“Our old synagogue of blessed memory”

We’ve been exploring the history of a 110-year-old building in the Vernon neighborhood at NE 20th and Going, once home to Congregation Tifereth Israel, an eastside Jewish community, and then to several African American Christian congregations.

We’ve always been interested in transitions between building uses and occupants: what creates them, how they go, how people feel and react, what happens after.

In this case, the transition from Jewish synagogue to African American church brought out the best in the respective religious communities, but was a low-water mark for enlightenment in the neighborhood, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise given Portland’s troubled history of official and unofficial racism.

The Tifereth Israel community had its roots in Russia and the Ukraine. Many of its earliest members were immigrants who fled discrimination and violence there at the turn of the last century. As families became established in Portland, and new generations came along, the Tifereth Israel community grew to a point where they needed more space than the 1,000-square-foot Alberta Shul could provide. Congregation leaders—many of whom lived in the surrounding neighborhood—focused on a slightly larger building at NE 15th and Wygant, which was then the Redeemer Lutheran Church, a community that was about to move out and up to provide space for its own growing membership.

In December 1951, Tifereth Israel leaders announced they were going to buy the nearby Redeemer Lutheran building, and sell the Alberta Shul:

The Oregonian, December 29, 1951

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The move to the new venue apparently went fine, with services starting up there in 1952. But things got complicated that fall when the empty Alberta Shul went up for sale. Another growing church community, the Mt. Sinai Community Church, made an offer on the former synagogue, which ignited concern in what was then a mostly white neighborhood.

The realtor handling the sale dropped the deal like a hot rock once the neighbors started to push and as they were quoted in the newspaper with thinly-veiled reasons for opposing the African American church, which had gone out of its way to keep the peace in the neighborhood. Read this next story carefully.

 

The Oregonian, October 8, 1952

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Tifereth Israel leaders and others stepped in when the real estate agent stepped out, and the deal went forward.

The Oregonian, October 10, 1952

Lest you think this was just a real estate transaction for an empty building, have a look at the following passage of a letter from Tifereth Israel leaders to real estate agent Frank L. McGuire, which reads as true and important today as it did in the 1950s.

At the time said agreement was entered into, this congregation had no knowledge of the purchasers other than their name and that they were a Christian congregation. Later it developed that the members of Mount Sinai Congregation are Negroes and pressures have been put upon us to back out of the deal for no other reason than that the purchasers, though Christian, are also Negro.

We regard such pressures as being violative of the principles of Americanism, of Judaism, of Christianity and of common decency…Man has no dearer right than the privilege of worshiping God in his own way. To deprive any group of people of the right to meet and to worship merely because God chose to make them a part of the colored majority of mankind is repulsive to Americans who love their country and the great principles of democracy which distinguish our land from the totalitarian states wherein liberty and religion are destroyed.

In welcoming our colored brethren to our old synagogue of blessed memory, we are mindful of the quotation from Hebrew scripture, “Have we not all one Father; hath not One God created us?” We hope that they also will find God within its walls and that He will answer their prayers and ours that He teach us “to love one another.” In the event you refuse to close the sale, we desire to be released from our listing agreement so that we may ourselves consummate the moral agreement we have entered into.

 

Irate the deal was progressing, neighbors upped the conflict further by taking a petition signed by 90 residents to City Hall. Portland City Council refused to take it up.

The Oregonian, October 24, 1952

Even thought the Alberta Shul transition did go forward, deep currents of racism were affecting Northeast Portland neighborhoods, home mortgage lending practices and individual real estate transactions. The Tifereth Israel letter, written by elders who had survived generations of their own discrimination, encouraged a higher ground.

We’d like to learn more about Mt. Sinai Community Church and to hear from any who have known this building in the past.

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.

 

In the footprint of Old Vernon

In the spirit of knowing that pretty much everything is connected, we were intrigued to learn of the ties between mid-century modern builder Kenny Birkemeier (1905-1996) and the old Vernon School block south of Alberta between NE 22nd and NE 23rd.

Frequent AH readers will recall the story of Old Vernon (which is one of our favorites), the giant wood frame structure that once occupied much of the block bounded by Wygant, Going, NE 22nd and NE 23rd. It’s a fascinating story of Portland’s early school building challenges, the growth of a neighborhood and the all-too-frequent fate of Portland’s early all-wood institutions. And there’s virtually no trace left even though its impact on the neighborhood during its heyday cannot be overstated. Learning about Old Vernon was a bit like a curtain going up to reveal an entirely different neighborhood that once was.

Readers will also recall that Ken Birkemeier was one of Portland’s most prolific and resourceful builders between the mid-1930s and the 1950s. Dozens of his homes, most with a distinct family resemblance of Roman brick, ornamented brick facades and whimsically placed oval windows, can be found in nearby northeast Portland neighborhoods.

So–you’re wondering–how do these stories connect?

(Spoiler alert if you haven’t already read our piece about Old Vernon…maybe you should go do that first.)

In the aftermath of the big fire, the school district contracted with Rose City Wrecking in March 1933 to haul off the burned remains and to demolish and remove anything else still standing on Block 54, which they did. An aerial photo from 1936 shows the footprint of the burned building and lots of open land.

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.

The mid-1930s were not a great time for homebuilding in Portland, so Block 54 sat vacant for a few years. The Great Depression killed the real estate market and tightened down on much of the available money to build or to buy. But gradually the market returned and our resourceful Mr. Birkemeier acquired the entirety of Block 54: all 18 lots.

Our review of city permits, prompted by eagle-eyed AH reader Michael Johnson, shows Birkemeier began building in October 1940 on the south end of Block 54 (2225 NE Going and 4621 NE 23rd, to be exact) and worked his way north. He finished the last of the 18 houses on that block in the winter of 1944 with a pair of duplexes at 2210 and 2232 NE Wygant.

Ken Birkemeier was a talented builder, and an effective marketer as well. Many of his homes from that era were featured in The Oregonian, including photos of the houses and occasionally of him too. But a careful review of past issues from those construction years didn’t turn up anything from Block 54.

So here’s an opportunity for you to go walk along the invisible fault lines of the past, from the long-ago schoolyard, to the brand new block of the 1940s, to the changing neighborhood of today. Make no mistake, change is our constant companion. That’s how it always has been and how it should be.  How we change will explain a lot to the future about what we value today.

 

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?

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.

Alberta Streetcar: Catalyst for Change

It takes lots of imagination to conjure up a picture of what our neighborhood might have looked like 100 years ago. The fields and forests of today’s Alberta district, Vernon, Concordia, and Alameda were way out in the country, beyond the far edge of Portland. But one key development changed all that: the Alberta Streetcar.

a2009-009-4152-streetcar-along-alberta-line-1944

A photo of the Alberta Streetcar from 1944 looking north on NE 30th Avenue at the line’s far northern end, NE 30th and Ainsworth. Only the building on the northeast corner remains. Development of the streetcar line changed everything about the landscape that eventually became our neighborhood. Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives.

First constructed in 1903, the line left downtown at SW 2nd nd Alder, crossed the old Steel Bridge and ran north up Union (today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), where it turned east on Alberta to NE 25th. A few years later it was extended five blocks east on Alberta to NE 30th, and then a few years later north on NE 30th to Ainsworth, which became the end of the line. For a time, there was talk of connecting the Alberta line with the Broadway line, which terminated in Alameda at NE 29th and Mason, but by the time that seemed possible, automobiles had begun to eclipse streetcar use.

Wherever the streetcar went, so did development. Initially just two rails in the mud through brush and open fields, by the heyday of Portland’s streetcars in the teens and 1920s, the Alberta streetcar had attracted scores of business owners and thousands of residents to this new developing part of the city. Its impact on the shape and feel of the neighborhood can’t be overstated.

The December 28, 1913 edition of The Oregonian reported:

“The streetcars are now operated to East Thirtieth street and Ainsworth avenue. The line runs double cars in order to take care of the traffic and even then the cars morning and evening are overcrowded.”

The fact that autos were not the primary mode of transport in those early days meant streetcars—and lots of foot traffic—fueled growth of the business district along Alberta. It was a thriving place of activity and commerce, not unlike today. But by the 1940s, with automobiles dominating the transportation picture and Union Avenue no longer the main north-south travel corridor (travel had shifted to Interstate Avenue), the Alberta streetcar became disused and was eventually replaced by a bus. By then, Portland had turned its back on its once robust streetcar system. The last day for the Alberta line was August 1, 1948.

As if to silence the era of the Alberta streetcar once and for all, in September 1949 The Oregonian reported that the City of Portland authorized a $75,000 paving contract that took 11 days to erase all evidence of the tracks:

“A total of 110,748 yards of materials went into the project to bury the old Alberta streetcar tracks. Paving tonnage amounted to 8,407 tons of blacktop.”

Today, there aren’t many specific clues other than the hundreds of streetcar-era buildings that would not have developed without the line. When you’re out for a walk along our neighborhood’s path of the old streetcar line (1.8 miles along Alberta between MLK and 30th; then 30th Avenue between Alberta and Ainsworth), see what evidence you can find.

Part 3: Alberta Bungalow Grocery Restored

Third of three parts: Bringing a great old building back from the brink

store (corner view) (1)

In 2002, with much of its south-side clapboard replaced with T-111 siding, a clear southward slump, rotted floors, and replacement aluminum sliding windows, the bungalow-grocery at NE 27th and Going was crumbling and weeks away from being torn down. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

It’s been a while—regrettably, a very busy spring—but just to refresh from Part 1: In 1910, the neighborhoods around the busy young Alberta Street were at the edge of a very fast-growing Portland. As real estate values and more people caught up with the region north of Prescott and south of Killingsworth, a booming residential and retail area began to grow.

One particular building at the northwest corner of NE 27th and Going merged both residential and retail. In Part 2, we covered how the modest bungalow storefront opened originally as a men’s furnishings store, and was adapted over time and changed hands through the generations, closely integrated with neighborhood life until it went out of retail use in the mid 1960s.

Deferred maintenance began to catch up with the building, and when it was sold to a developer in 2002, the property was well on its way to becoming a vacant lot. Fortunately for the building, an adventurous fixer-upper couple named Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich bought it four months later and began to bring it back to life.

porch exterior-untouched

Missing siding, aluminum sliders and a rotting back porch were the least of the worries. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

“I was attracted to its unusual live-work facade which I thought was very handsome, unique, and proportionally graceful,” remembers Crouch. But he also remembers that it was in very sorry shape. The southeast corner was rotted and sinking. The foundation and the floor of the store had to be completely replaced. The residential kitchen was a disaster.

 

kitchen untouched

The worn-out kitchen in the residence area, looking out the back door toward the porch. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

While it had been almost 40 years since being an active retail store, Crouch and Eckrich found two clues, including a Franz Bread ad and the word “LIPTON’s” etched into window glass. Other than that, the store space held no clues to generations of retail activity. “It was very spare: plaster walls and painted wood floors.  Florescent shop lighting.  No original fixtures, stencilling, or noteworthy mouldings. There was a wood stove taking up a lot of floor space.”

 

new concrete floor

Inside the store space looking toward the front windows. Note the new foundation wall on the right (the building had to be lifted by jacks and the new foundation poured underneath). The new floor shown here is a poured concrete slab piped with warm water to keep the floor toasty during the winter. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

guest room walls stripped (1)

One of the few clues to the building’s earlier retail life. An advertisement for Franz bread. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

Crouch and Eckrich invested sweat equity and financial capital in the restoration, and did so in a creative way. “We used some of the original wood flooring in a step-up elevated dining platform and perimeter bench in the main room.  It turned out to be more work than it was probably worth, as the planks had been compressed by traffic patterns of 100 yeas of foot traffic. Some hand planing was required to work out the refinishing.  We put up salvaged tin ceiling tiles on the new span joists we ran to accommodate a master bedroom in the 1/2 story above.”

 

DSC00962

A view of the finished store space (front doors and windows are on the left). Note the fireplace, salvaged ceiling tiles, new hydronic slab, and built-in perimeter bench in the former store space. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

 

A gallery of photos was posted on a real estate website when the building was sold in November 2013, so click around and take a look. Chad and Sheryl have done a great service to the future and to the past with their careful, thoughtful restoration. The Smythes, the Coulters and the other proprietors–plus the generations of families and neighbors who bought their groceries and necessities here–would definitely recognize the building and think it’s in fine shape for being 105 years old.

Today, Alberta’s bungalow-grocery is an attractive and vibrant old building that serves as a kind of time capsule for the neighborhood, showing just how nicely old buildings can be restored and repurposed instead of razed and replaced. In a neighborhood where change is the common denominator, this success story holds hope for the future.

 

 

Part 2: Alberta’s bungalow grocery

Second of Three Parts: The life and times of a neighborhood store and its people

You get the picture from Part 1: In 1910, the neighborhoods around Alberta Street feels a bit thrown together and rough-and-tumble. But investment and expansion are impressive. A strong sense of neighborhood identity is emerging (thanks in part to business booster H.D. Wagnon other early business owners, early residents and real estate developers). People are coming from near and far because property is cheaper here than in other eastside neighborhoods and there’s a new streetcar that provides dependable service.

Plus, plans underway for a new Willamette River crossing that in 1913 would become the Broadway Bridge were changing the way people thought about living and working in Portland.

 

Built and Run by the Smyths

Enter Michael and Mary Jane Smyth, shopkeepers from Ireland who were running a mom-and-pop grocery near 79th and Southeast Stark (then known as Baseline Road). Michael was born in Ireland in 1842 and immigrated to the US in 1864. Mary Jane was born in 1850 and arrived in the US in 1875.

By 1910, the Smyths had run several small retail shops in Portland and at least one in eastern Oregon. The couple never had children and may have seen the Alberta District investment as setting themselves up for retirement. At ages 68 and 62, they were starting their new venture at NE 27th and Going somewhat late in life.

The original plumbing permit for the building shows construction complete at the end of September 1910, three years before the curbs and sidewalks were installed by local contractor Geibisch and Joplin, and well before the streets were even paved. According to the Polk City Directory, the Smyths opened their business in 1911 as a men’s furnishings store. By 1914, the listing had changed to dry goods and the Smyths were living six doors to the north, with the residence side of the new building rented out.

Mary Jane died on October 12, 1917 and her funeral mass was held at St. Charles Catholic Church, which was then located near the corner of NE 33rd and Webster, two blocks south of today’s Concordia New Seasons (the parish church relocated to NE 42nd years later following a devastating fire and financial hardships). After Mary Jane died, Michael took a rented room in the neighborhood and continued to run the dry goods store on his own until 1921 when he sold it for $3,375. Michael died on February 20, 1922.

 

The Coulters Take Over: Alameda Park Grocery

William and Isabella Coulter, immigrants from England via Canada, bought the business from Michael Smyth, having seen it advertised in the March 2, 1921 edition of The Oregonian as a “very fine bungalow-grocery.” They had shopkeeping experience from several years in Missoula, Montana. It’s unclear if they gave the store its name, or if they adopted the name used by the Smyths, but there it is, listed in the 1928 Polk Directory as the Alameda Park Grocery.

This is unusual for a couple reasons: 27th and Going is near but not actually inside the Alameda Park plat; and, there was a much more prominent store on the southwest corner of 24th and Fremont known as the Alameda Grocery. This must have been confusing, at least. No word about what that rivalry may have been like, but the 24th and Fremont business advertised widely with its name, and the bungalow grocery with its slight variation never shows up in any newspaper advertising or any other annual Polk Directory.

While the naming convention might have been confusing, we know it to be fact thanks to a photograph from David White, grandson of the Coulters, that clearly shows the name Alameda Grocery painted in big black letters on the side of the store. You can see the store and the letters here over the shoulder of these two best friends: William and Isabelle’s daughter Agnes is on the right and her friend Marjorie Ellis is on left. Taken about 1926, looking east on Going a few doors west of 27th. Photo courtesy of David White.

Looking south toward 27th and Going, 1926

William Coulter passed away in the mid 1920s, and Isabelle took over the business on her own, with help from daughter Agnes, until 1943. This 22-year period was probably the best era for this little building and its business: Isabelle ran a tight ship and took good care of the place.

Somewhere during the Coulter years, this incredible photo was taken, which we have paired with the same view today (spoiler alert for Part 3).

Isabelle Coulter, about 1930, 4601 NE 27th

Isabelle Coulter in front of her store, about 1930. Photo courtesy of David White. Click the photo for a larger view (there’s so much to see here you better take a closer look). Below, that same view today.

Alameda Park Grocery

 

From Retail to Church to Artist Studio

Charles and Vera Fiebke bought the property from Isabelle Coulter in 1943 and sold it on June 20, 1944 to Henry and Ruth Rieckers, who owned the business until 1953. During this time, the business was referred to as “Rieckers” and as “Rieckers Grocery.” A classified advertisement in The Oregonian on March 3, 1953 indicated the Rieckers were retiring and putting the business up for sale, asking $6,500.

On June 24, 1953, the property was purchased from the Rieckers by John Henry Moad and his wife Lucy Jane Moad. They operated the store—as Moad’s Grocery—until 1961 when it was sold to Robert A. and Louise M. Klatke, who changed the name to Bob’s Quik Stop Market. But not for long.

An article in The Oregonian on June 29, 1962 reports a robbery at Bob’s Quick Stop. Robert, age 56, was robbed with a knife to his throat. A few months later, he and Louise put the store back on the market, selling it to Agnes Martin on November 2, 1962. Sometime during the mid-1960s, the building ceased functioning as a store.

As we know from earlier posts here on the blog, this was the beginning of a tough time for mom and pop neighborhood grocery stores. The whole retail grocery business was changing and local grocery stores were quickly becoming convenience rather than primary shopping locations.

The Martin family owned the property for the next six years and at least one reference to the building shows it as the Mt. Zion Church of God in Christ. The Polk Directory for 1965 shows the building as vacant, and in 1967, it is listed simply as L.S. Martin. On September 17, 1968, the Martins sold the property to Carl E. Bass (son) and Viola Matheson (mother). Bass, who was a potter, turned the space into an artist’s studio and lived in the property until his death in April 2001 at the age of 73.

The property was purchased from the Bass estate by investor/developers George and Isabelle Zitcak, who held it for just four months before selling it in April 2002 to Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich. This is where the story gets interesting, which will be the subject of Part 3.

To whet your appetite for the next chapter of the bungalow grocery, we’ll leave you with this photograph, which shows just how far down the building had faded during its later years and why it was a leading candidate for the wrecking ball by 2002.

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The bungalow grocery at low ebb, about 2002. Photo courtesy of Chad Crouch.

Suffice to say that Mary Jane and Michael Smyth, and Isabelle Coulter, would probably have cried to see it in this shape.

Next up: Chad Crouch and Sheryl Eckrich bring the bungalow grocery back from the brink.

 

 

 

 

 

The early Alberta area and its bungalow grocery

First of three parts: Understanding the neighborhood’s early beginnings

We’ve been working on a fascinating property in the Concordia neighborhood, formally known as Lester Park (that’s not a typo, that’s an actual plat name).

It’s a store and home built by Irish immigrants and operated for several generations, eventually running out of retail energy in the 1960s when it became a church and then an artist’s studio before nearly collapsing from years of deferred maintenance and decline. We’re eager to share the fascinating story of this sweet little building—which has been lovingly restored—and an incredible photograph from the pinnacle of its retail life.

But first, we have to provide some context about the area that today might like to be known more for its hipness than the complicated polarity of change underway through gentrification, though both are present.

To be clear, the geography of the area in mind actually holds several of today’s formally named neighborhood associations: Humboldt, King, Vernon and Concordia, and the business district known as Alberta (which technically resides mostly within the Concordia neighborhood: think MLK to NE 33rd and Alberta to Killingsworth). But back in 1909, this whole area was a muddy, brushy flat that existed outside city limits and beyond what Portlanders thought of as their city.

If you lived up here in 1909, you were probably either a dairyman or the advance guard of development, and you could see the city creeping your direction. After the Lewis and Clark Exposition, Portland was booming with new residents and new construction, and hungry for relatively close-in developable land.

Here’s a hopeful word picture from H.D. Wagnon, Alberta’s number one promoter, in January 1910 that picks up the story from the perspective of a man on horseback riding through brush thickets in the area that helps provide proper context for our bungalow grocery story.

Alberta District Thrives, 1-9-1910

From The Oregonian, January 9, 1910

 If you opened up the real estate section from any Sunday edition of The Oregonian during these early days you’d find a flurry of advertisements for these desirable lots. The new streetcar provided access, the lots were affordable compared to other new subdivisions elsewhere in town, money was relatively available to loan during the rising economy of 1910, and people were flocking to the area.

Of course, this caused its own problems, documented a few months later in the June 26, 1910 edition of The Oregonian:

Alberta District Grows, 6-26-1910

From The Oregonian, June 26, 1910

 And by the end of 1910, Alberta was becoming so populated, neighbors were calling on the city to build a school.

School demanded, 12-25-1910

From The Oregonian, December 25, 1910

 The problem of education infrastructure lagging behind neighborhood development was a trend across the eastside, which was successfully raised and driven by active and engaged parents (particularly moms). One might think this equation would be clear enough for neighborhood developers (homes + kids = need for schools), but their focus was on business and the sales of lots represented profit while the construction of school buildings represented only cost. Secretary Wagnon, a promoter through-and-through still preferred to focus on the immediate positives:

“One cannot get beyond the sound of the hammer or the sight of piles of lumber in this district.”

We like that sound-picture and can absolutely imagine what it must have been like on a weekday morning, closing your eyes anywhere along Alberta and hearing hammering and construction in every direction. That little details tells its own story.

Against this backdrop of growth and growing pains, local residents started some new traditions with unintentional echoes in the life of the district today. Market fairs for produce and hand-made products were springing up mostly as a matter of necessity for local residents.

Market Opens Today, 6-20-1914

From The Oregonian, June 20, 1914

The open-air markets were a temporary fixture, but steady retail was shoring up its presence in the district. That’s where our bungalow grocery story will begin: construction of a store connected to a house at the northwest corner of NE 27th and Going, right in the heart of the construction boom.

Next up: In Part 2, 105 years ago, an older Irish couple moves to the neighborhood and opens a men’s clothing shop, which quickly becomes a neighborhood grocery.

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