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.

When the east end of NE Alberta was a railroad spur line…

We’ve had the opportunity recently—thanks to Portland City Archives and a sea of digital copies of early newspapers—to become fully immersed in the layout, feel and day-to-day life of the neighborhood in the 19-teens. It was a busy place: not unlike today, but busier, dirtier and a bit more helter-skelter as the landscape transitioned from brush and trees into a neighborhood of homes and people. Oh, and very few cars. Imagine our now-jammed streets without the lines and lines of parked cars.

The sound of construction filled the daytime air as houses and business rose to life. The Alberta streetcar was omnipresent—every 15 minutes clattering down Alberta to NE 30th and then turning north down the gentle slope to Ainsworth, and back. It was our connection to Portland and beyond and everyone rode it. Portland Railway Light and Power (which ran the streetcar system in our part of town) had to add extra cars on the Alberta line to carry the abundance of neighbor/riders, and they were still packed in.

In 1915, even in the midst of all this “progress,” Alberta Street was still just a dirt road between NE 33rd and NE 30th (western portions were paved in 1911). Portland Railway Light and Power was holding out the possibility of constructing a new streetcar line in that stretch of Alberta, and then down 33rd (which never happened) and wanted to keep its options open. But nearby homeowners and merchants in that area approached the streetcar company with another idea:

What if we turned that stretch of street into a railroad spur where flatcars of firewood could be parked? About this time of year everyone was thinking about staying warm, and firewood—along with sawdust and coal—were Portland’s fuel of choice. Piles of cordwood, hauled from the forests and stacked in the parking strips to season since late summer, were being brought inside garages and basements for the winter ahead. In 1918, an attorney for the company wanting to sell the wood from parked flatbed cars on Alberta wrote the city for permission:

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

A cooperative engineer from the city’s Department of Public Works wrote back noting how little car traffic there was on Alberta (it was all streetcar and by foot) and approved the move, asking only that the street be promptly cleaned up after the flatcar was unloaded.

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

 

With this green light, Monarch Lumber moved their flatbed car onto this quiet stretch of Alberta and went into the firewood business.

Meanwhile, the wood yard mentioned by Engineer R.W. Kremers a few blocks west at East 26th and Alberta, had ramped up its own firewood business, but was apparently making a mess and was being protested by most of the neighborhood. The city wrote the business in October 1920 with a strong message, cc’d to the Chief of Police.

Courtesy of Portland City Archives, file 8402-01 As001-008

 

Next time you pass that way, near the Alberta Rose, Cha’Ba Thai or Vita Café, imagine a street filled with flatcars and firewood, and neighbors readying their furnaces and warm homes for winter.

Oregon Home Builders: A Company History, 1912-1917

The story of the Oregon Home Builders is one of a big vision that ended in bankruptcy and likely even unprosecuted fraud. But it’s also a story of productivity and lasting accomplishment, with works of careful design and craftsmanship that have survived a century.

Founded in 1912 by a group of established Portland and Willamette Valley businessmen, OHB’s primary mission appears to have been to make a lot of money, to use as much of other people’s money as possible to do that, and to benefit from skyrocketing growth in real estate and in-migration to the Portland area in the years following the 1905 Lewis and Clark World’s Fair, which had put Portland on the map.

Officially, the company’s prospectus, published in 1912 in a slim, attractive hardcover book, put it like this:

“Early in the year 1912, a number of successful Portland business men, confident of the wonderful future of the metropolis of the Pacific Northwest, organized The Oregon Home Builders for the purpose of purchasing, developing, sub-dividing and selling real estate in and around the city of Portland and to finance and build modern homes on its own tracts for sale on monthly payments like rent… to participate in the golden harvest to be reaped in Portland through its certain growth, prosperity and development within the next few years.”

Consider the primary organizers of the company: the chief attorney and the general manager of Portland Railway Light and Power, which was building the essential and widespread transportation system that enabled Portland’s eastside expansion; a leader of the Portland Retail Merchant’s Association; the president of a major lumber company; several bankers and accountants; one of the leading automobile dealers of the day; a charismatic and successful 24-year-old real estate broker from a prominent Portland family named Oliver King Jeffery (who also happened to be related to the bankers and accountants). Add in a few other friends and relatives: a successful farmer from the Newberg area, the former mayor of Newberg, and a captain of heavy industry from back east (also related).

 

Oliver King Jeffery, 1916
From the Photographic Business and Professional Directory, American Publishing Company, 1916.

 

This group incorporated in early 1912 as the Oregon Home Builders with Jeffery as its president and a borrowed corporate strategy from the Los Angeles Investment Company, led by Charles A. Elder, who was known at the time across California as the “King of the Homebuilders.” Elder’s company had become that state’s most prolific builder of homes, arranger of financing and developer of real estate.

OHB liked what it saw to the south and structured itself much like Elder’s company, where investors put up the money to start and fuel operations by buying stock that would turn to profit once the company started actually selling homes. Following several trips to L.A. to witness Elder’s success and methods, new president Oliver K. Jeffery returned to Portland fired up and ready to raise capital.

Multiple references to the California approach, and the math of its investments, were quoted liberally in the original 1912 OHB prospectus, as was this perfect description of what was happening across Portland’s eastside:

“The development of suburban acreage into city property is one of the surest forms of profit earning known. In every growing city there are a number of people who have had the foresight to anticipate the growth of population and the consequent increased demands for housing facilities. As a city grows, spreads, expands in each direction, new neighborhoods spring up, farms are cut up into lots, streets cut through, sidewalks and city improvements installed, homes built, stores, churches and schools are established, and as if by some magic wand, what but a short time before was a truck farm or woodland, or field, is soon an integral part of the city: and in this transformation men and women have made fortunes.”

Oliver K. Jeffery was prominent in the Portland social scene as a leading Rosarian, later credited with inventing the Rose Festival Parade, and even at age 24 had helped build the successful commercial and residential real estate firm of Keasey, Humason and Jeffery. His family owned and developed much of the King’s Heights area on Portland’s westside (his mother Nautilla was a daughter of the King family). So when he started talking about real estate, people wanted to listen. Here’s the grand plan Jeffery spelled out in The Oregonian on February 9, 1913 as a paid advertisement. Note the reference to 1000 % profit, an early signal of the group’s underlying intention.

From The Oregonian, February 9, 1913

 

As it tried to create a financial head of steam, OHB’s early advertising push was marked more by pitches for investment and financial return than anything actually related to home ownership or home building, but that would follow once the company had sufficient assets to make the thing go. Here’s a sample of what OHB told readers of The Oregonian and The Daily Oregon Journal on a frequent basis in 1912-1913.

From The Oregonian, December 29, 1912

 

Pitches like this must have been successful because by 1915, OHB was reporting it had more than 1,000 stockholders from across the state. The company’s vision for what it was trying to create—which seemed in its early days to be mostly about selling stock, not houses—was evident in this help wanted ad it placed for more salesmen:

“Large corporation can use bright, active salesmen in every city in Oregon and Washington to sell the best home building stock offering ever submitted. The profits to the investor are very large.”

Once capitalized, OHB did start buying property in what it termed “first class” subdivisions being platted like Laurelhurst, Alameda Park and Olmsted Park, and it concentrated particularly near streetcar lines. It even bought and sold some home properties at the coast, where Jeffery had been active as a real estate agent before OHB. In the first two years, the company also relocated its offices twice, from the 5th floor of the Corbett Building to the 14th floor of the Yeon Building, and then finally to a prestigious suite of offices on the 13th floor of the Northwest Bank Building (known today as the American Bank Building, 621 SW Morrison).

And then in 1913, encouraged by a rising local economy, OHB began building homes.

At the bottom of this article is a partial list by year that we’ve gleaned from reading every entry about the company in The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal between 1912-1921, and from a study of building permits we completed in 2010.

OHB’s principal architect during the early years was George Asa Eastman whose talent is still visible today in the homes he designed. Eastman was born in Albany, New York on January 16,  1880 and arrived in Portland in 1900. He worked for a time as a salesman, window dresser and furniture designer, marrying Lillian Key Brooks in 1906. City directories from 1911-1916 list him as an architect. During those years Eastman kept a busy practice of his own as architect and homebuilder, but he also worked for OHB. Eastman traveled in social circles with both Jeffery and Edward Zest Ferguson, president of the Alameda Land Company, which developed the Alameda neighborhood.

Eastman’s early work is notable for its Craftsman and Prairie School influence. Check out the Zimmerman-Rudeen House at 3425 NE Beakey; the George and Lillian Eastman House at 2826 NE Stuart, which he designed and lived in; 2747 NE 18th; 2442 NE 24th; 2803 NE 24th; 5620 NE Cleveland; 2334 NE 25th, 49 Briarwood Court, Lake Oswego. All of these bear strong family resemblance. Three of his homes in Northeast Portland are on the National Register of Historic Places. He was a talent.

George and Lillian Eastman home, 2826 NE Stuart. Designed and built by Eastman in 1912. He and his family lived here from 1913-1915 before moving to Detroit, Michigan where Eastman worked for Associated Builders Co. before his untimely death in 1920 at age 40.

 

Perhaps Eastman saw the writing on the wall here in Portland: he and Lillian and their two children George and Virginia left in 1916 for Detroit, Michigan where the design and building of high-end homes was going strong. Eastman’s architectural career was brief: he died on January 25, 1920 and is buried in Birmingham, Alabama—Lillian’s hometown—where Lillian, George Jr., Virginia, and infant daughter Jane moved following George’s death.

After Eastman left Portland, architect Max Meyer took over briefly as lead architect for OHB, before leaving to start his own private practice in 1917, where he advertised himself as “formerly with Oregon Home Builders,” signaling the company’s lingering cachet even after it eventually closed its doors.

On the construction side of the business, many of the city building permits taken out by OHB had H. Riley Linville’s name on them, who for a while was chief plumber and partner in the Linville-Myers Plumbing Co. The full list of carpenters, laborers, day workers, superintendents and other OHB employees remains unknown.

These building professionals knew what they were doing. In 1915 they built a conveniently located workshop and warehouse at NE 33rd and Broadway, which in late 1916 was expanded into the building on that corner we know today as the former Gordon’s Fireplace Shop which later figured in another very brief but failed Jeffery vision known as the aircraft factory. Little more than a big shed at first and then later a full three-story building with milling equipment, that corner was a manufacturing hub for built-in cabinets, shelves, window and door casements and furniture that went into OHB homes. And they just kept building houses, often multiples in a block bought by OHB, and for individual clients who had picked a particular home design from their catalog. Some were modest and run of the mill. Others were show houses.

From The Oregonian, June 10, 1917. The house above is at 2931 NE Dunckley; below is 3024 NE Bryce. Both built by OHB. All of Portland was readdressed in 1931.

 

During these busy years, Oliver K. Jeffery weighed in—part company president, part civic booster and part confidence man—with content and quotes that were curiously well placed in the paper’s news reporting on the days when OHB ads appeared elsewhere in the paper. This was not an uncommon phenomenon in early journalism at The O, which ranged well beyond the real estate pages. Here’s a sample:

 

From The Oregonian, May 14, 1916

As OHB matured in its short five-year lifespan, the company added employees and different business lines, mimicking its California role model. Ads listed the company’s busy organizational structure: “Architecture Department, Construction Department, Real Estate Department, Land Sales Department, Rental Department, Repair Department, Loan Department, Financial Department, Insurance Department.” They even produced a monthly newsletter called “Keys to Success” which was sent to all stockholders. In one flashy newspaper advertisement, Jeffery boasted that OHB was the largest and best homebuilder in the Portland area. Discreetly placed classified ads sought additional salesmen:

“Energetic hustler who has ambition and desire to locate permanently with rapidly-growing institution. Splendid future to the right party. The Oregon Home Builders, 1330 Northwestern Bank Building.”

Other discreet ads, usually in the “Loans Wanted” classified section like this one from 1916, showed the company was still trying to find more money:

“Want $20,000 private money at 7 percent, best security offered. Financial Department, The Oregon Home Builders, 1330 Northwestern Bank Building”

For a time, the company contemplated creating a plans and kit home department like Charles Elder had in California. In late 1915 OHB produced an 86-page catalog of home designs called The Home Beautiful Book: “The best home plan book on the market” (which we have searched and searched for but never seen). In August 1916, Jeffery put his expansion ideas into words:

“We operate our own warehouse and mill for the construction of the built-in features of the homes we are building. These same facilities will permit us to build ready-built houses for export, about which we are having a flood of inquiries especially from the warring nations where labor is at a premium. We can take care of this business without additional investment in equipment and it will give us the opportunity to buy thousands of feet of additional timber for manufacturing these as soon as we can get the ships to deliver them. It means employment for several hundred more skilled workmen right here in Portland and the resulting increased demand for homes for these men.”

Playing against type, in 1915 OHB launched a rental department and brought in a high-powered rental agent from St. Louis named G. Gilbert Rohrer, who lasted about 12 months before leaving to start his own company. Given Jefferey’s expressed bias for home ownership, Rohrer may have never felt quite at home managing rentals at OHB. But as Portland’s building and buying economy began to slow down, the rental economy stayed strong and the company wanted to keep a hand in the rental business. After all, a percentage of home renters did become home buyers. Rohrer was replaced by John A. Gravley.

The peak of the company’s short life may have come in 1916 when OHB’s lead architect George Eastman designed and built a custom home for Jeffery and his wife Margaret: the three-story Dutch Colonial Revival that still stands at the corner of NE Bryce and NE Regents. The company had hit its stride: it was capitalized (or seemed to be), had a system for production and track record of well-made homes, and was extremely well networked. The new Jeffery home would be a showpiece of just what OHB could do. And it would be highly visible from the Broadway Streetcar line, a beacon to impress would-be investors and potential home buyers.

From The Daily Oregon Journal, June 6, 1915

The house is unique for many reasons, including its sheer scale and size, which is unusual for Dutch Colonial Revival-style homes. Its expansive grounds with reflecting pool and pergola. Its pie-shaped lot, which is actually three individual tax lots. Former residents Ted and Julie Seitz bought and restored it after two decades of decline and hard use and successfully nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places. Quoting from its national register nomination form:

The Oliver and Margaret Jeffrey House is an intact Dutch Colonial Revival design drafted and built by the Oregon Home Builders for Oliver K. and Margaret M. Jeffrey in 1915-1916. This wood-framed, two- and-one-half-story residence is oriented to the southwest and has an unusual cross-gambrel roof form. It has specially milled 10-inch beveled siding, asphalt shingle roofing with attached copper downspouts and gutters, two external granite chimneys, porticoes supported by massive Tuscan columns on its front and west side facades, and a porte-cochere with Tuscan columns on its rear facade.

In an interesting Jeffery family note, in 1920, older brother Edward J. Jeffery Jr., a prominent Portland automobile dealer, moved in to a house within line-of-sight at the northwest corner of NE 29th and Bryce.

Not long after completing the Jeffery House, OHB built another stately and carefully constructed mega-house, this time for board member Thomas Prince, also visible from the streetcar line. This three-story brick Georgian looms over the Alameda Ridge at the intersection of NE Alameda and NE Regents. It’s also deservedly on the National Register of Historic Places, and also an Eastman design. A few years back we visited the Thomas Prince House and shared photos and insights about its early residents which you can read here.

From The Oregonian, July 22, 1917

 

In addition to the two beautiful houses near Alameda Ridge, 1916 may have been the year it seemed like OHB was everywhere. The company even premiered their own postcards to get the word out that they wanted to build you a house:

Postcard front and back featuring one of the most popular bungalow designs from the Oregon Home Builders, likely the work of George A. Eastman. Courtesy of Steve Dotterrer and the Architectural Heritage Center, used with permission.

 

1916 was evidently a successful time for Jeffery personally as well. A series in The Oregonian called “Prominent Portlanders Who Motor” featured information about his personal vehicles and association with the Rose Festival parade:

From The Oregonian, April 9, 1916

 

And then at Christmas 1916, in a major crossover not seen in the homebuilding business, OHB even opened a retail store reinforcing its brand and selling locally-made toys and decorations:

From The Oregonian, December 15, 1916

 

Despite the success and notoriety of the two mega houses on the Alameda ridge, Jeffery’s prominence and the company’s visibility in Portland life, by 1917 Portland’s economy and real estate market was beginning to slump and Jeffery’s path had begun to change.

Early 1917 saw an increase in the number of stockholders who were selling off large blocks of OHB shares by confidential blind box classified ads in The Oregonian. The county’s annual tax delinquency list published in February identified 15 OHB properties owing taxes dating back to 1915. And OHB’s “for sale” classified ads shifted away from homes and city property to agricultural acreage in the Willamette Valley and Montana. Something was clearly going on. And then this in a May 2, 1917 advertisement, as if to staunch any whispers:

“Guaranteed. That is what we offer you and stand back of with our reputation. We are here to stay—you can always find us. The Oregon Home Builders, established since 1911.”

In August, the company bought a brand-new Ford (listed in the new car purchase list in the newspaper…yes there was such a thing when cars were a new and uncommon thing). And then people began to leave. Salesmen first and then Alfred R. Johnson the general manager in early October. By then, the only name still associated with OHB was Earl H. Fry who specialized in agricultural land sales.

By late October 1917, the company dropped quietly into bankruptcy, taken over by a creditors’ committee. Jeffery’s name no longer appeared on OHB materials. No newspaper even mentioned the bankruptcy until four years later, though ads touting OHB farm properties appeared status quo in the newspapers until late 1917. The creditors’ committee was quietly maneuvering to sell off assets while it could in the months after bankruptcy.

By 1918, having financed the company’s operations but not received their promised profits, most stockholders were left with worthless certificates. Vacant lots that never sold had been fully mortgaged by OHB leadership and were accumulating back taxes. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Here’s the only printed explanation we’ve ever found about what happened, in the form of a letter to the editor from a disappointed stockholder and a response in January 1921:

 

From The Oregonian, January 21, 1921

So what happened to Oliver K. Jeffery?

In January 1918, the Jefferys sold the flagship Alameda Park home to the president of Inman-Poulsen Lumber Company. Then in early March 1918, in a spectacular public announcement covered prominently by the newspapers, Jeffery sued his wife for divorce, and her alleged lover for $100,000 for “alienation of affection.” One week later, with no discernable change in circumstances, he withdrew both suits, but not long after, the couple split. In October 1918, Jeffery enrolled as a corporal in the WWI tank corps and went to training, but was never assigned to duty nor sent out of the Portland area. His interest had fully shifted to flying his personal airplanes and thinking about airplane-related business ventures.

Oliver K. Jeffery, from Who’s Who in Oregon, 1911

 

In 1919 Jeffery traveled for several months in Mexico, the reason given in his passport application to “investigate Mexican lands.” Returning to Portland in the spring, he published a piece in The Oregonian entitled “Mexico, vast horn of plenty, with undeveloped resources needed in U.S.”

Later that year Jeffery formed the Pacific Aviation Company with the notion of running scheduled airline service, backed by powerful Portland business interests. When that didn’t pan out, he formed the Oregon, Washington, Idaho Aircraft Company to do the same, traveling to Bend and to La Grande to meet with local officials and investors about establishing a possible company headquarters. By 1920 he had moved on to form his own distributorship in Portland, “O.K. Jeffery Airplanes,” which sold several Avro and Curtis airplanes. Later that year Jeffery moved to Los Angeles, where he was listed for several years in city directories as “aviation manufacturer.”

From The Oregonian, October 28 1917. OHB was in receivership when this was taken. The story that accompanied the photo quoted Jeffery at length about his flying adventures and reported that he was visiting “various flying camps in the east” and was organizing a company to manufacture parts for airplanes. Nothing said about the company that just had crash landed taking investors funds along for the ride.

 

Jeffery eventually found his way back to Portland. In 1924 he was the general manager of a company that existed only on paper called Blue J which attempted to bribe Portland City Commissioner Charles P. Keyser with Blue J company stock in exchange for control of a series of automobile campsites the company hoped to build around the city. Keyser was exonerated. Jeffery and his fellow Blue J board members were publicly admonished by City Council for their carelessness and their intent to influence public decisions.

Two years later he entered the mortgage business, opening a company called First Bond and Mortgage, which did not survive the Great Depression. By then—after the divorce and another brief marriage that ended in divorce—he moved in with his mother Nautilla in a big house in Northwest Portland where he lived for more than a dozen years—referred to as a “capitalist” in business directories—until his death at age 46 in December 1936.

 

What remains more than 100 years later is a paper trail of news stories, advertisements and court cases that combine to tell the story of an ambitious but flawed and failed business venture. In an interesting post script, Jeffery’s California mentor Charles Elder was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 13 months in the federal McNeil Island Penitentiary.

Out on the ground in Portland’s neighborhoods where life goes on, the houses built by Oregon Home Builders—embodying the work of nameless crafts people—have continued to speak for themselves by being lived in and loved by their Portland families.

 

Listing of houses built by Oregon Home Builders

This list has been gleaned from a careful review of newspapers between 1912-1921 and from a study of building permits in the Alameda Park plat. In most cases, OHB classified ads did not provide specific addresses or even general vicinities. Any specific address listed here has been verified as an OHB-built home. We’re certain there are a number of OHB homes not on this list and we’ll do our best to keep it up to date as we find more. Our best guess is that during the arc of OHB’s existence, they may have built between 125 and 150 total homes.

 

1912 (~2)

Alberta Street (the listing did not provide an address)

4221 NE Glisan

 

1913 (~17)

Eight houses near NE 39th and Sandy, all believed demolished

3141 NE Multnomah

3211 NE Multnomah

3200 Block NE Multnomah (two homes, both demolished, built concurrent with 3211 & 3141; Jeffery lived briefly in 3211)

Near Jefferson High School (no address given)

Four cottages in Gearhart, Oregon (no address given)

 

1914 (~32)

Two houses at SE 28th and Tibbetts (not found)

Four houses at NE 23rd and Wasco (not found)

NE 33rd and Wasco (not found)

Five houses in Carlton, Oregon

Several houses in Astoria, Oregon

Purchased 18 lots in Irvington, no addresses given

2803 NE 24th

4323 NE 26th

4807 NE 29th

8719 SE Alder

1734 NE Broadway

836 N. Buffalo

3123 NE Dunckley

3135 NE Dunckley

3229 NE Dunckley

3259 NE Dunckley

2233 NE Mason

A house on SE Stark in the Altamead plat (not found)

916 N. Stafford

8730 SE Washington (postcard house)

8836 SE Washington

2314 NE Wygant

*In 1914, the company reported it had built 52 houses.

 

1915 (~20)

1216 NE Alberta

3024 NE Bryce (photo)

3033 NE Bryce

3128 NE Bryce

3140 NE Bryce

2931 NE Dunckley (Walkup/Thomas – photo 911)

3005 NE Dunckley (Lemkuhl – photo 931)

3115 NE Dunckley

8637 SE Morrison

3104 NE Regents

2523 Skidmore

2607 NE Skidmore

2613 NE Skidmore

2824 SE Yamhill

3407 SE 20th

SE 22nd and Hawthorne (two houses, not found)

4142 SE 25th

3535 NE 25th

3930 NE 29th

 

1916 (~15)

2903 NE Alameda (Thomas Prince house)

5927 NE Alameda (postcard house)

5935 NE Alameda

2915 NE Dunckley

5534 NE Hoyt

435 NE Laurelhurst Place

1923 SE Pine

2023 SE Pine

2043 SE Pine (demolished)

4706 NE Sandy (demolished)

2003 NE Stanton

2017 NE Stanton

8004 N. Van Houten

1632 N. Webster

225 SE 20th

235 SE 20th (postcard house)

3636 SE 21st

1816 SE 24th

3426 NE 21st

1726 NE 24th (photo – built for Prince)

3912 NE 32nd Place

1522 NE 49th

1534 NE 49th

 

1917 (~24)

2930 NE Bryce

3006 NE Bryce

3276 NE Bryce

3284 NE Bryce

3296 NE Bryce

5605 N. Detroit

2717 NE Mason

2807 NE Mason

54 NE Meikle Place

2409 SE Stephens

6822 SW Virginia

6834 SW Virginia

4815 NE 11th

3434 NE 17th

3444 NE 17th

3436 NE 21st

3446 NE 21st

1738 SE 24

1804 SE 24th

1816 SE 24th (photo and story)

1816 SE 24th

1826 SE 24th

5937 NE 30th

2112 NE 51st

SE 21st and Hawthorne (19-unit two-story apartment planned but never built)

Oliver K. Jeffery and his short-lived airplane factory

Looking south on Northeast 33rd at Broadway about 1956 during construction of a new viaduct over the Banfield Freeway. The former Oliver K. Jeffery aircraft factory is on the left. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives. 

When it comes to time travel here in the neighborhood, one of our favorite old timers is the former Gordon’s Fireplace building on the southeast corner of NE 33rd and Broadway. We take it as a small history victory that recent marketing for the building includes the context that it was once for a very brief interlude an aircraft factory, which we brought to light in this post from November 2012, which includes photos from inside the upper floors and is filled with background on the building.

What’s happening with that building today is not new news, but in case you haven’t seen, here’s a link to plans from developer Interurban, which is planning an $11 million overhaul to create three floors of creative offices and retail space, plus a penthouse and outdoor decks, with completion planned for summer 2019.

And here’s some very old news we’ve come across: the 1916 newspaper story about factory construction, which took what had been a shed built by the Oregon Home Builders and upgraded it into a full manufacturing hub for the built-in cabinets, shelves, window and door casements and furniture that went into the company’s homes.

From Oregon Journal, December 29, 1916.

 

Since our post a few years back, we’ve come across a couple of other tidbits: check out these two great photos and story from the January 1, 1918 edition of The Oregonian about Oregon spruce in the war effort. Take what it says about the building with a grain of salt.

 

 

From The Oregonian, January 1, 1918. The table on Portland firefighters was a bonus thrown in by early editors jamming the New Years’ edition full of interesting facts. A similar story appeared in aviation and lumber related publications about this time, likely part of a PR campaign carried out by O.K. Jeffery.

 

Hold on a second…the reality of what was actually going on with that building is evident in a news story from January 20, 1918 explaining the building, which had been vacant after O.K. Jeffrey’s airplane factory folded–apparently in late 1917–had been sold to Portland Box and Excelsior and was well on its way into a new manufacturing realm. Check it out:

From Oregon Journal, January 20, 1918.

 

We’ve been thinking about this building lately because we’ve been exploring the company that built it—Oregon Home Builders—and company president Oliver K. Jeffery. We had the occasion on a recent evening to visit with neighbors and friends in the Alameda neighborhood home O.K. Jeffery built for himself and his wife Margaret in 1915. It’s a beauty—one of Alameda’s five national register homes—perhaps Portland’s largest Dutch colonial revival building, built as a show house for Oregon Home Builders. The house fell on hard times in the 1970s when it served as a halfway house for wayward boys and then sat vacant for seven years. But today, thanks to the last two history-conscious owners, it’s been restored to the look and feel of the O.K. Jeffery years.

From the Oregon Journal, June 6, 1915.

At the moment, we’re working on a profile of the Oregon Home Builders that we’ll share here soon. OHB was prolific between 1912-1917, designing and constructing hundreds of homes and commercial buildings and even speculating in Willamette Valley farming property before going bankrupt when Portland’s economy went south in the late teens. It’s a fascinating story mirrored by the unusual story of Mr. Jeffery himself, the son of an old Portland family, reportedly founder of the Rose Festival parade, real estate speculator, lifelong MAC Club member, auto enthusiast, pilot and visionary aviation entrepreneur. Oh, and he was a corporal in the tank corps during World War 1 too, though he never saw active duty.

Oliver K. Jeffery, April 30, 1916 from the Oregon Journal.

 

Somehow, after bankrupting the company and leaving stockholders in the lurch in 1917, and then closing down  his airplane factory after its very brief life, Jeffery was able to stay active and visible in Portland’s business and social scene, attracting heavyweight local investors to his aviation ideas. In 1920 he launched the Oregon, Washington, Idaho Airplane Company with an eye to establishing regional scheduled passenger flights, long before aircraft could actually carry many passengers. The business didn’t take hold, and Jeffery survived that ending too and went on to become a local distributor for airplanes built by Curtis and Avro. And a pilot. We guess he may have been happiest just flying people around. Here’s an ad for his business. Just a great big ride. Maybe that’s who he was in a nutshell.

From the Oregon Journal, June 20, 1920.

 

Jeffery eventually found his way back to the mortgage business in 1926 when he opened First Bond and Mortgage, which vanished from the public record after the Depression. By then—after the divorce—he had moved in with his mother in a big house in Northwest Portland where he lived quietly until his death at age 46 in December 1936.

From The Oregonian, December 10, 1934

Makes you want to know more, doesn’t it? Stay tuned.

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.

Charles W. Ertz, Architect

We’ve had the opportunity recently to research another prolific and talented architect from the early days of Northeast Portland. If you live in the neighborhood today, you probably know and have even been inside one of the buildings by architect Charles Walter Ertz: the Beaumont Market at NE 41st and Fremont. Take a look:

From The Oregonian, February 24, 1935

More on that Beaumont market corner in a moment…

Born in California in November 1887, Charles W. Ertz came to Portland as a teenager and acquired his architectural education mostly as an apprentice working for two of Portland’s leading architects, Joseph Jacobberger and Emil Schacht, both of whom designed homes in northeast Portland neighborhoods. Jacobberger designed the original Madeleine Parish school and church, and interestingly, years later, his son Francis designed the brick main sanctuary at Madeleine.

Ertz began his own practice with partner Lewis M. Dole in 1911 and later partnered with builder Edward C. Wegman as Ertz and Wegman for several years when the economy picked up following World War 1.

From The Oregonian, September 12, 1920

During the heyday of his Portland architectural practice, Ertz designed dozens of homes in Alameda and nearby neighborhoods, including several within a stone’s throw of each other near the Alameda Ridge: 3122 NE Alameda (built in 1918-1919); 3160 NE Bryce (built in 1919); 3027 NE Alameda (built in 1922); 3015 NE Alameda (built in 1922); 3260 NE Alameda (1924); and the Mediterranean-style house at 3297 NE Alameda (also built in 1922). Here’s an advertisement for that house, which is at the northwest corner of NE 33rd and Alameda:

From The Oregonian, November 26, 1922.

By the early 1920s, Ertz was back on his own until 1935 when he partnered with his employee Tom Burns to become Ertz, Burns and Company. He moved from Portland to Lake Oswego, where he designed and oversaw construction of several local landmarks there including the George Rogers Building at the corner of State Street and A Avenue (1925); the Jantzen House, on the island in Oswego Lake (1936); and his own beautiful Tudor revival home at 1650 North Shore Road (1928).

As his practice grew in the late 1920s and into the 1930s, Ertz kept Portland business ties but relocated to Beverly Hills in 1938 where he continued his practice until the 1970s. He died in Beverly Hills in 1979 at age 91.

Some of Ertz’s other memorable works include:

The A.B. Smith Automotive Building at 12th and Burnside that now houses Whole Foods;

The former clubhouse and restaurant at the Lloyd Golf Club, which was demolished last year (don’t get us started, it was a beautiful building);

The Art-Deco Salvation Army Divisional Headquarters at 1785 NE Sandy (the Sandy Plaza Building);

The Eighth Church of Christian Scientist at 3505 NE Imperial.

Back to the Beaumont corner of NE 42nd and Fremont: One of Ertz’s challenges with that 1935 project was to blend the design for his new market building into the existing context of the neighboring building. The multi-peaked tile-roofed commercial building just west of Beaumont Market was built in 1928. Most people visiting the corner today wouldn’t guess that they are actually two separate buildings, built seven years apart. That’s thanks to Charles W. Ertz who blended new with the old. Neither of those buildings were in place in the 1927 Beaumont photographs we’ve recently shared here.

An interesting note: that distinctive original building (the one that houses Gazelle and the other storefronts today) was designed and built by Shipley & Snashall, who built quite a few commercial corners on the eastside, including the building that today houses Peet’s Coffee at NE 15th and Broadway. Next time you pass by, have a look for the family resemblance.

From The Oregonian, September 2, 1928

Before Concordia there was Irvington Park, and an even deeper history

We’ve had the opportunity recently to look into the origins of what is known today as the Concordia neighborhood, and even though it had different names way back when, no big surprise that today’s neighborhood draws its name from nearby Concordia University.

Opened in 1907 on six acres of land that was then at the edge of Portland city limits, Concordia College was a simple two-story wood frame building home to the Oregon and Washington District of the Evangelical Norwegian Synod. Operating primarily as a high school program for young men until the 1950s, Concordia gradually evolved into a junior college, added a co-ed mission and additional facilities in the 1950s, and became a full-fledged four-year college in 1977.

Here’s an article from The Oregonian on December 15, 1907 that provides some context and mentions a few early references that AH readers will recognize. Have a look (click to enlarge).

 

We’ve written about that stop at the end of the Alberta carline mentioned above, which was the corner of NE 30th and Ainsworth. Check out our post and a 1944 photo of the streetcar parked there.

So ok, no big surprise about the Concordia name we know today. But peel back a layer of history to reveal earlier names, and it gets interesting.

Back then, if you lived in the area north of Killingsworth and south of Dekum between 20th and 33rd, you would have told someone you lived in Irvington Park (not to be confused with Irvington), or maybe the Town of Creighton, or the Heidelberg Addition, or even Foxchase, all place names making up today’s Concordia neighborhood that stem from the title of survey plats filed by the real estate operators who gridded out the fields and forests on these gentle south slopes above the Columbia River.

The Town of Creighton (like the Town of Wayne adjacent to Alameda) wasn’t actually a town, more like the idea of a town, hatched by property speculators in 1883, drawn out as a kind of map and filed with the Multnomah County surveyor. Remember back then this neck of the woods was well outside the city limits. The Town of Creighton plat is unrecognizable today: its tentatively drawn tree-related street names didn’t carry through time: Maple, Walnut, Beech, Locust, Birch. Creighton’s only legacy is the location of boundary lines on today’s map: north of Killingsworth, east of 25th, south of Rosa Parks and west of 33rd.

Take a look below at the Irvington Park plat, filed in 1890 and trading on the name of Irvington, a subdivision south of Fremont (the same one we know today). Note that in this view of the Irvington Park plat, west is up. You’ll see some familiar names, and some that didn’t make it through the years, Click to enlarge, it’s a big file:

Maybe you’ve figured out that “Riggen Street” is today’s Holman, and that “North Street” is Rosa Parks Way. 33rd on this plat is actually today’s 32nd place and 34th is 33rd. Details, details.

One of the interesting aspects of Irvington Park was how aggressively real estate man F. B. Holbrook marketed it during its early years, and how he coat-tailed on Irvington, located more than a mile south as a crow flies, which he had no actual business relationship with. Have a look at this ad, which ran in The Oregonian on July 10, 1907:

And here’s another gem, from September 16, 1907.

Yes, there were lots of trees: a nice way of saying this subdivision was way the heck out there.

Trading on the name of someone else’s success wasn’t a new idea. Alameda Park developers did the same with their own outrageous 1910 brochure, plus when Alameda was plumbed for sewers back in 1910, they even attempted to freeload (so to speak) on Irvington’s existing sewer system.

Even The Oregonian got into the act of promoting Irvington Park. Here’s a piece from July 23, 1913.

There’s a fascinating history to the Irvington Park lands that runs deeper, to 1866 when 49 acres were transferred from the United States government to Henry McIntire as part of a bounty land claim deed that was a reward for McIntire’s military service. The lands changed hands quickly after that, owned briefly by a private individual, then by Willamette University, and then by the Salem Flouring Mills. During the early 1880s the lands were even owned by William H. and Jennie Creighton (of “Town of Creighton” fame) before they defaulted on a mortgage payment to the Salem Flouring Mills. Mr. Creighton started out as a produce and shipping broker and proceeded into real estate speculation, as it seemed every Portland businessman did in those days.

By the early 1890s, the lands were in the hands of an unimaginatively named group called the Investment Company, owned by big-time Portland developers including William M. Ladd (who incidentally was a principal in the Salem Flouring Mills) and Edward Quackenbush. Selling lots in Irvington Park was just one of their many enterprises.

And deeper yet: elderly residents of Irvington Park we have interviewed report that when the ground was first disturbed to make streets and lots almost 100 years ago, Native American objects and artifacts were frequently found, which makes sense given the proximity to the Columbia Slough and Columbia River. These lands, like every inch we live on today, are part of the ceded lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Unfavorable treaty agreements in the 1850s removed indigenous people from these original homelands and then systematically broke the lands up to development through actions like the Donation Land Claim Act and related bounty land claim provisions. Any stone tools or arrowheads found today should rightly be returned to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

Over time, as Concordia College’s physical presence began to expand, the underlying plat names in the adjacent neighborhood fell out of usage in favor of what was becoming a local landmark, as in “we live over near Concordia,” and the previous deep history was forgotten. The mid-1970s marks the first official reference to the Concordia neighborhood that we could find either in daily news reporting or in city reference documents.

Alameda sewer geek-out

We’ve been spending some time at the City of Portland Archives lately, which is something we recommend. The staff there are always helpful, knowledgeable, patient and friendly too. One of the nice things about visiting is that you might run into something you didn’t know you needed to know, and that might just amaze you when you really think about it. Like this:

Courtesy City of Portland Archives file AP/25016, January 5, 1934.

The same view, looking north on NE 24th at Alameda, in December 2017.

On a recent visit, we bumped into some old city documents and photographs that provide a major archival document and engineering geek-out for us and possibly for one or two AH other readers: 110-year-old sewer plans for Alameda and repair photos from the 1930s.

OK, we know this isn’t going to interest everyone, but the drawings below pertain to the very earliest construction activity in our neighborhood. When you really look at them—and realize this universe of sloping interconnected pipes was carefully thought up and then dug deep into the ground and placed by hand—you have to appreciate the early planners and builders. Have a look (click to enlarge) and then we’ll analyze what we see.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, record number M/13197.

What we’re looking at here are elevation drawings that show a cross-section of Alameda streets and slopes and how the sewer system relates to the grid above the surface. The measurement between the dashed line (which is ground level shown as feet above sea level, 243′ at the top of the ridge) and pipe placement shows how deep these pipes are. Pretty deep in some places. The red numbers indicate the number of feet between the indicated junctions. The percentage numbers indicate the slope of each line (up to 22 percent slope coming off the ridge). The whole idea here is to have positive drainage through the entire system (thank you, gravity). The label “SP” indicates the diameter of the pipe used. Pipe dimensions start smaller to the north and get larger as the sewers run south, a function of the growing number of connections into the main line as the sewers head for the main trunk collector sewer which is under Sullivan’s Gulch. There are many nuances to be seen here. Interested in learning more about the history of sewers (not a question that gets asked very often, I’d say)? I’ve probably lost you by here, but just in case, check this out.

This sewer system was one of the first construction items completed when Alameda was built. Grading for the streets, curbs and sidewalk construction followed. If you’ve seen the ubiquitous “Elwood Wiles” stamp on our sidewalks and wondered who he was, check out this earlier post. Among many other things, Wiles was a former Alameda resident (maybe you’ve walked by his house on Bryce just east of Regents).

Evidently, aside from the engineering challenge of getting sewage safely and predictably down from Alameda Ridge, construction of that first sewer system posed financial and legal challenges as well. The Alameda Land Company wanted to be able to hook its sewer system into the existing Irvington sewer system, which made sense since it was all downhill on its way to Sullivan’s Gulch (where today’s I-84 runs) which was home to the major sewer line that drained into the Willamette River. (Read more about how the eastside gulches drained sewage directly into the Willamette River and were eventually filled in. But that’s a different topic…let’s stay on track here).

Irvington and Alameda were in competition for real estate sales and there was no love lost between the two development companies. Irvington was not about to foot the bill for construction of a sewer system just to have it be used for free by neighbors up the hill. A restraining order was filed by Irvington against the Alameda Land Company in 1910 and eventually the city had to step in and referee exactly how system development charges were going to be apportioned. Ultimately, Alamedans paid for construction of their own sewer system, a portion of the costs for their sewer that drained into Irvington, and their share of the costs when the city constructed the main collector sewer in Sullivan’s Gulch in 1911. Interesting to note that over the years the usually friendly Irvington-Alameda rivalry took on a life of its own beyond sewer lawsuits, which you can read more about here and here.

During our recent visit to City Archives we also learned that Alameda’s sewer system did not stand the test of time. Things started falling apart in the 1930s. We came across photos and an engineering report from 1934 that details the very expensive reconstruction of more than 1,700 feet of sewer all along NE 24th from north of Prescott to south of Alameda. Here’s another view of that work, looking north on 24th. The house near the center of the frame is on the northwest corner of 24th and Prescott.

Courtesy City of Portland Archives, file AP/20614, January 5, 1934.

Similar view in December 2017

This was a costly job: $13,622.57 which employed a small army of 48 laborers for two months and required trenching in some places 30 feet below the surface of the street. The construction report placed blame for the work squarely on methods used by the Alameda Land Company when they were hurrying their system into the ground back in 1911:

City of Portland Civil Works Administration Report 35-26W-76, March 20, 1934.

Back in 1911, using the drawings referenced here, workers dug deep trenches under what would become Alameda’s streets. At the bottom of these trenches, they used heavy wooden timbers to build long three-sided “box tunnels” without tops. Into these continuous long narrow boxes they placed fill dirt and sewer pipe. Using this common method, they were supposed to completely fill around the pipe with sand and dirt then close off the top of the box with a heavy wood cover before filling the trenches back in to street level. But that didn’t happen.

Eventually the unsupported weight of sand and gravel settling in from above crushed the box and the sewer pipe. The surface of NE 24th also dropped as all the soil below street level began to work its way lower and lower into the collapsed box tunnel. The result: a cave-in at the surface of the street, crushed sewer pipes below and one heck of an expensive mess.

Fortunately, for City Engineer L.G. Apperson, the city had the original drawings on hand and knew where to start looking to solve the problem.

Never underestimate the value of a good archive!

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.

 

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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