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.

Timothy Curry-Stevens: Bringing lost wood back to life

If you’ve been following along with us here on AH for a while, you know the demolition of neighborhood houses has been a sad theme. We’ve struggled to come to terms with the loss of homes we’ve known and that have been part of the fabric of the neighborhood for a century.

Timothy Curry-Stevens

Alameda resident Timothy Curry-Stevens reuses old wood from neighborhood demolitions to create beautiful furniture, which he donates to local charities.

This week, we came across a silver lining in the person of Alameda resident Timothy Curry-Stevens. He’s a furniture maker with a carpentry shop in his garage and an unending supply of old and beautiful wood retrieved from neighborhood tear downs.

Timothy translates demo wreckage into functional and beautiful furniture he donates to worthy causes like the Community Warehouse, Catholic Charities and the Refugee Resettlement project. His carpentry helps make sure refugee and low-income families have a kitchen table to gather around, and benches for family members to pull up to the table.

Table, bench and shelves

He has repurposed ceiling joists, stair treads, shiplap, skip sheathing and just about every kind of wood that comes out of an old house, transforming it all into beautiful table tops and sturdy legs. He’s become expert at nail pulling, hole filling, gluing, trimming and finishing the beautiful old wood. Tight-grained wood from old-growth Douglas-fir trees built this neighborhood in the last century and when Timothy gets his hands on it, he releases the natural glow and grain.

Small dining tables built from salvaged wood

Timothy Curry-Stevens built these two tables with wood from a 1925 bungalow that was demolished in January at 31st and Siskiyou. He donates his furniture to a local charity.

His most recent project (two small dining room tables) came from the early January tear down just around the corner from him at the corner of 31st and Siskiyou. Everyone in the neighborhood knew the 1925 house was being torn down, and was dreading it. He had seen other demolitions where the materials were broken, splintered and piled high before being hauled off in dump trucks. So Timothy tracked down the company doing the demo and asked the excavator operator if he would be willing to set aside some of the old wood. He was happily surprised by the willing response.

“I met him the day they started,” he recalls. “Over that day and the next he set out for me to lug home 36 2×8 joists from the first floor ceiling, 10, 12, and 14 feet long, plus lots of other assorted boards. Took me a week to get all the nails pulled!”

Once the nails were pulled, Timothy sawed the boards to meet his needs, glued the pieces together to create a laminated top, carefully manufactured the legs and assembled all the pieces. In less than a month, day by day, Timothy transformed the wood from wreckage to furniture.

Originally from Massachusetts, Timothy didn’t grow up around any natural carpenters. It wasn’t until working on a wildfire crew in central Idaho as a young man that he gained experience with carpentry—fixing wood trim on the fire crew buildings and moving a barn—that he found he really enjoyed working wood with his hands.

Timothy’s retired now, and one of the things that gives great meaning to the pace and feel of his days is working with this wood. He’s converted a garage into a woodshop with table saw, tools, work bench and a woodstove. A nice place to spend time. Half of the garage holds salvaged wood and at the moment it’s pretty full.

Timothy is humble about his work: it’s just his way of having purpose and mission while giving back and making something good from loss. Thank you Timothy.
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Gone but not forgotten

It’s been gone since mid-October when the orange excavator took the house to the ground and dump trucks carted it away as debris, but the Kettleberg house that was demolished at Northeast 30th and Skidmore has not been forgotten.

George and Manila Kettleberg home, built 1921. 2933 NE Skidmore. From The Oregonian, September 11, 1921.

George and Manila Kettleberg home, built 1921. 2933 NE Skidmore. From The Oregonian, September 11, 1921. The Kettlebergs lived there for almost 50 years; their daughter Dorothy and husband Walter lived next door.

Neighbors still shake their heads as they look at the hole in the ground and remember the 1921 Craftsman bungalow that stood on that spot for 95 years. We’ve talked to a few who still can’t believe two 3,000-square-foot houses will be built in its place. Some neighbors still refer to the corner as Willis and June’s, even though Willis moved away when June passed on a few years back and no one has heard from him since.

According to the City of Portland, the house’s address 2933 no longer exists. A search of portlandmaps.com shows the planned locations and permitting for the two new buildings that will occupy that lot, now known as 2945 NE Skidmore and 4305 NE 30th. We tried to have a look online at the historic plumbing permit for 2933 the other day, but it’s gone now too.

The house is still alive in memory, though. Last week we received a note from George and Manila Kettleberg’s great grandson Robert who explained to us that his grandmother Dorothy and her sister Nancy grew up in that house. George and Manila bought the house brand new in 1921, and raised their girls there.

In the early 1950s daughter Dorothy and her husband Walter moved in two doors down. And then a few years later, Dorothy and Walter moved in right next door to her parents George and Manila. That end of the block wasn’t like a family, they were family. Life flowed back and forth between those three bungalows.

Robert remembers his dad saying it worked out pretty good for him because he could always run between the houses to see who was serving the best dinner. Many footprints left back and forth between those houses.

Construction in the big hole hasn’t started yet, but we’re guessing by spring there will be plenty of activity. Two new big places will go up crowding the lot. Then it will be up to us neighbors to keep the stories of Kettleberg corner alive: almost 50 years of one family’s life.

That’s the thing about old houses. They remind us of who we’ve been; they keep us connected to places our families have known intimately; they contain the passing of time.

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

january-2017-snowstorm

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?

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.

12-3-2016-concordia-fire-station

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.

The End of History

While we know change is actually the default setting of the universe, and we appreciate the economic complexities of restoration and development, there’s no getting away from the gut punch that happens every time we see these forces collide in our neighborhood.

We’ve been exploring this lately here on the blog as a witness to the coming changes at the corner of NE 30 and Skidmore. We’ve lived here almost 30 years and have walked by that house hundreds, maybe thousands of times. But we’ve never lived there, and don’t know anyone who has. It’s not part of our personal story, per se.

We’ve wondered what it might be like, or how objective we could be, if it was a place integral to our family history. If we thought of each demolition in this way, would it become more impactful? Would there be another set of calculations to make that could lead to other options?

We had an inkling of that this week when we learned one of the iconic homes from our family history, a modest Queen Anne bungalow on Diversey Avenue on Chicago’s north side where our father was born, has been demolished and replaced with a condominium. We wrote about the Diversey house here on AH some time back when we asked you to share a picture and story about your favorite house. Here it is, from one of the hundreds of pictures taken during earlier days:

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago. Taken about 1918.

1038 Diversey Parkway, Chicago (on the left). Taken about 1918.

 

Here’s the visual on this recent change, thanks to Google streetview. It’s the blue house on the right.
1038-w-diversey-parkway-before

Before

1038-w-diversey-parkway-after

After

We won’t go into detail about how many stories and memories went down with those two houses. Dad was born there, delivered by the doctor who lived next door. Neighborhood picnics were held in the backyard. First day of school pictures on the front steps. Photos of uncles coming and going from the Great War. That house anchored the family as it grew, and it showed in the pictures that flowed from that experience.

During our own growing up years in the Chicago area, decades after the house passed from the family’s hands, whenever we were anywhere near, Dad always took us by, told a story, fed our imaginations with a sense of times past. Maybe our visits and the house’s presence in stories and pictures helped Dad stay oriented in his own family landscape. That’s the thing about our old houses: they become a kind of navigational aid for a family in its journey from past to present to future. After Dad died, we made the pilgrimage back on our own, the pictures of the uncles, the big snow, the sled on the porch burned into our hearts.

That’s where the gut punch comes from. Today, it’s all erased: not a single clue about those houses, those lives.

Clearly, we can’t “save” every old house or building. Our communities are growing and changing and a new infrastructure, informed by the past, is necessary for the city of the future. But we have to find a better way, to build on our strengths and on our past rather than erasing all traces.

 

A memory of chestnut trees

We’ve been out in the neighborhood on foot and bicycle recently and have seen the tremendous drop of chestnuts building up on sidewalks and streets. Thousands of smooth, rich, ebony gems inside prickly green coats falling from branches and being crushed underfoot.

Chestnuts 9-10-16

Chestnuts gathering at the curb.

Seeing all these beauties puts us in mind of a question asked recently by a reader about a handed-down memory of chestnut trees along Alberta Court from NE 33rd to NE 42nd, in an area some remember as property owned by Joe Bennard and his brothers.

We really like questions like this, which require us to do some genealogy, some geography and some general asking around.

Joe Bernard was actually Joe Bennard (who was born in 1901 as Joe Bennardo). Joe ran a real estate company based in an office (now gone) that he built facing Alberta Court directly behind today’s Doggie Business at 4905 NE 42nd Avenue.

Joe built the Doggie Business building in 1937, originally a tavern and restaurant. Joe and and his brothers (the brothers kept the original family name Bennardo) lived in the neighborhood, and one brother built the house three doors north on the west side of NE 42nd. But we weren’t able to verify if the Bennardos actually owned a farm, or what extent it may have covered.

The American chestnut (castanea dentate) was a common tree in all American cities, but suffered a major disease outbreak that drastically reduced its numbers by the mid-1930s. It seems unlikely that enough of these great old trees would have been left mid-century to have lined Alberta Court. And of course it was called Alberta Street then, and traveled along through open fields and forest stands.

And here’s an interesting note: Alberta Street was renamed to Alberta Court after a vote of residents on the street in the summer of 1940 and a city ordinance passed on August 28, 1940. On August 11, 1940, The Oregonian reported that “Multnomah County suggested the city change the name of the street within the city limits to avoid confusion and a survey of sentiment of the property owners was taken. Most of them approve the change to avoid confusion.”

We pulled up a series of aerial photos from the 1920s and 1930s that show the western stretch of the street, and we don’t see a line of trees in this area. We did connect with former neighborhood paperboy and AH reader John Hamnett, who delivered newspapers along Alberta Court in the late 1940s and while he remembered homeless camps there along what was the city limits, he didn’t recall seeing any orchard or line of chestnuts.

This doesn’t mean there weren’t chestnuts along Alberta Court, just that evidence is scarce. In fact, it does appear there is a lone survivor of what was remembered: you can find a beautiful old chestnut tree today at the northeast corner of NE 41st and Alberta Court, reminding us they were indeed in the neighborhood. We’ll keep digging on this, and welcome any information from AH readers.

Chestnut tree at 41st and Alberta Court

Get out there and enjoy this beautiful fall weather!

2933 NE Skidmore | Still standing, for now

Those of us paying attention to the trajectory of the doomed 95-year-old Craftsman bungalow at 2933 NE Skidmore are surprised to note that it’s still standing. We’ve asked why, since the plan was to be done by late August, and the folks at developer Green Canopy explained the contractor they had scheduled for the lead-based paint abatement is contracted on a large job and is booked out until November. That means Green Canopy is rebidding the work and demolition will be delayed by anywhere from two to four weeks.

2933 NE Skidmore taken on 9-8-16 2933 NE Skidmore, photographed on September 8, 2016

During our recent exchange with the company, we also had a chance to pass along a question from one of our readers about how building materials will be salvaged during the demolition. Green Canopy’s Portland Construction Operations Manager Ryan Nieto explained that the process will be a mechanized demolition not a deconstruction, and that the wood will not be salvaged. Ryan writes:

“We are not planning on a full deconstruction of this structure, which is what would be required in order to salvage the dimensional lumber. Just to clarify, even if we were to salvage the lumber, in order for it to be reused for framing purposes it would likely need to be milled down to true nominal size.”

Ryan did point out that certain building components, as well as landscape features, have already been salvaged.

We asked about drawings: Green Canopy is still working with city permitting officials and is not ready to release plans or drawings at this point. Ryan did point out that the earlier reference to the roof peak being at 45 feet (as surmised from the sketchy photo of an early plan set) was incorrect and the roof height is more like 33 feet above ground.

Once demolition begins, the process will take about five days. We’ll let you know in advance when demolition is scheduled. In the meantime, take a last walk by and tip your hat to this time traveler.

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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