Alberta Street Photo Sleuthing | Found!

A friendly AH reader has shared an amazing photo with stories to tell, so have a good detailed look at this (click to enlarge), and then we’ll take it apart and do some sleuthing. There are so many things to think about here.

NE 26th and Alberta looking north/northeast, 1909. Photo courtesy of the Gholston Collection, used with permission.

In past entries, we’ve delved into mom and pop groceries, delivery horses and carriages, and the bustling early Alberta Street. Each is present in this picture taken at the corner of NE 26th and Alberta in 1909, three years before the Broadway Bridge was built and at a time when Portland had only 3,540 registered automobiles (so everyone was on foot, horseback or streetcar).

Just so we’re clear, Lester Park (the location painted on the side of the wagon) wasn’t a park, it was the name of a plat or subdivision, contained in today’s Concordia neighborhood (just one of multiple plats that make up today’s neighborhood). Here’s a look at that plat, filed in 1906 by H.L Chapin of the Arleta Land Company. It’s a compact little rectangle, running from Alberta on the north to Prescott on the south and between NE 25th and NE 27th, 145 total lots.

Lester Park Addition Plat, 1906. North is to the left, east is up.

The Lester Park Grocery was a dry goods and butcher store that stood in what is today an empty lot just west of the Waffle Window, 2624 NE Alberta. Its original address was 834 Alberta to be exact (remember that all of Portland was renumbered in the 1930s, so this address was before the change). The shop that H.L. Reynolds, his wife Carrie and her daughter called home also included several rooms for the family to live.

We’ve walked all over this part of Alberta with this picture in our hand, consulted early Sanborn maps of the neighborhood, examined building permits and local buildings to make an informed statement about exactly where this is. Here’s what we see and why we believe this view is looking north/northeast from out in front of Reynolds’s shop at NE 26th and Alberta:

  • There are some distinctive houses in the background of this old photo, including a church steeple, which we believe is the building on the southeast corner of NE 27th and Sumner known today as St. Luke Memorial Community Church of God (2700 NE Sumner), but was then the newly constructed United Brethren in Christ Church, built in 1910.
  • Appearing directly in front of the carriage driver in the old photo is a light colored home. This small hipped-roof house with chimney slightly off center and front dormer is today’s 5028 NE 26th (painted red) with the front porch now enclosed. This house was built in 1906. Here’s a look from Google streetview. See it under all that?

Current photo of the small house that appears just above the horse’s rump in the 1909 photograph. Look carefully at the hipped roof, mini dormer on top and slightly off-center chimney. Yep, that’s the same house. Built in 1906 by Mary L. Coger. Thanks to Google Streetview.

  • We know that in 1909 the Alberta Streetcar line (visible in the foreground of the photo) was still just two rails in the dirt; and we know this part of Alberta was not paved until the summer of 1911).
  • We also know that H.L. Reynolds, who may well be the man in the photo, was associated with the grocery until about 1910. The 1910 census shows him (age 36) and his wife Carrie living in the residence associated with the shop.

That would make the corner of the house you can see just above the horse’s head about where the corner of Mae Ploy Thai Cuisine is today (obviously a different building).

Reynolds was arrested in April 1909 for assaulting his wife and stepdaughter and disappears from the Portland scene the next year. Meanwhile Carrie takes over the shop (and probably the horse and carriage) and decides to sell it all off. Check out this series of classified ads from The Oregonian where she almost pleads for a buyer:

March 31, 1911

 

April 8, 1911

 

April 21, 1911

Carrie did eventually sell the place and leave town. The shop was taken over in 1913 by Mrs. Edna Albertson who ran it as Albertson’s Dry Goods Store (not related to today’s Albertson chain) until 1921 when she was killed in an automobile accident while traveling to Tillamook. How this photo has come down the years–who saved it and why–remains a mystery.

This picture is definitely worth 1,000 words. Thanks to Norm Gholston for the opportunity to take a trip back through time. We love this photo and are always looking for views like this that help us think about the past.

Light Atop Mt. Hood

105 years ago tonight, Portland craned its neck and squinted to the east for a glimpse of a light atop Mt. Hood. Light rain fell in some places. But across Portland’s eastside at 10 o’clock p.m. many eyes were intently looking east.

During the previous week, an adventurous climbing party from the Portland YMCA had been making its way east first by interurban trolley car to Boring (along today’s Springwater Corridor) and then on foot and by automobile to Government Camp. It was no small task 105 years ago to reach the base of Mt. Hood—something we take for granted today—and the climbing party’s progress was noted in front page news coverage in The Oregonian.

The culmination of the group’s two weeks of hiking, camping and climbing, was to be a planned night-time ignition of 50 pounds of red flare powder atop Mt. Hood to signal all in Portland that the party had achieved its objective. The group carried bags of what reporters referred to as “redfire,” which was probably strontium nitrate powder, known to burn bright red: the same material as in modern road flares.

You have to read the build-up to this big event to appreciate the imaginativeness and chutzpah of this group, and the confusion and dueling stories that followed. Let’s start on July 15, before the group left for the mountain, as they were deciding that they would dig bunks atop the summit for a good night’s sleep.

From The Oregonian, July 15, 1913

 

The Oregon Journal sent reporters out across the eastside to talk to those who were watching. The next day, here’s what they reported, including eyewitness testimony from people who saw the redfire plainly.

From the Oregon Journal, July 22, 1913

But the real story of what happened, finally reported six days later when the group made it back to Portland, is a little more complicated, real and wonderful. Read on:

From The Oregonian, July 26, 1913 (click to enlarge)

With all the build up, neighbors were ready to see what they wanted to see, despite the sleet and the YMCA group’s turning back that night from the summit. Was it that people wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves, to close the distance between what was wild and the city? Or was it just the moon on a misty summer night?

Tonight at exactly 10 o’clock we’ll be watching.

Portland’s Horse Tethering Rings

You’ve probably seen those old iron rings tethering toy horses to curbs across Portland’s older neighborhoods, a kind of whimsical tip of the hat to our pre-automobile past. But that old hardware rusting on the curb in front of your house is more than just a quaint antiquity: it had an important job to do back in the day.

Many eastside neighborhoods like ours were conceived and built when horses and wagons ruled the streets. In the early 1900s, as Portland was expanding and our neighborhoods were the newly minted suburbs, cars were an unproven, mostly unavailable commodity. In 1905 there were only 218 cars registered in the entire state of Oregon. People got around on foot, horseback and by horse and wagon, but mostly our predecessors here in eastside neighborhoods got around by streetcar. And mostly, neighbors did not keep a horse and wagon at home. So, what’s with all the hitching rings embedded in our curbs?

Every commodity and supply that came to your house in those days was delivered by horse and wagon: firewood, coal, ice, groceries, dry goods, laundry, building materials, parcel post packages. A page of classified ads in The Oregonian from 1900-1910 looks like the land of opportunity for horse-wagon delivery teams and people with strong backs. If you had a horse and wagon, you had a job.

In 1907 Portland City Council passed an ordinance requiring that new curbs in front of houses have “ring bolts” installed every 25 feet so that delivery vehicles could be securely tied down to protect pedestrians and other wagons using the street.

From Ordinances of the City of Portland, 1910

Horse tethering rings weren’t quaint. They were the law.

Many delivery drivers also carried a heavy weight attached to a strap they would place out on the ground—kind of like an anchor—to prevent the horse and wagon from moving around when the deliveryman hopped out and ran up the steps.

Horse tethering weight. These typically weighed 25 pounds and were attached to a wagon by a leather strap. The driver placed these out on the ground when away from the wagon.

By the late 1920s, the automobile (and delivery truck) had almost completely replaced the horse and wagon. Interestingly, streetcar ridership also began to drop off in the late 1920s as more people bought cars and drove where they wanted to go—unleashing a raft of other problems—leading to the demise of Portland’s streetcar system by the late 1940s. But we digress.

When tethering rings became obsolete, the cities of Vancouver and The Dalles passed ordinances requiring their removal due to safety concerns. Here in Portland, one visitor’s misstep resulted in a similar proposed ordinance to do the same. This was actually a front page news story on August 16, 1938:

 

From The Oregonian, August 16, 1938

Editorial response to the proposed ordinance was immediate, sarcastic, nostalgic. The next day, this unsigned piece appeared on the editorial page, bearing the distinctive style and cadence of editor Ben Hur Lampman, columnist and editorial writer, and eventually Oregon’s poet laureate.

 

From The Oregonian, August 17, 1938

 

City Council declined to take action in 1938, but the topic re-emerged in 1947 on the editorial page rising from what appears to have been a chit-chat between Ben Hur Lampman and his grandson. Kind of wistful, we’d say…evidently a topic close to his heart.

 

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1949

 

Over the years, the city’s Public Works Department adopted an unofficial policy of removing tethering rings. Some were saved, but many were dumped. But in 1978, when the city went to work on a curb in Ladd’s Addition, one unhappy homeowner picked up the phone and called the newspaper. His complaint, and his desire to remember the past, caught the attention of City Commissioner Connie McCready (who went on to become Portland mayor). The ensuing dust-up put horse tethering rings back on the front page of The Oregonian. Who would have thought?

 

From The Oregonian, January 7, 1978. Click to enlarge.

 

In recent years, the rings have re-entered the public consciousness in the form of the Portland Horse Project, dozens of photos and entries about the tiny horses tethered to curbs all across town (just Google “Portland Horse Rings”), and hundreds of acts of creativity and imagination by horse and history fans across the city.

There’s some magic about all of this: the horse rings are here with us in this moment but represent and call to mind a totally different world and time. They ask us to step out of ourselves for a moment to put time and place into perspective, to contemplate both change and steadiness, to acknowledge that what we know about the world today is not necessarily all there is to know. Our old houses do that too.

We love the line from Lampman’s 1938 editorial: “Something there is about the past, there always is, that causes us to put the present to the question.

 

The Disappearance of Vernon Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From The Oregonian, April 7, 1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy City of Portland Archives

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

City Ordinance 37170, Courtesy City of Portland Archives

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

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

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

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

Long live Josie and Laura.

Sidewalk history – Josie lives!

There’s a stretch of sidewalk we’ve walked thousands of times in our 30 years here in the neighborhood. One piece of it is distinctive for the moment in time it captures, when a little girl scratched her name into fresh concrete and claimed the sidewalk out in front of her house as her own.

She wrote: “Josie lives here. Yay!”

As we’ve stepped across her graffiti over the years, we’ve often wondered where Josie went; it must be a good few years since that concrete was fresh.

That particular stretch of sidewalk has been in rough shape recently, heaved up by roots from nearby big trees and just generally tired. After all, these sidewalks were made more than 100 years ago and have been patched up over the years. That’s a lot of freeze-thaw and wear and tear.

A couple weeks back, we noted the current safety-minded owner had quite reasonably pulled out the entire sidewalk and formed up for a new one. When we saw the pile of rubble left over from the broken pieces, we figured that was the end of Josie’s concrete. Hey, this was only a sidewalk, and it was a serious tripping hazard that needed to be replaced. Sorry Josie, but it was time.

Still, there was a tiny pang. It’s just a small thing, but as AH readers know, we tend to get a little sentimental about losing places that have meant something to people over time.

So, imagine our wonder when on second look we noted the owner had carefully carved out Josie’s graffiti and was preparing to add it to the new sidewalk (at least, that’s what it looks like to us). This was not an easy thing to do and required some intentional thought and planning, maybe rental of a concrete saw, and careful handling. It would have been way easier to just keep working away with the jack hammer.

Again, it’s a small thing. But we noticed. This little job is a tip of the hat to the past and show of respect. Important to note even small examples when people go out of their way to bring the past along into the future. Bravo!

Time Travel on NE 19th

Ready for a little time travel?

AH reader Sam Parrish was browsing around here on the blog recently and found a photo that captured his imagination. It’s the shot looking north on NE 19th Avenue just north of Thompson, taken about 1910 that illustrated a brochure about the new Alameda Park subdivision. Like us, Sam enjoys lining up in the footprints of the past so he went for a walk to find the exact spot and rephotographed it. Here, take a look:

The photo was one of several in the 107-year-old brochure that tried to establish the credibility of Alameda Park by referencing the well-established Irvington neighborhood to the south. The green text in the old photo is faded, but it’s pointing out that tiny patch of mud and trees at the far north end of this Irvington street view, as if to say: “Alameda…it’s up there.” At the time of its publication in 1910, the Alameda Park neighborhood was still on the drawing board, so boosters shamelessly borrowed Irvington imagery to make Alameda seem like it actually existed. Go check out our post on that brochure which does feature some examples of our favorite views across the open fields of early Alameda Park.

What was it about that particular image that captured Sam’s imagination? He writes:

“These houses seem to stand right on the edge of civilization. The juxtaposition of the freshly built homes against the sidewalk-lined forest across the street forces one to consider what is lost when a city expands; the urban growth boundary just outside your door.  I thought it would be neat to see these same houses in their current state. Lost in the sea of neighborhoods. It was a fun mystery to solve. Since I knew this is now NE 19th and it is within view of Alameda ridge it seemed a simple matter to start where 19th jogs at Tillamook and look for the house with the double gabled dormer. It turned out to be only one block north, just past the intersection of NE Thompson and 19th.”

Thanks Sam.

Since we’re on the topic of time travel and getting out for a walk to experience the history of the neighborhood (always a fun thing to do, particularly on a holiday evening with family or friends), check out these suggested local walks:

A walk around the Pearson dairy farm.

A walk along the Broadway streetcar route.

A walk around the perimeter of the Alameda Park plat.

Hoping you enjoy Christmas past and present this week, and best wishes for the New Year.

-Doug

The mystery of Crane Street

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of alleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Concordia alley

Restoring a hallowed neighborhood building: The return of Alberta Shul

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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