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.

Slowing down time that has already passed

It’s been quiet here on the blog lately because we’ve been busy working on several studies of homes and businesses in northeast Portland. Each time we do a study—which involves becoming immersed in documents, maps, photos, archives, and family stories—we focus in on connecting past and present, which is what this work is all about.

These connections allow generations of owners—the people who have lived in, shaped and loved these buildings—to listen to each other, to learn, and sometimes to nod their heads in common understanding and amazement. What an honor and privilege to be able to help make those connections, to learn those stories and to understand and visualize the passage of time. And each time we take on a project, we learn more about the neighborhood as a whole.

As we’ve zeroed in on this work in the last month (to the exclusion of the blog), it has occurred to us what we’re really doing is taking a hold of time that has already passed and trying to slow it down long enough to look around inside for understanding and for answers. Frequently, that’s what we get. Sometimes we just get more questions.

With the completion of this latest handful of studies, we’re going to have some room to focus on some new (old) projects and studies. Interested?

Meanwhile here on the blog, stay tuned for something new soon about Mom and Pop grocery stores

Kitchen Archaeology | The California Cooler

Our neighbors Rob and Marti are carefully and heroically remodeling their 1923 bungalow kitchen. They’re doing a great job. We’ve been following their progress and in a recent driveway conversation, Rob held up an old house part (the square frame in the photo below) and asked a kitchen archaeology question we thought other old house readers might be interested in reading about too. Recognize this?

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It’s the face of a vent removed from an outside kitchen wall, one of two that were part of an early and natural cooling method known as a “California Cooler.” In a time before refrigeration—and borne out of the bungalow ethic of keeping things simple and natural—these indoor cabinets were the next best thing and were built into many eastside kitchens and homes.

Here’s another look, showing the frame in the original clapboard siding, which was shingled over in the 1950s (thanks to Rob Donnelly for the photos):

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Here’s how they worked: the vents were stacked vertically one at the bottom of the cabinet and one near the top, and always placed on an outside wall. Maybe you have seen the exterior evidence: two small frames with screen or mesh on an outside kitchen wall. Here’s what they looked like from the inside. The old cupboard has been removed showing just the vents.

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Inside the kitchen, the vents led into a cabinet with shelves, which were often just slats with space between to promote ventilation. The cabinet or cupboard had a door on the front, just like any other cupboard in the kitchen.

But the physics of convection made this cupboard different: warm air would escape through the top vent, which acted like a chimney, and cooler air was drawn in through the bottom vent. The result was a measurably cooler space that kept foods fresher longer, and promoted cooling for just-baked items.

The extremes of summer and of winter obviously weren’t optimal (“honey, why is it so cold in the kitchen?”). But they did work, and were omnipresent in the older homes we love. Today, some kitchen designers and builders interested in sustainability and energy efficiency are even recreating this old technology for the same reasons they were first installed a century ago.

Now that you know what to look for, keep your eyes peeled when you are out and about in the neighborhood for twin openings on an exterior kitchen wall, and chances are you are seeing evidence of a California cooler. Do you have one? Send us a photo.

Mark your calendar: Alameda History at the Mission Theater and Pub, Monday, January 13

After a pause in our ongoing quest and passion for Alameda history, we’re back on track in the New Year with a free program as part of the Oregon Encyclopedia History Night series, at 7:00 p.m., Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater in Northwest Portland. Consider yourself invited.

In pictures and words, we’ll track the early development of Northeast Portland’s Alameda neighborhood, profile key builders and building styles, and share a social history of the homes, families and changing generations of this 100-plus-year-old neighborhood.

Come experience how these layers of local history add up to a deeper understanding of the neighborhood today. This updated presentation will touch on Alameda School, the Pearson Ponderosa Pine, Wilshire Park, the Subud Center/Alameda Park Community Church, the Broadway Streetcar and other institutions and businesses that have defined Alameda life over the years.

It’s free. The beer is good. You might see your neighbors and other history-inclined folks.

7:00 pm, Monday, January 13 at the Mission Theater, 1624 NW Glisan, Portland.

Old House History in The News

We see this morning that a recent interview with The Oregonian has turned into a very nice story, which ran in the Thursday, March 26th edition of the paper. Feature writer Larry Bingham wrote the piece out of an interest in old house history, and in keeping with the paper’s focus on Oregon history during this susquicentennial year. You can find the story here at this link. Thanks Larry!

Stories of Success by Homebuilders

I’ve been going through early issues of The Oregonian in search of stories and photos about homes and neighborhoods. It’s been a fascinating journey marked with some real jackpots of information about Alameda, Olmsted Park and Beaumont. Photos, catchy advertisements, stories about who was building what, and where. The Portland of 1909-1915 feels definitely more boastful, a little rowdier than today, with the challenge of meeting day-to-day necessities a little closer to the top.

When you get to reading these papers, you can just feel time flowing through your hands. Each news story or photo is a small thread in the fabric of time. Important at that moment, but entirely forgotten or unobserved today. 

I happened on a great series of stories that grew out of the boastfulness of new neighborhood development. The Portland Realty Board got together with The Oregonian to launch and run a series of columns that invited new Portland homeowners to tell their own stories about how they built (and financed) their new houses. Their modest houses, in most cases. This was not a focus on the big Craftsman or Dutch colonials being built (they had their own limelight on the pages of the Sunday Oregonian). These were grass roots stories about saving money under your mattress, living out of the tent on your new lot, and building your bungalow with your own two hands. Inspiring, really.

Called Stories of Success by Homebuilders, this column was the outgrowth of a weekly contest for the best story. Cash prizes were given, and winning essays were printed in the Sunday Oregonian. The unstated purpose was to help motivate first-time home buyers. In setting up the first essay, the Portland Realty Board wrote:

It was a difficult problem for the committee on awards to decide which of the number were the three best stories, as each contained features deemed of great value in emphasizing the purposes for which the contest is being held. The spirit which underlies the authorship of the essays is wholesome, cheery and inspiring.

So I’m going to pick out of a few of the best and share them, along with a translation of the address for the house today, in case you want to ride by on your bike for an informed look (and a tip of the hat to the first homeowners who made it happen).

Here’s Ed Mack’s submission from April 7, 1912. The home he and his wife built is at 3122 NE 47th Avenue. It appears there have been some significant changes made to the house since the Macks knew it.

 680 East Fortyseventh Street, North is today's 3122 NE 47th Avenue.

Of Purple Boxes

A great observation about old houses and their sometimes brash new neighbors. This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian on March 16, 2008.

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One thoughtful reader, responding to Emma’s column, writes:

Don’t you wonder what story the purple box is telling us? If the older homes were about family, and a love of making things that are handsomely decorated, or about sitting in the sun on our porches, maybe the purple box is about amnesia, or something like it.

What do you think the purple box is telling us?

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