Favorite views of NE 24th and Fremont

We love to find and collect old views that feed our curiosity and tell us something about the place we live. Today’s post assembles photos we’ve retrieved recently from a few archives that allow a look at changes at NE 24th and Fremont, which has always served as a kind of gateway to Alameda Park.

Here is the earliest view of this intersection that we’ve ever come across, taken in September 1921 from just north of Fremont, looking north along the Broadway Streetcar tracks toward Regents, with Ridgewood in the distance. It’s a good, sharp photo, so click into it and have a look around and we’ll take it apart in the way we usually do:

NE 24th and Fremont looking north, courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2009-009.1858

This image is labeled “PRL&P tracks, September 1921.” Like so many of the images at City Archives, it was taken to document the engineering, in this case the road and track condition. Maybe it was those bricks adjacent to the track that look sunk and a hazard for car tires. Or maybe it was just documenting the street scene before other work began.

PRL&P was Portland Railway Light and Power: they ran the streetcar system and were in frequent cooperation and conflict with the city about infrastructure. The brickwork bordering the rails is a signature of the system. These days you can still see the rails during street maintenance or sewer construction, like just up the hill from here in 2014. Look carefully here and you can see the tracks round the corner at Regents and head east and up the hill.

Your first thought as you look at this might be that the down slope from Fremont north to Regents is not quite that steep. But go stand and look at it and you realize that it is. The focal length of the lens and the absence of houses along the street trick the eye.

An Alameda elder we interviewed a few years back told us that when he was a mischievous teenager in the mid 1940s, he once released the brake on a momentarily parked streetcar waiting at 24th and Fremont (the driver had gone into the pharmacy to use the facilities) and the streetcar absolutely knew there was a slope: it drifted driverless down from Fremont and made it most of the way around the corner on Regents before its gravity was spent.

Both houses pictured here are still place, the one on the right is 3808 NE 24th built in June 1921. On the left, 3803 NE 24th, which was still under construction in the fall of 1921 (is that a for sale sign out front?).

The cutbank you see at the end of the street is where Ridgewood, running east-west, cuts along the Alameda ridge.

In the foreground to the left you can see planks placed over the curb that allow a tractor or wheeled vehicle to turn into the farmyard, which looks like it includes a small orchard. This open stretch of land was pasture for cows and orchards, as we learned recently about the adjacent Homedale plat.

Here’s another favorite shot, from not too far away from our first photo, looking to the southwest, today’s Lucca and Garden Fever. We wrote about the life of this building a few years back. Check it out.

Looking southwest at the corner of NE 24th and Fremont, early 1920s. Note delivery bike visible behind power pole. OrHi 49061.

These next two are pretty amazing. They’re from City Archives and our guess is they accompanied the building permit request associated with construction of the building that now houses Alameda Dental and Union Bank, which was originally a Safeway. You can read more about that in the post we mentioned earlier, which includes a drawing of that building from its grand opening.

Check out the view from the air on this rainy winter day in 1935:

1935 Aerial of NE 24th and Fremont A2205-05.1421.2. Courtesy of Portland City Archives. Click to enlarge.

 

There’s so much here to observe and wonder about, it’s hard to know where to start. This is 14 years after the first image in this post, and you can see both houses on NE 24th pictured earlier, and clearly locate the path of the Broadway Streetcar. In fact, look close and you can see the actual streetcar stopped there at 24th and Fremont.

Check out the notable empty lots, and how about that forest where the Madeleine soccer field is today? A billboard put up on the corner at 25th probably advertises property for sale. The filling station at 24th and Fremont. A few people out walking. A sharp eye will locate the Eastman House on NE Stuart Drive. What jumps out at you?

Down on the ground, still contemplating the coming changes at the intersection, we have this view, from January 28, 1938, another killer tack-sharp photo from a 5 x 7 negative you’re going to want to explore:

Looking west on Fremont between NE 24th and NE 25th. Courtesy Portland City Archives, A2009-009.107

 

The same view in December 2018.

This 1938 image looks like it was taken from about where the front door of Alameda Dental is today. The elevation of the vacant lot to the left and its brushy slope is amazing. The building that today is Lucca—Alameda Drugs—sports the signs for Sunfreze Ice Cream and a pay phone, and the delivery bike is still there. Down the line is the shoe repair shop of John Rumpakis, a barber shop, and the stairs that lead up to the dentist on the second floor.

Across the street we have the Standard Oil service station that operated up into the 1970s and some people waiting for the Broadway streetcar.

Speaking of the streetcar, here’s another image we found, taken at this intersection in 1940.

Broadway line car 809 rounds the corner at 24th and Fremont, looking east, 1940. Courtesy of Portland City Archives A2011-007.65.

In this shot we can see the corner of the Standard Oil station in the far left; a new building in the lot on the northeast corner—partially hidden by the streetcar—where Childroots Daycare is today (which was a Hancock Gasoline station up until the mid 1970s); the new Safeway building that had just been built; and the sign mounted to corner of Alameda Drugs. No telling if the delivery bike is still there.

Do you have a photo of this intersection or memory you’d like to share? We’re always on the lookout.

Lost and Found

We’ve just finished Val Ballestrem’s great new book Lost Portland Oregon, which profiles more than 50 iconic Portland buildings, all either demolished in the name of progress, or destroyed by fire or collapse. These were great buildings of our past that defined Portland’s skyline and sense of itself, most of which have slipped beyond living memory, a fact Ballestrem notes in his preface and that seems remarkable given the prominence and impact each building had on past generations: “Many of these places have been gone so long that few people remember that they ever existed.”

Profiles of these architectural and construction marvels make fascinating reading: how the buildings were the centerpieces of various communities, the hopes of investors and families trying to build their fortunes, to create something meaningful and durable, to leave a mark.

The Oregonian Tower, the Worcester Block, the Forestry Building, the Beth Israel Synagogue the distinctive Witch Hazel building (below), virtually every commercial building on Front Avenue. Any of these places would be a revered landmark today. It’s a sad parade of losses captured thoughtfully by Ballestrem and woven through with insight about decades of social and economic change in the Portland landscape: the up and down cycle of the economy and the perils of deferred maintenance; periodic Willamette River flooding; institutional racism and the dynamics of changing demographics; failures of long-term thinking and planning. The automobile.

The Witch Hazel Building–later known as the Ohio Hotel– stood at the southeast corner of SW Front and Madison near the foot of today’s Hawthorne Bridge from 1891-1941. It’s one of more than 50 buildings profiled in Val Ballestrem’s new book Lost Portland Oregon. Photo: Minor White, Witch Hazel Building and the Hawthorne Bridge, 1940. bb015335, Oregon Historical Society Research Library. Commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, public domain.

Despite their size, prominence and impact on the community, in the end none of these great built achievements survived. Their greatest common denominator today is that a majority of their footprints have been turned into parking lots. Sigh.

To reassure ourselves that it is possible (and admirable) for a building to survive a century in the midst of the great forces of change, we’ve tracked down three houses in our then-and-now travels in North and Northeast Portland to serve as inspiration. Enjoy these pairs (click each to enlarge)–with thanks to the Norm Gholston Collection for the oldies–and go pick up a copy of Val’s book for your Portland history bookshelf.

6309 NE Mallory | Built 1913

 

3917 NE 8th | Built 1899

 

2225 NE 22nd | Built 1913

 

 

 

NE 33rd and Broadway, 1930. Wow.

Every once in a while a photograph comes along that completely pulls you in with so many stories to tell. Here’s one you’re going to want to spend some time with.

We were at City of Portland Archives this week researching a piece we’re writing about the 1929-1930 widening of East Broadway, which completely transformed what was a sleepy street into the major arterial we know today between the Broadway Bridge and Sandy Boulevard. It’s a fascinating, sad, complicated, inevitable story that we think you’re going to enjoy reading about.

In the process, we ran into this picture of an intersection many of us know well, anchored by a building we’ve written a lot about. There is so much to see in this photo: you’re going to want to click to enlarge it and climb inside to see all there is to know.

Looking east on Broadway at the corner of NE 33rd. Photo courtesy of City of Portland (OR) Archives, image A1999-004.326.

The main building on the right was built by Oregon Home Builders in 1916 and served briefly as a manufacturing site for aircraft parts during World War 1. You can read more about that here and see some other photos of the building and the intersection from a different angle, including some interior shots .

The tallest portion of that building is actually a freight elevator (which we’ve had a chance to ride in…the largest freight elevator in Portland, or so it was explained to us). Painted on the exterior of the elevator tower is an advertisement for wholesale hardwood flooring. The building continues quite a ways east into what is a parking lot today.

Looks like heavy storage was popular even then: a banner advertises heated space with trackage (the rail runs just the other side of the building). And how about the grocery, beauty parlor and even a cafe in the first floor retail space. Who knew?

The Texaco on the left is still a filling station. And see the billboard at the far end of the street advertising the Hollywood Theater? On the north side of the street, the Frank L. McGuire company has a bungalow for sale.

So many stories.

More adventures on early Alberta | The Gabel family bakeries

This week our full attention has been drawn to learning more about the area around NE 17th and Alberta during the period of the 19-teens, sparked by our hunt for Ford’s Pool Hall pictured in a recent vintage photo. But we’ve come across another photo and more about that block and the people who knew it during those years.

In our reconstruction of that part of the neighborhood from old directories and documents, we mentioned the presence of Gabel & Son Bakery next door to the east at 662 Alberta, that’s the building occupied today by Earl’s Barbershop and Bunny with a Toolbelt’s Window of Wonders. This week, we came upon this next photo that has stories to tell. It’s another sharp and beautiful shot that you’re going to want to have a good look at, so click to enlarge and soak it in (with thanks to Norm Gholston):

At the back of Gabel & Son Bakery, formerly 662 Alberta, today’s 1726 NE Alberta, about 1909. Click to enlarge. Used by permission of the Gholston Collection.

That pile of wood fired the bakery’s ovens. Looks to us like the shed-roofed enclosure on the side wall of the pool hall may have been a woodshed (see the ax just inside the door leaning up against the wall?). Did those white bags on the ground contain flour? See the damper control rod coming up through the other shed roof under the stairs connecting to the stovepipe to manage oven heat? How about the exposed knob and tube wiring bringing power to both buildings.

The more we’ve looked at and thought about this photograph—and have done some digging—we realized it shows the backside of that block of buildings. That means the one-story clapboard building with the two square windows, behind the wagon, is Ford’s Pool Hall, and the building with the stairs going up to the second floor apartment housed Gabel & Son Bakery, today’s Earl’s Barbershop.

So let’s plot that on an old Sanborn map, like this:

Detail from Sanborn Fire Insurance Map Plate 550, 1924.

Here’s a contemporary view of that same scene in just about the same place. We looked closely: not many clues about the former one-story pool hall, or really anything prior to the major remodeling done on these buildings in recent years.

Behind 1726 NE Alberta, about the same view as the early Gabel & Son Bakery delivery wagon photo. November 2018.

This great old photo made us wonder other things too, like who were Gabel and his sons? Who lived upstairs “we live up here.” What happened to the pool hall part of the building? AH readers know we like questions like these.

Gabel was George A. Gabel, born in Germany in 1845. He and his wife Mary and their five children came to Portland from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the early 1900s. He was a shoemaker by trade, but also ran a small farm with the help of sons George Jr., and Henry.  When they came to Portland the family established the Gabel & Sons Bakery which operated at 662 Alberta (1726 NE Alberta) from 1909 til about 1916 when George Sr. opened a shoe repair business just up the street. Son Henry took over the bakery business, opening a popular lunch spot at NE 15th and Alberta called the Queen Bakery and Lunch, which was a one-story old frame shopfront that occupied the space that is currently the parking lot just east of today’s Alberta Food Co-op. More on that in a moment.

The Gabel clan lived two blocks north in a big four-square on NE 16th Avenue, but son Henry, who was 27 in 1910, with wife Nellie and young son Clyde, were out on their own living at 662 ½ Alberta, which was the apartment upstairs from the bakery. That must be Henry or Nellie’s handwriting on the photo: we live up here.

As we learned more about the Gabels, we wondered could the “muffin man” in the pool hall picture standing next to George Ford—the older gent with goatee, cap and bowtie—be George Gabel? In 1909 he was 64 years old. Possible. For that matter, the young man standing behind might be his son Henry, or maybe Albert.

Detail from Ford Pool Hall photo. Is this George Gabel and his son? Our hunch is yes.

The Gabels were well-known and reputable business people and the family was connected with the Alberta Street area well into the 1950s (Henry retired in 1953). But most people of that generation would probably remember the family for actions of middle son Albert F. Gabel. This is where the story gets a bit sinister, and we realize we’re going down the rabbit hole a bit chasing this, but it is interesting and allowed us to turn up another photo of this section of Alberta Street, so bear with us.

Albert drove a bakery delivery wagon for his father and his brother Henry, perhaps the wagon pictured here. In January 1916 Albert, then age 24, was involved in what investigators determined was an accidental shooting of his girlfriend, Minnie Lee. It’s a long, sad story that we won’t go into except to say that Albert had become obsessed with Minnie—who at that time was separated from her husband. During what Albert described as horseplay, a rifle discharged, the bullet striking and killing Minnie. Initial news reports (and Minnie’s family) called it murder, but the DA backed off to a charge of involuntary manslaughter on the basis of evidence, and Albert was set free on bond to await trial and went back to driving the bakery delivery wagon. By 1916, brother Henry had opened Queen Bakery and Lunch up the street with his business partner Warner Illk, 622 East Alberta (remember, this is before the Great Renumbering). We’ve pointed out the Queen above at the far left of the Sanborn map detail.

In September 1916, Minnie’s widowed husband Jesse L. Lee, who had been living temporarily in Canada, came to Portland to settle the score, tracking down Albert on the afternoon of September 14th where he was sitting on the front steps of the Queen reading a newspaper and waiting for his next delivery. Jesse Lee walked up, asked Albert “Do you know who I am? Well, I’m Mr. Lee,” then fired two blasts from a sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun directly at Albert. The blasts hit Albert in the arm and shoulder, shattered the glass at the bakery, wounded a nearby schoolboy, and terrorized all of Alberta Street. Lee surrendered moments later without incident in a vacant lot at 15th and Wygant, pleased with himself for finally avenging his wife’s death, but disappointed to learn hear he hadn’t killed Albert Gabel.

Because this story had so many sensational ingredients, The Oregonian put it all over the front page of the next morning’s edition (it was too late to make the Oregon Journal, which was an afternoon paper). The next day, the Journal ran this photo, showing the late Minnie, Albert, and the front of the Queen Bakery and Lunch, with a white cross applied to the photo in the lower center showing exactly where Albert was sitting when Lee fired upon him.

From the Oregon Journal, September 15, 1916

It’s a bit grainy due to microfilming, but you can get an idea for scale. The two one-story storefronts are now gone and the barber pole to the right marks the eastern edge of the brick building that now contains the Alberta Co-op Grocery, 1500 NE Alberta.

You’re curious about what happened with Albert and Jesse:

  • Jesse was convicted of assault with intent to kill, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to being banished from Oregon for 10 years (which seems a curiously light sentence for the crime). He moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a mechanic for several years before his death in 1921.
  • Albert was sentenced too, up to 15 years for involuntary manslaughter, to which he pleaded guilty. He was immediately paroled to the custody of his sister Bertha Gardner on the condition he repay the state $50 for bringing a witness to Oregon for the trial (another light sentence). Albert recovered, though he lost part of his left arm below the elbow. He helped out around the bakery briefly before going into life insurance sales. In the mid 1930s he married and moved to San Luis Obispo, California where he worked as an undertaker’s assistant. In the 1940s, he and wife June moved back to Portland where he worked on the maintenance staff at the Bonneville Power Administration building at Lloyd Center. He died in Portland on April 28, 1954.
  • Father George Gabel, the “muffin man” died in 1924 while actively involved in the shoe business. His wife Mary Gix Gabel, died in June 1931 setting off an inheritance wrestling match among the sibling heirs.

Insight into one layer of our local geography and all of that human drama unleashed by one sharp photo of a delivery wagon and a pile of firewood…

We’ve seen a few other compelling old photos of this area of Alberta Street in the 19-teens that we’re going to continue to pursue, but for now we probably have just one more post in us about Ford’s Pool Hall and then we’ll shift gears a bit. Enjoy these great old photos.

Finding Ford’s Pool Hall | Adventures on Early Alberta Street

Here’s another outstanding turn-back-the-clock view of a business on NE Alberta Street: George and Sylvia Ford’s Pool Hall, Lunch Counter, Confectionery and Cigar Store, mid-block between 17th and 18th on the south side of Alberta, taken in September 1909. Click into this photo and have a good look around, there’s so much to see.

In front of Ford’s Pool Hall, 658 Alberta Street, 1909. Photo courtesy of the Gholston Collection, used with permission. Click to enlarge.

Things that jumped out at us: reflections in the windows showing the north side of the street; the faces and clothing of the men; the small advertisement in the left window advertising the “Special Masquerade” on Saturday evening, October 9th (that’s how we know this is 1909); that’s George Ford, by the way, in the middle of the group in the apron with his hand on the older gentleman’s shoulder. We guess the confection guy is on the far left in the bowtie and the cigar guy is holding the cigar. George and his friend (is he the baker from next door?) might be running the lunch counter.

Thanks to AH reader Norm Gholston for sending this photograph our way. Norm knows we enjoy being photo detective, and this one took some digging to make sure we were in the right place. Here’s the same view today:

1718 NE Alberta, formerly Ford’s Pool Hall. November 2018.

 

When Norm sent this one along, he knew it was on Alberta. And we could see the address over the door—658—which translates to today’s 1718 NE Alberta. Remember that all of Portland’s addresses were changed in the Great Renumbering of 1930-31.

With the current address in hand, we went out to take a look, and that’s when this got a bit puzzling because the next door neighbor building to the east—the one that houses Earl’s Barbershop—has many similar features to the building in the 1909 photo. Look at the dentals under the first and second level soffits and the short horizontal brackets that support them; the column-like pedestals along the building edges. On first glance at that block today, you’d say Earl’s is the right place, especially when you look at the modernized front of the Maggie Gibson Plaza building just to the west. Both buildings are owned today by Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives, Inc.

South side of NE Alberta showing the entire block between NE 17th and NE 18th. Maggie Gibson Plaza building (on the right) once housed five distinct store fronts on the first floor and a large meeting space known as Baker Hall upstairs. In later years, the space was home to the Royal Esquire Club of Portland. Photo taken in November 2018. Click to enlarge.

 

But that notion doesn’t hold up when you dig into the details of building permits, city directories and old newspaper stories. 658 was clearly housed in the building to the west (right). Interesting to note that both were built in 1909 by the same builder for the same owner. Our hunch is they probably looked alike way back when.

The clincher is the old Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1924 (below), which shows all of the side-by-side stores in both buildings. You’ll find 658 on the east end of the Gibson Plaza building and there’s five feet of space to the next neighbor to the east. Remember that these maps were drawn primarily for fire insurance underwriters, so they show building proximities, location of plumbing, fire alarm systems, heating systems. S = shop; D = dwelling; FA = fire alarm box; F = Flat.

Detail from Sanborn Fire Insurance Plate 550, 1924. Click to enlarge.

 

The Sanborn (and city directories) show there was a lot going on in this block, on both sides of the street. Here’s a run down of the Ford’s Pool Hall neighbors, by address:

650      Vernon Drug Company

652      Peterson & Jackson Grocery, later J.H. Belshiser Grocery

654      Grite’s Barber Shop and entrance to Baker Hall, which was upstairs. Encompassing the second floor of the building was an open meeting space known as “Baker Hall,” which in the early days was where the Alberta Oddfellows Lodge met before building their own space, and in later days the first home of the Royal Esquire Club of Portland. In the 19-teens, Baker Hall was the frequent site of lectures, dances and community meetings.

656      Alberta Market, later Higbee’s Electric Radio and Hardware

Next door to the east in the building that houses Earl’s today:

660      Gabel & Son Bakery, later Alberta Bakery

662      Dr. William Luzader, Optometrist

The house on the corner to the east—addressed as 666 in the Sanborn plate—is still there today and was Freda’s Beauty Shop and home to Freda Baker.

Across the street:

651      Love’s Confectionery, Fountain and Deli

653      General Sewing Machine Repair Shop

655      Carl Nau, Taylor,  and Bell’s Reliable Hemstitching Shop

659      Alberta Realty Co.

661      Alberta Sheet Metal Co.

663      S. Salmonson Hardware and Appliance

665      Victoria Theater (with full stage and space for “MOVIES”)

The FA in front of the Victoria Theater was a fire alarm pull box.

Once we figured out the location of Ford’s Pool Hall, we wanted to know more about George and Sylvia. We found them during the pool hall days living just up the street at the corner of NE 18th and Wygant. Here’s the couple on their wedding day in Colfax Washington, October 26, 1892:

George and Sylvia Ford, October 26, 1892. Photo courtesy of Ford family.

 

George and Sylvie (as she was known) farmed for a while near Lapwai, Idaho in the 1890s and early 1900s before moving to Portland. They opened the pool hall, confectionary and lunch counter in 1909 and later ran a confectionary and cigar business at NE 21st and Alberta (two business lines that were frequently found together in the same retail store, candy and smokes). The Fords raised two children—George B. and John J.—and Sylvie had a busy dressmaking business as well. George died on July 23, 1937. His obit reads:

George P. Ford, Businessman, Passes Away

Geo P. Ford, who has conducted a cigar and confectionary store at Alberta and 21st Ave., for a number of years, and an old resident of this district, passed away at his home, 4925 N.E. 19th Ave., last Friday, at the age of 74 years. He leaves to mourn his death, his wife, Sylvia Ford, and two sons, George and John Ford, and several brothers and sisters. Funeral services were held Monday afternoon, Vault entombment, Riverview Abbey Mausoleum. Heartfelt sympathies goes out to the bereaved family in this, their sad bereavement.

We’re ready for the next photo mystery.

Vernon Then and Now

While the pace and scale of change can often take your breath away (for good and not so good), it’s surprising how some aspects of our neighborhood landscape are recognizable from a distance of more than 100 years.

We’re preparing a program for Wednesday night, April 18th about Vernon neighborhood history—come on along if you like, 7:00 p.m. at the Leaven Community Center, 5431 NE 20th Avenue—so we’ve been out recently scouting around. Vernon is the neighborhood loosely bounded on the north and south between NE Ainsworth and NE Wygant, and the west and east from NE 11th to NE 21st. Walkabouts for us usually begin with finding a handful of old photos, reference points or things to look for and then sleuthing around the neighborhood looking for the right vantage point. Here’s a couple examples.

We love this old newspaper advertisement placed in the Oregon Journal on October 25, 1908 by developers of the Vernon addition. Imagine: $1,000. The house was built in 1907 for O.G. Goldberg.

Here’s the Goldberg House today:

 

And here’s another great pair, just a few blocks north, this time looking at the heart of the Vernon business district, from the Oregon Journal on October 30, 1920. Check out the streetcar tracks and overhead lines.

And today:

Looking east on Alberta at NE 16th Avenue, April 2018. The distinctive building on the northeast corner (left) was built in 1909 during the rise of the Vernon-Alberta business district.

Some of our favorite stories are from Vernon: the ghost of Old Vernon and its practice houses, the Alberta Streetcar, the mystery of Crane Street, Alberta storefronts, Alberta Park, opposition to (and even arson at) the new local fire station. So many stories to tell, including an upcoming post that shares the intriguing real estate drama about how Vernon almost didn’t become Vernon. Stay tuned.

 

Fernhill Park: From wild thicket to popular neighborhood park

It’s often the small and even random things in the past—stuff we don’t pay much attention to or think about now—that make a big difference in outcomes that shape the future.

How Northeast Portland’s Fernhill Park has turned out today is kind of like that: Peel back the layers of history and you can see why things are the way they are today. That’s kind of our broken-record message here at AH, but it’s true.

The hills and gullies that make Fernhill Park distinctive today made it less desirable for crops in the early 1900s.

One of the most prominent features of the park today, located across rolling hills near NE 41st and Holman in Northeast Portland, is responsible for it being a park at all, and probably not for the reason you think. The hills and gullies on the park’s north side, a great place to run the dog in the spring and summer or to sled in the winter, distinguish this place from other nearby city parks.

But back in the day, when much of this area was farmland, this up-and-down topography was a thicket of trees and brush and not very good for growing crops. A close examination of aerial photos from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s show agricultural fields on all sides right up to the edges where the ground falls off into the ravines of today’s park area. So—the reasoning went—if the city really wants to buy that property from us farmers, go right ahead, we can’t grow anything there anyway.

And that’s just what happened.

After voters approved a property tax levy in 1938 to create more parks and playgrounds for a growing Portland, the city set out on a 10-year process of buying those hills and gullies, starting out in 1940 with a 10-acre parcel owned by the Jackson family right in the middle of it all.

During those years, several dirt roads criss-crossed the north side of the park, one even ran right up the bottom of the gully at the heart of today’s off-leash area in the northeast side of the park, pausing at a wide spot that served as a dump and debris field where car bodies and all manner of junk were strewn.

This detail of an aerial photo from 1940 shows the area of today’s Fernhill Park in the middle surrounded by farm fields on all sides. NE 42nd Avenue is the north-south street on the far right and doesn’t yet go through to Columbia Boulevard (it bends around the corner to the right where Holman is today). The north-south street on the left (that also doesn’t go through) is NE 37th Avenue. The east-west dirt road at the top of the park became today’s Holman Street. Paths, a road and a dump area are visible in the top center of the brush patch. Mike Brink’s grandparents’ home is in the upper right corner with the rows of trees and barn to the south. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

It wasn’t an official dump, but more like a secluded out-of-the-way place where folks from the surrounding area knew they could get away with off-loading a truckful of junk if they needed to. So they did. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when the NE 42nd Avenue connection to Columbia Boulevard was built, some of the dirt fill needed to make the grade change for the overpass was dug out from and supplied by the gully on the east side of the park along today’s NE 41st Avenue.

Prior to 1940, when NE 42nd didn’t go through to Columbia Boulevard, you could stand near the northeast corner of what is today’s park and see the Kennedy School across the fields and orchards stretching west to NE 33rd Avenue, with more open fields south to Killingsworth and north to the banks of the Columbia Slough. Then during the building boom of the 1940s and 50s, subdivisions marched east transforming the fields into neighborhoods.

Just 10 years later in 1950 the neighborhood was filling in. NE 42nd now goes through to Columbia Boulevard (look for the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern…they’re there). NE 41st has been built and house construction is underway.  And Mike Brink’s grandparents have planted an orchard with orderly rows of filberts south of the house and bing cherries north of the house. Photo courtesy City of Portland Archives.

Often referred to as “truck farms” because the produce was trucked to market (and some of it was sold out of the back of trucks at busy intersections and small markets around town), these surrounding fields produced fruit and vegetables for Portland households. One farm near the corner of what is today’s NE 41st and Holman was owned and run by a Japanese immigrant family, as were others in the area. During WWII, Japanese farming families across the Pacific Northwest were removed from their land and placed in internment camps in southeast Oregon and central California.

We know from our recent visits with Mike Brink—who grew up in the 1940s and 50s in the tourist cabins at NE 42nd and Holman now about to be demolished—that the fields and orchards stretching out in all directions were filled with filberts, apricots, bing cherries, raspberries, strawberries and other crops. Mike remembers walking through them and through the heavily wooded thicket that is today’s Fernhill Park on his way to and from St. Andrew’s School at NE 9th and Alberta. He’d leave the cabins in the morning, pass by his grandparents farmhouse that stood near today’s intersection of NE 41st and Highland, then take the path through the woods and fields over to Ainsworth Street where he’d walk to the corner of NE 30th and Ainsworth, which was the end of the line for the Alberta Streetcar (you should check out this link because it shows the streetcar waiting where Mike used to catch it at NE 30th and Ainsworth). Hopping on a mostly empty streetcar, he’d ride south on 30th and then west on Alberta to school, reversing the process in the afternoon, maybe stopping at a neighbor’s house for hot chocolate on the way home. Quite a solo daily adventure for an elementary school kid, but times were different.

Mike doesn’t remember it being talked about in his house during those years, but gradually, the city was buying up parcels of the woods when bond money was available and when the locals were willing to sell. A couple more parcels in 1942 and 1943. Six in 1949.

As the park took shape through the late 1940s and early 1950s, some locals referred to it as Ainsworth Park, a name that appears frequently in real estate advertising of that era. By the early 1950s, most of the open land Mike remembers to the north of the park had been converted to subdivision (the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions for readers keeping track of plat names). NE Highland Street was put through the middle of his family’s farm and his grandparents moved to a new house in the neighborhood as the working farm landscape they once knew was transformed into suburbia. By June of 1951 when most of the park buying was done, the city had invested $60,479 and had acquired 25.95 acres.

In this detail of a 1956 aerial photo, the family farm is gone replaced by the cul de sac that is today’s Highland Street and homes are under construction; all of the lots are built up between NE 41st and 42nd in the middle of the photo; a baseball diamond has arrived in the middle of it all; the paths, road and dump are gone. Once again, the Tourist Cabins and the Spur Tavern stand out clearly just right of center toward the top. Photo courtesy of the University of Oregon Map and Aerial Photography Library.

 

Contemporary view from a hill on the north side of the park, looking off into the Vanlaeken and Leitritz additions. Mike’s grandparents’ farm was off to the right.

On July 14, 1954, City Council passed an ordinance officially naming the area Fernhill Park, a name that was not in local usage prior, but that probably takes its meaning from the hills on the north side of the park.

Construction of Adams High School just southeast of Fernhill Park in the mid-1960s caused quite a stir and protest from the neighborhood. More than 150 angry neighbors turned out at a Portland School Board meeting on September 4, 1964 to share their disbelief that the School Board would demolish 26 homes, three duplexes, a local greenhouse/nursery known as Knapps and a PGE substation to make room for the school. The emotion and sense of loss in the letters and petitions submitted to the school board make for tough reading. Despite this strenuous protest, demolition of the homes and businesses went ahead, construction followed, and John Adams High School opened in September 1969.

From The Oregon Journal, September 3, 1964. The homes and businesses inside the dotted line were demolished to make room for Adams High School.

A dozen years later, when high school enrollment dropped in the early 1980s, the building was repurposed as a middle school and operated for another 18 years before being closed in 2000 due to health concerns about mold. The building sat empty and was frequently vandalized until being torn down in 2006 leaving the large open space south of the track. Newcomers to the area today might not even know that vacant piece of ground south of the track was once a school, and before that a neighborhood, and before that farm fields, and before that an Oregon Trail-era homestead.

No history of the area would be complete without taking it back to the earliest record, when this property was homesteaded under the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act, which Congress passed to encourage settlement of the Oregon country. Isaac and Mary Rennison came across the Oregon Trail in 1852 and settled on and farmed the property, filing their Donation Land Claim in 1855 that encompasses the area bounded today by NE 33rd and NE 60th, Holman and Killingsworth.

Before all this recorded history, let’s not forget that these lands on the south shore of the Columbia River and the Columbia Slough were frequented by the Native Americans who called this area home for more than 500 generations.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the places we know and care about today as our local parks came to us partly because of unpredictable events or circumstances: Alberta Park was a brush patch owned by a Chinese immigrant who didn’t want to sell, or to control the brush and trees while the neighborhood developed around it, so the city condemned the property out from underneath him and turned it into a park. Wilshire Park was tied up in a complex probate process inadvertently delaying development until the city took out a bank loan to buy the property on the eve of its being turned into a subdivision. And much of Fernhill Park was property no one really wanted anyway because it wasn’t good cropland. Today, we take these places for granted as fixtures of neighborhood life.

With these lessons of history in mind, what should we be thinking about and taking action on today that would change some future outcome about how our neighborhood feels and operates in the future? Demolition and densification? Traffic? Hmm. More on that next week.

The Storefronts of Northeast Alberta

There’s something about the pride of ownership, of hopefulness, of service that comes through in simple portraits of small business owners standing near an open door, their businesses behind them, wares in the window. We loved the recent photo of John Loyd, arms folded, in front of his butcher shop at Killingsworth and NE 15th. We could look at and wonder about pictures like these all day.

Thanks to the City of Portland Archives, we’ve come across a few more—taken on NE Alberta in the early 1930s, between NE 20th and NE 23rd. The photos came to us without any identification—a challenge we love—so we’ve spent some time this week in research mode and revisiting these places trying to piece together the basics of their stories. Each image is worth taking time with. Click in and have a good look around for the details, sense that pride of ownership, look for clues, watch for the reflections in the window. And think about change, which is so clearly evident on ever-changing Alberta.

F.L. Carlo Shoe Shop – 1931

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.34

How can you look at this photo and not smile back? The proprietor’s friendly smirk, hand jammed in pocket of pin-striped trousers, carefully organized window tableau of shoe care products, orderly line-up of tools on the wall. I’m bringing my shoes here. This is 749 Alberta, which after Portland’s Great Renumbering became 2215 NE Alberta (north side of the street). While the building is still there, its façade has been reconfigured several times over the years. This is about as close as we think we can come today:

2215 NE Alberta (detail), 2017

Here’s what we learned about our smiling shoe repairman. While the name on the window says Carlo, we believe he is actually Ciarlo, one of a family of Ciarlos who ran shoe repair shops in several Portland neighborhoods during these years. Emilio and Mary Ciarlo and their seven children lived in southwest Portland’s Italian neighborhood. The couple immigrated to the US in 1900 from Serra Pedace, Italy (in the south), and Emilio set up a shoe repair shop downtown near SW 2nd and Madison. Two of his sons (all of the kids were born in Oregon) Giuseppe and Vincent, also had shops in Westmoreland and out on SE Foster.

City directories for the early 1930s list this Alberta address as “Emilio Ciarlo,” but here’s what we think: Emilio helped set up his younger sons here on Alberta as they got their start. We don’t think this is Emilio: in 1930 he was 57 years old, plus his immigration papers indicate he was missing most of his left hand. Our guess is that this is son Louis Ciarlo (age 21 in the 1930 Census), who along with his 19 year-old brother Frank were just starting out in the shoe repair business. Our guess is that “F L Carlo” is likely Frank and Louis Ciarlo. It was not uncommon for immigrants of the day to simplify or “Americanize” their names. In fact, Giuseppe’s shop in Westmoreland was called American Shoe Repair.

The “rest of the story” on this is that their business operated at this address from 1930-1932, but the storefront was vacant after that until the late 1930s. Later city directories show Louis as a driver and Frank as a machinist, though brothers Giuseppe and Vincent stayed with shoe repair throughout their lives.

An unknown in the midst of this and the other two moments in time is the motive and identity of the photographer. Was he walking up the street taking pictures for a small fee? Was he as fascinated as we are in the stories and adventures of the small business owners? Was he thinking about the future? Look carefully in the reflection of the window at Ciarlo’s and you can see the head, cap, white collar and shoulder of our photographer (you can also see a billboard reflected from across the street). Hmm.

 

H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.32

One block west and across the street from Ciarlo’s was H.B. Olsen, Watchmaker at 734, which became 2112 NE Alberta. Built in 1908 when Alberta was still a dirt road, this building still stands though it has seen major modifications and better days. A small residence is located at the rear of the shop and on the second floor. It’s just next door to the east from the American Legion Post 134. Here’s the same view today:

2112 NE Alberta, 2017

Halver B. Olsen and his wife Marie immigrated to the US from Norway in 1902 and lived in Minnesota before moving to the Portland area in 1926. When this picture was taken, Marie had recently died and H.B. had moved from the upstairs apartment attached to this business where the two lived into a rented room in a family house just up the block. He was 52 years old in 1930, no children. H.B. ran his watch and jewelry repair at this address until 1935 and then he disappears from the city directories.

The rest of the story on this building is described by another old photograph fanatical researcher like ourselves like this:

It also served as a “restaurant & deli (1916), shoe repair shop where one of owners died of stroke on premises (1917-1922), “store” (1924), coppersmith’s shop (1924), barber shop (1925-26), “Alberta Food Lockers” (1948), “Bud’s Plumbing Co. (1956), upholstery shop (1983). The property was for sale and vacant for several longish intervals during 1960-64. It had a 2 BR, 2BA apt. upstairs.”

That excerpt, by the way, is taken from comments posted on an outstanding blog we follow and recommend called Vintage Portland, which is run by the City of Portland Archives and Record Center and regularly features old photos drawn from the city’s collection. This one appeared there in November 2013.

 

Irving Market and Grocery – 1932

Courtesy of City of Portland Archives, image A2008-001.31

Of all three photographs here, this building façade is closest to its original shape, at least for the moment. When we dropped by recently, construction was underway. Whenever we see chain link fence out in front of an old building, we get nervous.

2022 NE Alberta, 2017

This original old photo came with little identification, simply the “Red and White Store, 718 Alberta.” We’ve determined it was actually known as the Irving Market and Grocery during its short life, operated by David and May Irving, who we suspect are the couple to the right. His military records—he was a WW I soldier—indicate he was six feet tall. David was born in Canada and May was from England. Did they meet during the war? In the 1920s, they ran several small grocery businesses in Portland. The couple owned a home not too far away in Rose City Park.

We’ll remember from our recent post about Gwaltney’s Red and White Store on Killingsworth that these independently owned stores were everywhere. The Red and White franchise enabled Mom and Pop businesses like the Irvings to set up shop by buying Red and White branded merchandise, marketing materials and even store shelving. In the mid 1930s, there were 6,700 Red and White markets nationally. We had several in the neighborhood.

This building on Alberta was vacant in 1930 before David and May were on the scene, and the Irving Market and Grocery’s life was short: by 1933, the building was vacant again and remained so until 1937 when the Ray-o-Sun Grocery moved in, and David had gone to work for a large wholesale grocery company.

The subject of small neighborhood grocery stores, as AH readers will know, is close to our heart. We’ve taken an interest in understanding the life stories of local Mom and Pop grocery stores in the neighborhood. Understanding the ecosystem of small grocery businesses at the time also points to how shopping trends, the larger economy and day-to-day life in the neighborhood have changed over the years.

In 1930, we count 208 businesses along Alberta between MLK and NE 33rd Avenue. We’ve gone back through city directories of the late 1920s and early 1930s and have found a vacancy rate for any one year between 15-20 percent, highest in the early 1930s.

An analysis like this also turns up some interesting trends. Here’s a listing of the types of businesses on Alberta in the early 1930s, in descending order by type: 15 grocery stores; nine beauty shops or barbers; seven shoe repair shops; seven tailors or sewing shops; four butchers; four bakers; four pharmacies; four filling stations; four variety stores; four sweet shops; three hardware shops; three auto repair garages; three dentists; three furniture stores; two doctors; two theaters (including the Alameda Theater, which we’ve written about here on the blog); two radio shops; two restaurants; one ice delivery station; and a hodge podge of single shop fronts for plumbers, electricians, painters, real estate agents, sign shops, pool halls, watchmakers (our Halver B. Olsen), hat shop and others, including quite a few residences. And a busy streetcar line connected these businesses with local residences and beyond.

There’s some perspective for you. Radio, ice, hardware?

Time travel at 15th and Killingsworth

We came across a great old photo recently of a proud apron-clad businessman standing, arms crossed, in front of his market at the corner of NE 15th and Killingsworth. It’s a photo worth having a look at. We’ve been staring at it for a while to puzzle through some of its riddles.

Photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, image A2008-001.39

First, there is no identification. Who is this proud man? Second, there’s a spelling conflict: is it Loyd’s (as the window suggests) or Lloyd’s (as the shingle suggests), and how did that happen? What did Loyd’s sell? And when you really look at the picture you understand it’s actually two businesses: Gwaltney’s Red and White Market where the watermelons and cigarettes are for sale, and Loyd’s (or Lloyd’s, depending on which sign you read). Can you hear the spring in the screen door when it opens, and the door smacking back into the frame as it closes?

We do know where it is: the southwest corner of Killingsworth and 15th. Loyd’s was 608 and Gwaltney’s was 610. After some research, it became clear to us that the main entrance to Gwaltney’s was off the picture to the left, at the corner. More on that in a moment. These addresses translate to 1478 Killingsworth today. Remember, all of Portland was readdressed in 1931, so we know this photo was taken before that. We’re guessing 1929-1930. Built in 1927, the building still stands. A look back through permit history shows many chapters and changes: market, pharmacy, restaurant, tavern, pool hall, rented rooms upstairs, and now office space.

Here’s a look at that same view today. The portico is gone, the front of the building looks like it has been pushed out a bit, the grass is gone and Killingsworth has been widened, putting the early vantage point almost into the street. See for yourself:

1478 NE Killingsworth, March 2017

Next is the question of who this gentleman is. We believe this is actually Mr. Loyd in front of his store, not Mr. Gwaltney (who would have been posing in front of his own front door somewhere off the picture to the left). With the help of the Polk City Directories, census records and a few other genealogy tools, we believe this man is John F. Loyd (only one “L”). From 1929-1939 he ran a meat market at this address. For some of those years his son Clarence helped out in the shop. Loyd lived on Dupont Street near the Broadway Bridge (now gone under the Portland Public Schools building–Dupont no longer exists) with his wife Alma and children Clarence, Ruby and Lester. He was a WW1 veteran. John and Alma were born in Sweden and immigrated to the US in 1900.

Willis H. Gwaltney was the shopkeeper at the Red and White Store, off to the left. Gwaltney and his wife Martha lived just around the corner on NE 16th. He spent a career in the grocery business, his last assignment being at the Kienows on SE 39th and Lincoln. In the 1930s, Red and White markets were everywhere. Each was independently owned: shopkeepers could buy Red and White branded merchandise, marketing materials and even store shelving. In the mid 1930s, there were 6,700 Red and White markets nationally. We had several in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post. Gwaltney’s shows up in the Polk City Directory at this address from 1929-1933, when Willis moved on, likely a victim of the changing economy.

While out taking pictures of this building, which in 2017 is the home of Portland/East Metro Habitat for Humanity, we decided to knock on the door and share this picture with the current occupants. The very friendly Tim, who was at the front desk there, was welcoming and excited to see Mr. Loyd. Tim wanted to share an old picture of his own and took us into the back room to see a large format framed photo of the building hanging on the wall, shown below. The timeframe for this one is a bit later.

The Oakhurst Pharmacy is listed in city directories from 1940-1948, and if you look at the passerby’s hat, the ads in the window, the style of street sign, that timeframe fits. Gwaltney’s is gone. Lloyds is gone and the “welcome to my front door” sense of entering the building on that side has changed, Mr. Loyd’s proud perch now covered up with an awning and boxes. The street has been widened and grass replaced with concrete. Looks like they must have had a leaky roof too, the valley of that far gable reinforced with flashing. Here it is:

1478 NE Killingsworth, about 1945. Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Portland/East Metro

March 2017

Oakhurst, by the way, is the name of the platted addition just west of the Vernon area between Killingsworth and Ainsworth from 14th to 19th, originally platted in 1892. We’re betting that name has faded away like so many of Portland’s other plats. Have you ever heard someone talking about Oakhurst? We haven’t.

Back then, Lee Witty was proprietor of the Oakhurst Pharmacy and he must have been a resilient person: the pharmacy appears multiple times in The Oregonian during his eight years in stories about several armed robberies, a fire that damaged part of the building, and even a major accident in March 1947. Check it out:

From The Oregonian, March 10, 1947

How much longer will this building last? Good question. It has certainly seen its share of change. Uncovering its story, like all the research we do, is about as close to time travel as we can get.

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.

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