood. When you really look at them—and realize this universe of sloping interconnected pipes was carefully thought up and then dug deep into the ground and placed by hand—you have to appreciate the early planners and builders. Have a look (click to enlarge) and then we’ll analyze what we see.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, record number M/13197.

What we’re looking at here are elevation drawings that show a cross-section of Alameda streets and slopes and how the sewer system relates to the grid above the surface. The measurement between the dashed line (which is ground level shown as feet above sea level, 243′ at the top of the ridge) and pipe placement shows how deep these pipes are. Pretty deep in some places. The red numbers indicate the number of feet between the indicated junctions. The percentage numbers indicate the slope of each line (up to 22 percent slope coming off the ridge). The whole idea here is to have positive drainage through the entire system (thank you, gravity). The label “SP” indicates the diameter of the pipe used. Pipe dimensions start smaller to the north and get larger as the sewers run south, a function of the growing number of connections into the main line as the sewers head for the main trunk collector sewer which is under Sullivan’s Gulch. There are many nuances to be seen here. Interested in learning more about the history of sewers (not a question that gets asked very often, I’d say)? I’ve probably lost you by here, but just in case, check this out.

This sewer system was one of the first construction items completed when Alameda was built. Grading for the streets, curbs and sidewalk construction followed. If you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Elwood Wiles” stamp on our sidewalks and wondered who he was, check out this earlier post. Among many other things, Wiles was a former Alameda resident (maybe you’ve walked by his house on Bryce just east of Regents).

Evidently, aside from the engineering challenge of getting sewage safely and predictably down from Alameda Ridge, construction of that first sewer system posed financial and legal challenges as well. The Alameda Land Company wanted to be able to hook its sewer system into the existing Irvington sewer system, which made sense since it was all downhill on its way to Sullivan’s Gulch (where today’s I-84 runs) which was home to the major sewer line that drained into the Willamette River. (Read more about how the eastside gulches drained sewage directly into the Willamette River and were eventually filled in. But that’s a different topic…let’s stay on track here).

Irvington and Alameda were in competition for real estate sales and there was no love lost between the two development companies. Irvington was not about to foot the bill for construction of a sewer system just to have it be used for free by neighbors up the hill. A restraining order was filed by Irvington against the Alameda Land Company in 1910 and eventually the city had to step in and referee exactly how system development charges were going to be apportioned. Ultimately, Alamedans paid for construction of their own sewer system, a portion of the costs for their sewer that drained into Irvington, and their share of the costs when the city constructed the main collector sewer in Sullivan’s Gulch in 1911. Interesting to note that over the years the usually friendly Irvington-Alameda rivalry took on a life of its own beyond sewer lawsuits, which you can read more about here and here.

During our recent visit to City Archives we also learned that Alameda’s sewer system did not stand the test of time. Things started falling apart in the 1930s. We came across photos and an engineering report from 1934 that details the very expensive reconstruction of more than 1,700 feet of sewer all along NE 24th from north of Prescott to south of Alameda. Here’s another view of that work, looking north on 24th. The house near the center of the frame is on the northwest corner of 24th and Prescott.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, file AP/20614, January 5, 1934.

Similar view in December 2017

This was a costly job: $13,622.57 which employed a small army of 48 laborers for two months and required trenching in some places 30 feet below the surface of the street. The construction report placed blame for the work squarely on methods used by the Alameda Land Company when they were hurrying their system into the ground back in 1911:

City of Portland Civil Works Administration Report 35-26W-76, March 20, 1934.

Back in 1911, using the drawings referenced here, workers dug deep trenches under what would become Alameda’s streets. At the bottom of these trenches, they used heavy wooden timbers to build long three-sided “box tunnels” without tops. Into these continuous long narrow boxes they placed fill dirt and sewer pipe. Using this common method, they were supposed to completely fill around the pipe with sand and dirt then close off the top of the box with a heavy wood cover before filling the trenches back in to street level. But that didn’t happen.

Eventually the unsupported weight of sand and gravel settling in from above crushed the box and the sewer pipe. The surface of NE 24th also dropped as all the soil below street level began to work its way lower and lower into the collapsed box tunnel. The result: a cave-in at the surface of the street, crushed sewer pipes below and one heck of an expensive mess.

Fortunately, for City Engineer L.G. Apperson, the city had the original drawings on hand and knew where to start looking to solve the problem.

Never underestimate the value of a good archive!

In praise of alleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Concordia alley

“Our old synagogue of blessed memory”

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

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

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

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

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

The Oregonian, December 29, 1951

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

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

 

The Oregonian, October 8, 1952

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

The Oregonian, October 10, 1952

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Oregonian, October 24, 1952

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

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

Restoring a hallowed neighborhood building: The return of Alberta Shul

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

In the footprint of Old Vernon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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