Lead paint sinks Billy Rowe’s wall mural

We’ve heard from the property owner working on restoration of the former Billy Rowe’s Tavern building (recently known as Bernie’s Southern Bistro) at the southeast corner of NE 29th and Alberta.

Unfortunately, the mural on the west wall must go.

We’ve been watching this week as an amazing wall-size advertisement from the 1940s has resurfaced during restoration, and as we’ve learned more about Billy Rowe.

O’Cardinal Properties—the current building owner—was as amazed with the find as the neighborhood was, and intrigued with the possibility of incorporating the original material of the painted wall into the renovated space. But testing for lead late last week returned results that have ruled that out.

“We love the signs and would like to preserve it,” wrote O’Cardinal’s Property Manager Monica Geller in a weekend e-mail exchange.

“However, last week we got the paint tested for lead and it came back with extreme lead paint ratings that will not allow us to retain the mural as is, even with a strong clear coat intended to contain the lead paint.”

Geller and her colleagues are disappointed, especially given their interest and track record of adaptively re-using and renovating older buildings. In southeast Portland at SE 14th and Stark, O’Cardinal updated the 1929 Luxury Bread Building, carrying forward aspects of its history—including old siding, photos of the old bakery operation and family photos and stories from the former owners. Here’s a photo from inside Luxury Bread showing how O’Cardinal used a former painted mural there:

Repurposed wall siding inside the Luxury Bread Building recently restored by O’Cardinal Properties, 1403 SE Stark. Due to high levels of lead found in the Billy Rowe’s mural, something like this is not possible, according to O’Cardinal.

“We have a plan to take a hi-res photo and reproduce the image to use on the building to retain some of the heritage, “Geller continued.

“I know it is going to be hard for the neighborhood to see the boards come down,” she acknowledged, “but there is no feasible way for us to keep the mural in place, so it will be removed.”

One more for Billy Rowe

Like a giant postcard from 1946, the western wall of the former Billy Rowe’s Tavern reappeared yesterday at NE 29th and Alberta as workers removed shingle tiles during a major building renovation. When we visited yesterday morning, workers had exposed the vibrant colors of the Coca-Cola ad painted in 1946, but something more had yet to be revealed. Check it out:

The former Billy Rowe’s Tavern, in restoration November 25, 2020.

Naturally, we wondered about Billy.

William Chauncey Rowe and wife Doris Isabelle Rowe opened the tavern at 2904 NE Alberta in 1943. Billy was a commissioner in the Boy Scouts, a member of the Portland Elks lodge and an active member in the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Doris was a member of the Elks Auxiliary. Before going into the tavern business, Billy was vice president of Ballif Distributing Company, a beer distributor based in southeast Portland.

Maybe he’s one of the overcoats here in this photo, from the incredible collection of Oregon Journal photos at the Oregon Historical Society. This photo is not specifically dated, but caption information indicates sometime between 1933-1941 (old car aficionados could probably pin that down, guessing late 1930s).

Photo credit: Oregon Journal Negative Collection; Org. Lot 1368; Box 372; 372A1164

After leaving Ballif Distributing, Billy and Doris operated the tavern until their sudden death on the night of January 2, 1951 in a road accident north of Klamath Falls while returning to Portland. Newspaper reports describe a head-on crash in icy conditions. They were survived by two sons, Earl and Calvin.

The tavern appears to have passed out of Rowe family hands after that, but the name stuck (perhaps because it was painted in three-foot letters across the side of the building…the place was a local institution). In 1957, new owner Joseph Hoover was arrested on charges of promoting gambling on the premises and having a horoscope machine that made small payoffs to customers. Later that year, Portland City Council refused to renew Hoover’s tavern license.

Sometime after that–perhaps when the shingles went up on that west wall covering up Billy Rowe’s name–the place transitioned to Duke’s. Any AH readers able to share a story from the Billy Rowe era?

Update: On December 6th, the owners let us know the mural wall will have to come down due to high levels of lead paint. Click here to read more.

Peeling back the layers

We always love to see layers of history being revealed in buildings and places we think we know. Check out this view from today’s walk up Alberta. Here we are at the southeast corner of Alberta and NE 29th, the building that used to house Bernie’s Southern Bistro.

Looking at the west side of the building from NE 29th. Sunshine!

Workers were carefully removing the green shingles, exposing a huge advertisement for the real thing painted directly onto the original shiplap siding.

According to the permit, it looks like the building is getting a complete renovation, with all interior walls, stairs and fixtures on both floors coming out; construction of a new stair, an upgrade to the old storefront and a complete seismic upgrade. Big job.

Built in 1921-1922 by D.L. Duncan, the building housed multiple businesses in its early days: a repair shop, a shoe store, a print shop. In its middle years and most recently it’s been a place to meet for a drink or a meal. From about 1940 until the late 1960s, it was Billy Rowe’s Tavern and then Duke’s Tavern before becoming Bernie’s Bistro.

Small lettering just below the real thing suggests this advertisement was from the Billy Rowe’s era. Can you read the lettering? Looks like June 11, 1948. We know a few sign painters and will ask around for insights…there’s more to this story.

Alberta was a busy place in the 1920s-1930s. Research we’ve done shows that in 1930, there were more than 200 businesses on Alberta between MLK and NE 33rd, from pool halls to bakeries to grocery stores.

Here’s a post-script on Billy Rowe with another photo of the building later in the day.

Just for fun–and you’ll be forgiven for being distracted by what’s in the foreground–here’s another view of the same building. Yep, that’s the corner of Billy Rowe’s Tavern there on the left by the streetcar, on February 3, 1948, at NE 29th and Alberta. The photo was published in the Portland Transit Company’s 1947 Annual Report to illustrate the end of an era. The caption: “Walt Baker, trolley skipper since 1911, greets Merritt Lutman, pilot of a new Mack bus.”

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