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

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

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

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

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

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

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change in this photo: the Shell station on the northeast corner (which we knew for years as a U-Haul rental place) has been replaced by a type of massive apartment block that has become ubiquitous on Portland’s eastside.

 

Here is the other then-and now pair:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1889 Foxchase plat was actually filed in the town of East Portland. At that point we were a separate city distinct from Portland, as was Albina and several other outlying communities. In 1891—in an attempt to roll together the greater Portland area population into one number that would keep us ahead of Seattle—the three towns consolidated to became one (46,385 people in Portland + 10,000 people in East Portland + 5,000 people in Albina = 61,385 people total in the Portland “metropolitan” area). Take that, Seattle (total 1890 population: 42,837).

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

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

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

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

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long live Foxchase.

Old Vernon Part 2: The Practice Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

From The Oregonian, January 24, 1915

 

4715 NE 24th Avenue today

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

 

 

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

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

4545 NE 21st Avenue today

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

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

 

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

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

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

Hmm.

 

 

 

 

 

Old Vernon – Forgotten Neighborhood Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

Vernon School Art Classroom. Courtesy of Oregon Historical Society.

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Oregonian, June 10, 1911

 

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

The Oregonian, April 3, 1927

 

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

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

The Oregonian, April 14, 1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oregonian, March 8, 1932

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

 

 

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

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

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

The Oregonian, August 15, 1932

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

The Oregonian, August 16, 1932

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

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

 

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

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

Alberta Park Marks 100th Anniversary

Alberta Park marks its 100th year in 2017, originally leased from a local property owner and then condemned by the city in 1921 to provide needed park and open space for the growing neighborhood.

Alberta Park 1929. Courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Like many areas of our city, northeast Portland’s neighborhoods evolved from Homestead Act land claims, where settlers bought or received rights from the federal government to develop open land for farms and homes. The recorded real estate transaction history of the Alberta Park area begins in 1866 when Mexican-American War veteran Harry McEntire used his Military Bounty land exchange certificate to acquire the property bounded by today’s Ainsworth, Killingsworth, 19th Avenue and 22nd Avenue: what we know today as Alberta Park.

As developers began to lay out streets and neighborhoods for the area beginning in the early 1880s, the property changed hands. Chinese business leader, landowner and entrepreneur Moy Back Hin, referred to by The Oregonian at the time as “Portland’s first millionaire” acquired the property, along with other real estate he owned downtown and on the eastside. Hin was frequently in the news for his real estate dealings and as a leader of Portland’s vibrant Chinese community: he served as Chinese Consulate General to Portland.

In 1910, Hin called on the city to follow through with plans to open Killingsworth Avenue between Union Avenue and NE 42nd (a $150,000 project for which the funds had not yet been identified) saying that as soon as the street was opened he would begin to build houses on his land.

During those years, eastside home construction was exploding: commercial development booming along Alberta Street; a vibrant home building business across nearby neighborhoods; a major streetcar line—packed with commuters—serving these new communities carved out of the fields and forests northeast of downtown.

Through its community clubs (of which there were many), locals began calling for development of parks. Influential Catholic priest The Reverend James H. Black—who went on to lead southeast Portland’s St. Francis Parish for many years–appeared before the Portland Parks Board to encourage the board to purchase land for a park in the Alberta area before real estate values jumped.

Minutes of the meeting show the chairman informed Father Black that “at present there are no funds on hand to purchase park property, and suggested that he write a communication to the Board incorporating his ideas in regard to the proposed Alberta Street Park property.”

In November 1912, locals petitioned the city, saying the more than 14,000 new residents of the area deserved a safe place to recreate and noting that nearly all the available lots for playground space had already been built over.

From The Oregonian, November 3, 1912

By 1917, the last remaining unplatted stretch of land in the area was the 17 acres bounded by 19th, 22nd, Killingsworth and Ainsworth, owned by Moy Back Hin. While Hin did eventually planned to develop the area for homes, he agreed to lease the property to the city starting in 1917 to serve as a park. Almost immediately, baseball diamonds, a clubhouse, walking paths and restrooms were built on the leased property.

In 1920, with the parcel in popular public use (and Killingsworth Avenue now open and paved between Union and NE 42nd), Hin offered to sell it to the city for $65,000, which was refused. The city responded with an offer to buy it for $39,333, which Hin refused. City Council responded on March 23, 1921 with an ordinance condemning the property and ordering it taken over by the city. After a jury trial, Hin was paid $32,000 and the property was taken over as a “public necessity.”

In 1924, the city passed an ordinance naming the parcel Alberta Park, though it was frequently referred to as Vernon Park as well. Hundreds of newspaper references to the park—and to the robust City League baseball schedule that occupied the new baseball diamond and sometimes drew more than 1,000 spectators—randomly used both names. Use of the Vernon Park name faded by the 1940s.

Investment immediately followed the city acquisition. A 1927 inventory of the property identified the following improvements:

1 wooden field house, built 1922 for $500 (heaters to be installed in 1927)

Two comfort stations (including a tool room) built in 1926 for $5,000

Sewer and water connections

One shelter

1925 plantings: $1,096

1926 plantings: $223.47

27 lights, cost $3,469.21

70 hose bibs and four automatic sprinklers

One large baseball field with backstop

One small baseball field with backstop

One wading pool, built in 1927 for $719

4 sets of horseshoe courts with steel frames and covers

2 sand courts ($100 and $108.72)

1 handball court

2 tennis courts ($1,722.58 and $2,055.86)

1 flag pole

Alberta Park “comfort station” and lamps date to 1926.

Hundreds of references in newspapers of the day called the new parcel as Vernon Park and sometimes used the two names interchangeably in the same story, but on April 9, 1924 the city passed an ordinance officially naming it Alberta Park. The official name change didn’t seem to stick: newspaper references to Vernon Park show up well into the 1940s.

An annual summer community picnic tradition connected neighbors of all ages and included a parade, games, the naming of a local queen, dancing and a lantern parade after dark.

From The Oregonian, August 16, 1924.

In October 1927, the Portland School District tried to acquire the southern five acres of the park as a location for the “new” Vernon School being planned to replace the original Vernon School south of Alberta Street that had become too small for the growing neighborhood. The city attorney, referencing the 1921 condemnation order and its intent that the property was acquired specifically for a park, refused to budge, protecting the park we know today. The school district scurried to find a site, selecting the current school location on the south side of Killingsworth Avenue across from the park.

In the 1950s, despite a fractious encounter with the neighborhood that included references to the 1927 decision by the city attorney not to subdivide the park, the city made a different decision and did allow use of the southwest corner of the park for construction of Fire Station 14.

Aside from the new fire station, not much changed in Alberta Park until the 1970s, when a comprehensive planning effort and citizen survey recognized a changing pattern of use. The 1972 report found:

“Alberta Park has remained relatively unchanged from its original development in the 1920’s. However, the interests of the users of Alberta Park have changed extremely. At this time we find Alberta Park as a park with high usage by children, while maintaining a passive character of walking and picnicking.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, the park was a kind of every-person’s backyard, where the community went in family units to picnic, play, celebrate, appreciate the plantings. By the 1970s, the car was much more a fixture of family life. Plus, the demographics of the neighborhood were changing and spending leisure time in a park as a family unit was no longer a high priority. The park was for young people.

As part of the 1972 master planning effort, 1,800 surveys were mailed to homes in a radius of six blocks from the park. The 182 replies that were returned ranked park needs, and 44 percent of the respondents raised concerns about park safety.

Drawing on the survey results, the 1972 Alberta Park Master Plan called for a new set of priorities, including adding a covered and lighted basketball shelter ($73,000); installation of tot play equipment ($2,000); paving of the existing gravel paths ($3,000); and resurfacing of the tennis courts ($2,000). These improvements were carried out over the following years as funds were available.

The park continues to be a community fixture: the sounds of pick-up basketball games can be heard on weekends and evenings; the upgraded playground structures filled with youngsters; and come spring the timeless sounds of baseball.

Alberta Streetcar: Catalyst for Change

It takes lots of imagination to conjure up a picture of what our neighborhood might have looked like 100 years ago. The fields and forests of today’s Alberta district, Vernon, Concordia, and Alameda were way out in the country, beyond the far edge of Portland. But one key development changed all that: the Alberta Streetcar.

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A photo of the Alberta Streetcar from 1944 looking north on NE 30th Avenue at the line’s far northern end, NE 30th and Ainsworth. Only the building on the northeast corner remains. Development of the streetcar line changed everything about the landscape that eventually became our neighborhood. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

First constructed in 1903, the line left downtown at SW 2nd nd Alder, crossed the old Steel Bridge and ran north up Union (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), where it turned east on Alberta to NE 25th. A few years later it was extended five blocks east on Alberta to NE 30th, and then a few years later north on NE 30th to Ainsworth, which became the end of the line. For a time, there was talk of connecting the Alberta line with the Broadway line, which terminated in Alameda at NE 29th and Mason, but by the time that seemed possible, automobiles had begun to eclipse streetcar use.

Wherever the streetcar went, so did development. Initially just two rails in the mud through brush and open fields, by the heyday of Portland’s streetcars in the teens and 1920s, the Alberta streetcar had attracted scores of business owners and thousands of residents to this new developing part of the city. Its impact on the shape and feel of the neighborhood can’t be overstated.

The December 28, 1913 edition of The Oregonian reported:

“The streetcars are now operated to East Thirtieth street and Ainsworth avenue. The line runs double cars in order to take care of the traffic and even then the cars morning and evening are overcrowded.”

The fact that autos were not the primary mode of transport in those early days meant streetcars—and lots of foot traffic—fueled growth of the business district along Alberta. It was a thriving place of activity and commerce, not unlike today. But by the 1940s, with automobiles dominating the transportation picture and Union Avenue no longer the main north-south travel corridor (travel had shifted to Interstate Avenue), the Alberta streetcar became disused and was eventually replaced by a bus. By then, Portland had turned its back on its once robust streetcar system. The last day for the Alberta line was August 1, 1948.

As if to silence the era of the Alberta streetcar once and for all, in September 1949 The Oregonian reported that the City of Portland authorized a $75,000 paving contract that took 11 days to erase all evidence of the tracks:

“A total of 110,748 yards of materials went into the project to bury the old Alberta streetcar tracks. Paving tonnage amounted to 8,407 tons of blacktop.”

Today, there aren’t many specific clues other than the hundreds of streetcar-era buildings that would not have developed without the line. When you’re out for a walk along our neighborhood’s path of the old streetcar line (1.8 miles along Alberta between MLK and 30th; then 30th Avenue between Alberta and Ainsworth), see what evidence you can find.

More History of Snow

In honor of the recent heavy snowfall here in Portland (about 13 inches here at our house so far, with up to five more inches on the way), we’re going to reprise and slightly update one of our favorite posts from the AH blog archive, “A History of Snow,” written in December 2008 after Portland received more than a foot of snow. Yes, we have a lot of snow on the ground at the moment, but for perspective, 67 years ago on this date, Portland was in the process of receiving 44 inches of snow, one of its heaviest snowfalls in recorded history. Enjoy this look back as we celebrate how a heavy snowfall is timeless and brings quiet to the neighborhood.

DD

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Winter 1936

Winter 1936, looking north on NE 30th toward intersection with Mason.

Winter 1936, looking north on NE 30th toward intersection with Mason. Click for a larger size image.

Winter 2008

Winter 2008. Looking north on Northeast 30th toward Mason.

Winter 2008, looking north on NE 30th toward Mason. Click for a larger size image.

 

Winter 2017

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Winter 2017, looking north on NE 30th toward Mason.

 

December 23, 2008–There’s a great Billy Collins poem called “A History of Weather” that I’ve been thinking about all week. We’ve had a lot of snow here in Portland, not record-breaking, but still more than anyone has seen around these parts for 40 years. Right now we have about 15 inches on the ground and the city has been at a virtual stop for the last couple days. We started to thaw today, but another 4-8 inches of snow are in the forecast for the next couple days.

In the poem, Collins creates a funny, wistful elegy for atmospheres of the past, and contemplates weather as a common human bond across the ages. Contemplating what a weather history poem should include, Collins writes, “There will be a section on the frozen nights of antiquity…” I’ve been thinking about the frozen days and nights of the past, the transforming quiet and joy visited on the kids of this street and neighborhood over the years.

So after shoveling the front walk yesterday, I dug into my Alameda archive and found a picture taken a few doors south of my house in 1936, the year Portland received about 35 inches of snow. The photo has been passed down to me by the family of the little boy who grew up here in the teens and twenties. He was fledged by 1936 (family members were in the house til the late 1950s), but the photo stayed in his family because it depicted remarkable conditions.

Being obsessed with lining up past and present for clues, I prowled around this morning hunting — camera in one hand, old photo in the other — for the original photographer’s footprints, which are not entirely available today due to some landscaping changes down the block.

The big house on the corner (white in 1936, blue today) is the Copenhagen House, built in 1912 by the family of Les Copenhagen. Today’s big beech in the sideyard is just a start of a tree in 1936. Power poles have thinned out a bit, though still an eyesore. The gable end of the house facing the camera up the block can be seen in both images. A little closer in, if you squint at the 1936 image, you can see Walter Morrison out shoveling the front walk of my house. Farther up the block and across the street, today’s yellow Dutch colonial was just a vacant lot. Other vacant lots allow a view off into the distance.

Families in 1936 probably took pictures of their unusual winter weather event, just like we have this week. Unfortunately, most of those images are lost to time. We’re lucky to have this one, 71 years old. Makes you think about the pictures you take, the pictures you save, the pictures you decide to throw. I’m always on the lookout for old pictures of Alameda…

To cap off this entry about the history of snow, thought I’d share a very interesting info-graphic from The Oregonian today that clearly indicates that our predecessors knew a lot more about snow than we do. Check it out:

From The Oregonian, Page 1, 12-23-08

From The Oregonian, Page 1, 12-23-08. Click for a larger size image.

 

Some notable observations from this 2017 storm:

  1. NE 33rd Avenue is closed up Gravelly Hill (from Knott to Fremont).
  2. Deadman’s Hill is jammed with skiers, snowboarders and sledders of all ages.
  3. Pretty much everything official is closed and the city is requiring chains on all Portland streets.
  4. 33,000 PGE customers are without power.

What’s your snow story today?

Alameda History Lecture at Architectural Heritage Center | January 28

Stories of Alameda’s founding and early life will be topics of a presentation we’re making at Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center on Saturday morning, January 28, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. Here’s a link to more information and how to register (registration through AHC is required).

church-1923

Students pose in front of the Alameda Park Community Church in 1923, one year after its construction. Located near the corner of Northeast Regents and Skidmore, the building is known today as the Subud Center and looks much like it did then. The upcoming presentation at AHC will explore the history of this building and many other Alameda institutions.

Through maps, photos, stories and memories, we’ll explore how the pre-neighborhood landscape evolved, how it was developed by the Alameda Land Company, and then how architects, builders and families shaped it into the neighborhood we know today. We’ll also examine neighborhood institutions including our business district, the streetcar that served the neighborhood, schools, churches and parks. This is an encore presentation that will bear a resemblance to other programs we’ve done for AHC, but with significant updates based on ongoing research.

We’re always glad to consider requests for group programs or guided neighborhood history walks. Just drop us a line.

 

Backstory of a favorite local fire station

Picking up the local fire station thread where we left it: here’s a story about how the siting of public facilities in the early days was more about administrative prerogative and less about public input. Portland Fire Station 14 as we know it today is one such story.

station-14

Portland Fire Bureau Station 14, NE 19th and Killingsworth

In 1958, with the closure of the old fire station on NE 33rd and with a new fire chief in place, Portland set about reconfiguring its overall fire response network. Several of the older smaller stations across the city were closed. New stations were planned. A $3 million bond levy passed by popular vote, and seven new stations went into development across the city, serving (and changing) the neighborhoods where they landed.

Fire officials wanted something more central to the Concordia neighborhood, and they didn’t mind something that would also be expedient. Those criteria focused planners on a parcel the city already owned: a quarter-acre at the southwest corner of the popular 16-acre Alberta City Park, bounded by Killingsworth on the south, Ainsworth on the north, NE 19th on the west and NE 22nd on the east. It’s a great park.

From an expediency standpoint, this made sense: lots of surrounding housing that needed fire protection; it was near a school that would also benefit from quick response; it was on a major east-west thoroughfare for good access. Not quite like building a tennis court or swimming pool, but doable.

Problem was, there wasn’t much conversation with the neighbors.

3-4-1959-construction-men-enter-park

The back-and-forth between the city and the neighborhood that followed would give even the most veteran city PR person the heebie-jeebies. Articles in The Oregonian from July 1958 until March 1959 describe how the neighbors opposed construction at first politely, which ratcheted up to petitions signed by 400 neighbors and sit-in protests against the station by the Vernon PTA, letters from the pastor at the Vernon Presbyterian Church, formation of a lobbying group called “Save Portland Parks,” a strident letter writing campaign by neighbors, and—after the city decided to go forward with the project even in the face of local opposition—an arson attack on the construction site on the night of March 3, 1959. Yes, you read that correctly.

The opposition group leader eventually gave up when the city persisted: “We don’t like it, but we can’t do any more,” Dorothy Rapp told The Oregonian on March 5, 1959. “It’s fruitless to fight city hall any longer. There’s no sense in beating our heads against the wall.”

Today, Station 14 has become part of the fabric of the neighborhood, welcomed and appreciated by all, or at least taken for granted. The engine and four personnel stationed there respond to 2,500 calls for service each year.

We’ve overcome this particular history (and hopefully learned from it), but as we know, it’s always insightful to remember how things came to be.

Fire stations and our changing neighborhoods

Long-time AH readers know about our focus on trying to better understand neighborhood institutions and the legacies they’ve left. Over the years, we’ve looked closely at things like Mom and Pop grocery stores, local schools, the Broadway Streetcar, Wilshire Park, local churches, business districts.

Here’s another institution that has left a legacy: our local fire stations.

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In the 1920s, single-engine fire stations blended in to east side neighborhoods. Here’s Station 18, at 2200 NE 24th Avenue, built in 1912 to look like its bungalow neighbors and in active use until 1964. Nice fountain!

If you like to look at old buildings, you’ve probably noticed the red brick building on the east side of NE 33rd near Alberta Court, now home of the Oregon Stamp Society (4828 NE 33rd). If you’ve thought there’s something institutional about it, you’d be right.

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Here’s the former home of Engine 34, 4828 NE 33rd, in the early 1960s, not long after the Oregon Stamp Society purchased the building. We’re on the lookout for earlier photos showing the station in active use.

Opened on November 1, 1928, with Captain Dan Shaw in charge and R. Mitchell as junior captain, the station was originally the home of Engine Company 34.

Over the years, the station also served as neighborhood polling place, toy drop-off during Christmas charity drives, and the focus of summer community barbecues and open houses.

During the teens and 1920s, several similar small fire stations housing just one engine and known as “three-man stations” were constructed in the heart of Portland’s residential neighborhoods. They were designed to fit in: have a look at similar stations in Irvington at 2200 NE 24th Avenue, and in Sellwood at SE 13th and Tenino (both of which were also decommissioned in the late 1950s and early 1960s). Portland Fire Chief Lee Holden (1925-1927), who was also an amateur architect, designed these stations. Holden’s attention to details—on NE 33rd, the choice of red brick, the wide and inviting gables and exterior columns, the operating multi-pane casement windows, the interior boxed-beam ceilings and classic interior wood trim—all speak to popular residential design elements of the period.

Much of the original station interior on NE 33rd has been remodeled over the last 50 years to serve the needs of the stamp club, but a recent visit turned up clues to its earlier life: The fire station kitchen in the basement is original, with a bank of lockers to hold firefighters’ food; the entry and waiting area (including fireplace, mantel and built-in inglenook bench); the captain’s office; the roof dormer, which was once the top end of a tower for drying wet fire hose. Mechanical systems, according to OSS President Eric Hummel, have been replaced several times since the society acquired the building in 1960. The original garage door for the fire engine was on the front right of the station, but a casement window from the south side was transplanted to the front and the remainder was bricked over in the early 1960s.

The station was functional until August 1959, when fire operations for the area shifted to the new station at NE 19th and Killingsworth (more on that in a future post…it’s an interesting story), and Engine Company 34 was sent to serve the St. Johns neighborhood. The closure was the result of a reorganization of the Portland Fire Bureau by City Commissioner Stanley W. Earl and a $3 million bond measure passed by voters in 1957 to build seven new stations across the city.

The Oregon Stamp Society purchased the decommissioned building in 1960 for $13,500.

One aspect of its original siting is a coincidence worth observing: the station was sited one block north of one of Northeast Portland’s memorable conflagrations of the 1920s: the former St. Charles Catholic Church, which was located at the southeast corner of NE 33rd and Webster. The wooden building, constructed in 1916, was significantly damaged by fire late on the night of June 27, 1924. In November 1950, the parish relocated to its current site on NE 42nd (we’ve often looked for photos or memories of that original building, by the way, in case you know of someone who might have one, or a memory of what it was like).

No connection between the station and the church. Just clues and food for thought about how much NE 33rd Avenue has changed over the years. Not so long ago, it was the far eastern edge of Portland’s city limits.

Next: More fire station changes for Northeast, this time in the 1950s near Alberta Park.

Figuring out the Prescott Jog

AH readers know we like nothing better than a good history mystery, so we were intrigued when a reader asked recently about why NE Prescott makes a jog south between NE 33rd and NE 37th. In this case there is no one single reason: it’s multiple reasons related to changes in surveying proficiency, the passage of time, the helter-skelter nature of developers operating at the edge of the city limits in 1900, and a complete absence of planning in our turn-of-the-last-century city.

The Prescott Jog near 37th

The jog at NE Prescott and 37th

Let’s look at the basic ingredients:

The Grid: Back in 1850, surveyors used a grid to map Oregon and to organize our landscape into big boxes and small boxes, known as townships, ranges and sections. In Northeast Portland, our main east-west streets are organized on section or half-section lines. Prescott (all but the four-block stretch we’re talking about here) rests on a half section line.

The Plats: Portland has more than 900 of these: a plat is basically a plan that divides the land into lots and streets. Developers were in charge of their own plats, and gave them unique names, some of which are pretty interesting. A plat called “Willamette Addition,” drawn and filed in 1888, contains the area from Skidmore to Killingsworth and from NE 33rd to NE 37th. Of particular note: running along the bottom of that plat is our mystery stretch of Prescott between 33rd and 37th.

So here’s what happened:

The Willamette Addition was anchored on the south boundary to what in 1888 was thought to be the half-section line (the future Prescott). Actual development of the Willamette Addition didn’t happen until the 1920s, and in many cases much later.

Our maps pages shows both Alameda Park (the neighboring plat to the west, 1909) and Wilshire (the neighboring plat to the east, 1921), which were laid out decades later by different developers using different survey technology. And guess what: the location of the real Prescott (in alignment with the more-recently-surveyed half-section line) moved about 75 feet to the north.

But meanwhile the Willamette Addition was still just a drawing and raw land owned by different developers, with it’s weirdly offset four-block southern boundary, which was referred to as Columbia Street, stuck on the grid of 1888 and quickly becoming irrelevant. The developers of Alameda and Wilshire weren’t in control of the Willamette Addition, but they had to build streets around it and needed to tie their new neighborhoods into the actual half-section-line-based street we know today as Prescott. So, build they did, marooning this yet-to-be developed four-block stretch of “Columbia Street” 75 feet to the south, and necessitating eventual construction of the s-curve jogs we know today when development of the Willamette Addition finally followed years later.

There’s a story behind everything. That’s why we love history!

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