An exercise in seeing

It’s been a busy fall around here with work on national register nominations, house history studies completed and underway, guided history walks and some river time. But not a lot of blog posting…time to get back in that groove.

We’ve just wrapped up the study of a 1911 “Colonial revival” style home in Irvington that reinforces the importance of looking at a thing long enough to actually see it. This is an important lesson whenever it arrives, and we appreciated it as such. We thought you might too.

Maybe you’ve seen this house: the stately white two-plus story home at the southwest corner of NE 21st Avenue and Knott. It’s just come on the market.

Viewed from Knott Street looking south, this house wants you know it’s in the Colonial Revival style, complete with the Georgian style doorway, bay window and upstairs shutters. Photo courtesy of Lulu Barker.

Below, the same house, viewed from NE 21st looking west, and in context with the house just to the south—which as it turns out is actually its twin, built at the same time by the same builder.

A good way to gauge the magnitude of change is to stand east of the two houses and compare, knowing they were built as Arts and Crafts twins originally in 1911. Photographed October 2022.

The two houses were built between November 1910-March 1911 by brothers-in-law James E. Coleman and Robert J. Ginn doing business as Coleman & Ginn. Both men were farmers with ties to Moro in Sherman County and had been drawn to Portland by its booming real estate business. The house to the south sold quickly, but the corner house with its front porch and entry facing NE 21st didn’t sell, so the Coleman family moved in for a few years until departing Portland for Moro during the economic downturn of the late 19-teens.

The next family—George and Hulda Guild—made some big changes. For the first few years, all their documents of record used the NE 21st Avenue address (which was 555 East 21st Street North, in the taxonomy of Portland’s pre-Great Renumbering address change).

But in the fall of 1920, all of the official documents for this house and the newspaper social listings stop reciting the NE 21st address and begin orienting to Knott Street. The formal entrance to the house had been shifted from the east-facing front porch entry of the original Arts and Crafts house on NE 21st Avenue, to a new Colonial Revival front entry facing north toward Knott Street.

This choice may have been driven in part by the rising popularity of the Colonial Revival style. By the early 1920s, large three-story Arts and Crafts homes were slipping out of vogue in favor of multiple revival styles. Another factor may have been the prestige of having a Knott Street address. Irvington homes facing Knott Street are typically grander than many of the homes on numbered streets, and perhaps George Guild, as president of Columbia Paper Box Company, would rather have resided on Knott Street than on 21st.

Whatever the reason, conversion would not have been simple. The distinctive Arts and Crafts dormers (on the north side) overhanging eaves and other architectural details were removed and the interior configuration and floor plan dramatically changed to accommodate entry from the north side of the house. There’s no documentation of this work on file with the city, so no record of date or extent, though a reasonable guess is the summer of 1920 when the Guilds started using their new Knott Street address.

Being able to see this transformation is all in how you look at it, where you look at it from, and the clues that history can bring, reminding us in a helpful way to question our perceptions and the things we think we know.

In an interesting post-script, this was also the home of Alfred Powers, one of Oregon’s best known authors, Dean of Creative Writing and Publishing for the Oregon university system, editor at Binford & Mort, and author of 18 books. During the years Alfred and wife Molly lived there (1942-1961), this house also held one of the largest private libraries in Oregon.

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