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.

It’s Snowing on Deadman’s Hill

Whenever it snows, Alamedans of a certain age and desire for adventure turn to Deadman’s Hill at the top of Stuart Drive for some enjoyable downhill adventure. It’s also a reasonable time for us to remind ourselves of the dead man for whom our hill is anonymously named.

6-6-1917 Fred Jacobs PhotoFred Jacobs. The dead man behind Deadman’s Hill. From The Oregonian, June 6, 1917.

He was Fred Jacobs and his tragic death at the foot of the hill on a sunny June morning in 1917 sent shock waves through Portland’s social and real estate communities, as well as the Alameda neighborhood.

You can read our full story behind Deadman’s Hill on this earlier AH Blog post.

While you’re at it, you might check out a post we did on historic snowfall a few years back.

Stay safe out there!

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!

Then and Now | “Dad & Lois” Long Ago

AH reader and fellow old-picture lover Chris Wilson has shared this photograph, found last year at a yard sale near Rocky Butte. Click on it for a close-up look. Lot’s of detail, including the original pre-address change address of 605 (on the column above the dad’s head).

2835 NE 55th

Our only clue: written on the back is “Dad & Lois at home place.” We love mysteries like this. With a little digging we’ve found this house in the Rose City Park neighborhood (not too far from Archbishop Howard School) known today as 2835 NE 55th Avenue. This stately Portland four-square was built in 1910. Apparently, Chris Wilson may have offered it to the current homeowners, who reportedly weren’t interested. So he wrote us, knowing that we love photos of old houses (especially with people in them), and that we love to solve old house and old picture mysteries.

Here it is today:

2835 NE 55th Today

After looking back at building permits, census records and a little deductive reasoning, our hunch is that this is Christopher J. (Dad) and Lois Schmiedeskamp. In the teens and early 1920s, the family owned and operated a grocery store and meat market at 7224 NE Sandy Blvd., right next to Fairley’s Pharmacy (home today to Berni’s Beauty Salon). Later, CJ went into real estate and mortgage banking.

Also at home around the time of the old photo were mom Mildred, brothers Charles and Karl, and sister Edith.

A quick look at the phone book today suggests the Schmiedeskamps are still in Portland. We’re guessing they could be interested in seeing this yard-sale-salvaged photo of their old home place.

Bring on the next mystery!

The Story Behind Deadman’s Hill

When it snows in Alameda—or more properly when we think about snow in Alameda—there are a few things that come to mind: When did we last fill the oil tank? Will the kids get a day off? Where did we put the sleds?

Which leads to the next thought: Deadman’s Hill.

Over the years we’ve sledded down, walked up and often wondered about the namesake Dead Man behind the slang name for Stuart Drive. In this case, it’s not just a myth, it’s a real story about a well-known and popular Portland businessman who died in 1917 in a freak accident that rattled the business community and shocked the young Alameda Park neighborhood.

Fred A. Jacobs, art collector, civic booster, real estate broker and owner of the Fred A. Jacobs Company, had set out with his employee J.P. Parker to drive through Alameda on their way to have a look at rental properties in the Vernon neighborhood. At the time—and well up until the 1970s, we’ve been told—Stuart Drive was a two-way street. On the morning of June 5, 1917, they started up Stuart Drive on their route north. Why they chose Stuart Drive over the gentler and wider Regents Drive is anyone’s guess. The car made it about half way up the hill, but then stalled out and started to roll backwards down the street. Unfortunately for Parker and Jacobs, the emergency brake did not hold and the car rolled to the far left side of the street, went backwards over the curb, bumped over the small sliver of property that goes with the lovely George A. Eastman-designed Craftsman home there on the hill, and then flipped over hard, landing on its side 25 feet below on Ridgewood Drive. Here’s what The Oregonian said the next morning:

From The Oregonian, June 6, 1917

Jacobs, age 47, left behind his wife Gussie and two children, Elizabeth, and Fred Jr. Pallbearers for the funeral—held with full Masonic rite honors—included Portland’s most powerful and successful business leaders. Services were held at home, and then again at graveside. No known plaque or marker was ever put in place in honor of Fred Jacobs. The real estate company bearing his name lived on for many years. Jacobs was responsible for platting and then selling multiple chunks of farm and forest that are now integral parts of the neighborhood, including the Manitou Addition.

The same story that carried news of the fatal accident also described the hill as a perilous spot and the scene of other accidents. Indeed, an earlier news story, this one from April 19, 1912, described a serious but non-fatal collision between a motorcycle and a car near the top of the hill that ended up with the car over the side and smashed into a just-finished (and now much remodeled) house, and motorcycle driver and passenger pinned under the car.

Here’s The Oregonian’s description from April 19, 1912, and even a photo.

From The Oregonian, April 19, 1912. Click to enlarge.

Here’s some bonus information that we found fascinating: A later news story about the motorcycle vs. car accident, and the law suit that resulted, appearing on July 3, 1914, helps solve another mystery about the hill. Frequent readers of the blog will recall the post about “Hugby” Drive, which we now know was Rugby Drive. The July 1914 story refers to the accident as happening at Rugby Drive and Alameda Street. A search through the city’s street naming records shows the only “official” Rugby Drive as being on the Westside. References to Stuart Drive exist both before 1912 (including in the original 1909 plat) and long after, so we’ll have to continue wondering about the story behind this visible but extinct street name. Theory: the Alameda Land Company boys had it set in the concrete curb before the official naming protocol became clear.

One more item, for the record: the late Portland historian Eugene Snyder, author of the definitive Portland Names and Neighborhoods: Their Historic Origins, which we greatly admire, guesses incorrectly about who Stuart was. After researching E.Z. Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company, and understanding more about his social network, it’s clear to us that Stuart was Donald M. Stuart, Ferguson’s business partner, owner of the Spencer-McCain-built home on the northwest corner of 26th and Hamblet, (less than a block from Ferguson’s Craftsman mansion at the southeast corner of 26th and The Alameda). Long-time friends from Astoria, Stuart served as pallbearer at Ferguson’s funeral in July 1917.

Sled carefully please.

Stuart Drive was once Rugby Drive

 

We came across this on a recent walk up Deadman’s Hill (Stuart Drive) from its base. It’s well cloaked in moss, but clearly visible, there on the south side of the street, at the base of the hill, just upslope from the stop sign. Take a look:

Right next to Rugby in the curb is our old friend Elwood Wiles, 1910, the ubiquitous curb stamp across much of Portland’s east side, made by the prolific concrete contractor and former Alameda resident.

We’re sensitive to names because they are signposts to history, but Rugby is a new one on us, not encountered on many trips through Polk City Directories, the Federal Censuses, old news articles, legal proceedings and other documents stemming from the Alameda Land Company. Elsewhere on this site, you’ll find a handy reference about other neighborhood street names. But no Rugbys encountered in pursuit of those stories either. Recently we sorted back through the city directories from 1900-1920 looking for any Rugby, but no luck.

And just for the record, Portland did have another Rugby Street–a short section of street located in Willamette Heights–which was renamed NW 34th Avenue during the Great Renumbering of the 1930s.

To be clear: the original plat for Alameda refers to this as Stuart Drive, even though there is no curb stamp that names it so (the original one may have been at the top of the hill on the north side of the street, perhaps obliterated from curb repairs). So Rugby joins Glenn and Laura as mysteries awaiting solution. Any ideas?

Always on the lookout for a little mystery like this. Seen any lately?

Alameda Library? Unlikely.

If you live in Alameda above the ridge, you’ve walked, ridden or driven past this very nice home many times. It’s on the wide sweep of Regents Drive, just north of the intersection with The Alameda, on the east side of the street.

 3032-regents.jpg

3032 NE Regents Drive, Portland, Oregon. Built 1923 by C.O. Waller at a cost of $12,000, which was a lot of money in 1923. This was on the high end for construction costs of other houses built in the neighborhood at the same time. Some families who have lived here over the years have used the west wing of the house (with all the windows you can see above) as a place for their books.

It’s been a favorite of ours, particularly all the casement windows; the curved approach walk with the formal shrubbery, the welcoming way in which the building is sited at the corner with Regents and Dunckley; the brick, the tile roof and all the Tudor details. It’s a nice place.

So we were intrigued recently when picking up the real estate flyer advertising this as the former Alameda Library. Hmm. Really?

As a historian who loves a good mystery, I dug into the resources to see what I could find. And despite the realtor’s listing citing this as a “local legend,” I can report the following, to the contrary:

  • The construction permit for this house was taken out on May 18, 1923 by Mr. C.O. Waller. Presumably, the house was completed in late 1923 or early 1924. That period was during the second boom of construction in the neighborhood, following the first wave from 1910-1914. There is no record of public bidding process about any buildings in the neighborhood (except for Alameda School, built in 1921 at a cost of about $40,000…and there was a flap about that bid which ended up in The Oregonian, another future post…stay tuned).
  • The house sits on two lots in the Olmsted Park Addition: lots 25 and 26. Interesting to note that it’s actually had three addresses during it’s lifetime. The first one was 924 Dunckley, which was changed to 3054 NE Dunckley during the great renumbering of the early 1930s (click here to learn more about that and about Alameda Street Names). And sometime — not sure when — it was changed to its current Regents Drive address, 3032.
  • The two subdivisions across the street from each other in this location — Alameda Park Addition to the west and the Olmsted Park Addition to the east — had strict building covenants and restrictions that prohibited the construction of anything except houses. That goes for commercial buildings, community buildings, even churches (as we know from the lawsuit and protests associated with the Alameda Park Community Church just up the block, built about the same time…more on that story soon). A public library would never have been permitted, or tolerated, in this spot. The most likely library that would have served the needs of this community were either in Albina on NE Knott (just west of MLK in what is today’s Tidal Wave used book store) or in the Hollywood area (that branch has moved around over the years).
  • I’ve met with a former resident who grew up across the street from 3032 and he recalls that it was not a library, but home to the Johnson family. Mr. Johnson was the contract carrier for The Oregonian (as in the chief distribution guru).

3032-entry.jpg

Perhaps the urban myth of “Alameda library” arose from the fact that several homeowners at that address have used that west facing wing — with all those windows — to place their bookshelves. Or from the fact that if you squint your eyes just right, the architecture and the layout of the building on the site does indeed feel like a welcoming, friendly public building.

-Doug Decker

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