Oregon Home Builders Company: The rest of the story

If you’ve been following along on our exploration of the various builders who shaped our neighborhoods long ago, you’ve seen the pieces we’ve written about both the Oregon Home Builders Company and their factory building at NE 33rd and Broadway. This high-profile Portland company built more than 100 beautiful homes during its five years of operation from 1912-1917.

When we first dove in with both feet to explore the company, its people, its houses and its legacy, we were hooked by their compelling story; by their five-year arc from an auspicious launch with great promise, to their design and construction of durable and beautiful homes, to an embarrassing end, crashing in a mess of bankruptcy, unfulfilled promises and questionable business practices.

From The Oregonian, May 13, 1917

Recently we’ve come across some further insight which confirms our belief there was something fishy about company finances that led to their demise, despite their quality designs and construction methods.

A bit of background is necessary to fully appreciate this, so bear with us:

One of the fine homes the company built was for eastern industrialist Thomas Prince: it’s called the Thomas Prince House and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and we’ve written about it here.

From The Oregonian, July 22, 1917

Prince was a wealthy and successful captain of heavy industry from Massachusetts. In 1895, he retired to Oregon with a small fortune and with his son to grow walnuts near Dundee, which he did on a grand scale. By the time Oregon Home Builders was formed in 1912, he was 72 years old. Company president Oliver K. Jeffrey knew him from real estate circles and somehow convinced him to serve on the company’s board and to invest his own funds in getting the company started.

From the Oregon Daily Journal, November 15, 1907

The company built a house for Thomas Prince in perhaps the most visible place in the Alameda Park subdivision: right at the top of Regents Hill at the crest of the ridge where the Broadway Streetcar passed by dozens of times a day. It was a trophy house for the company, built to show investors and potential clients they knew what they were doing.

When this house was built in 1916, Prince was 76 years old and in ill health physically and cognitively. He lived there only briefly, before dying of a stroke in California. But still, it’s the Thomas Prince House—as it should be—named for its first owner and occupant. Somehow, in Prince’s final years, the persuasive Jeffery convinced him to invest in the company at a very large scale. We’ve recently come across court documents that provide a bit more insight about what happened.

Oliver K. Jeffrey, 1916. From the Photographic Business and Professional Directory, American Publishing Company, 1916.

Thanks to an Oregon Supreme Court Case heard on appeal of a Multnomah County Circuit Court ruling about Prince’s guardianship, we’ve learned the full story about where the company’s money was coming from. Read on:

“In 1915 his [Prince’s] faculties had become impaired by ill health and advanced age, in which condition he was induced by one O. K. Jeffrey to consent to finance the construction of dwelling-houses situated upon lots in Portland, Oregon, which lots, were acquired or controlled by Jeffrey. The money so advanced was to be repaid upon the sale of the dwellings so constructed. The enterprise was conducted under the unincorporated firm name of Oregon Home Builders, Jeffrey being the active head thereof: the dwellings did not sell readily, and from its inception, the concern lost money.”

“In May, 1917, Mr. Prince suffered a stroke of paralysis, in connection with which he was compelled to undergo a surgical operation, whereby he was confined in a hospital for several months. During that time, Jeffrey acquired a tract of land, and while Mr. Prince was convalescing the Oregon Home Builders erected a plant thereon for the manufacture of aeroplanes; Jeffrey prevailed upon Mr. Prince to advance the funds required to construct the plant and also to agree to advance the money necessary for the weekly pay-roll of those employed in the manufacture of aeroplanes, amounting to about $1,000 per week.”

Former Oregon Home Builders warehouse and workshop at NE 33rd and Broadway, briefly a factory to build World War 1 aircraft parts. Photo taken in 2012.

You may have known this building as Gordon’s Fireplace Shop, now closed. Oregon Home Builders built and used this building for almost two years as warehouse and workshop where the company constructed its built-ins and kitchen cabinetry until Jeffery transformed it—briefly in 1917 until funding reality caught up—into a place where spruce aircraft parts were built.

Photos from a January 1, 1918 spread in The Oregonian about the factory.

In an August 5, 1917 story in the Oregon Journal, Jeffrey was quoted as saying his workers were cutting 25,000 board feet of spruce parts daily for airplane stock and that the product would be shipped to eastern finishing plants. He told reporters: “Large orders for finished material have been secured by my company and the present force of 26 men will soon be doubled.”

Many different products have been manufactured in this building over the years: excelsior, pasta, furniture. It’s even hosted street-facing retail including barber shops and diners.

But let’s get back to the Oregon Supreme Court document for the clincher:

“By January 1, 1918, Mr. Prince had advanced in cash to the Oregon Home Builders about $157,000, and in addition had incurred a number of large obligations.”

“In part payment of the funds so advanced, Jeffrey, in the name of the Oregon Home Builders, conveyed to Mr. Prince, at excessive prices, nineteen or more dwelling-houses in Portland, Oregon, with the land upon which they were situated and a tract of acreage in Clackamas County, also eight sales contracts for the sale of dwelling-houses. All of the properties so transferred were already encumbered. Mr. Prince was compelled to borrow large sums to meet the demands for money made by Jeffrey.”

The brief goes on, but to summarize, a Prince family member from back east came to help the ailing Thomas, saw what was going on and immediately shut down the airplane factory and established a guardian for Prince, cutting Jeffery off.

This is what was actually going on behind the scenes, not reported on by any of the papers. And here’s what it looked like in The Oregonian during that time, with Jeffery as the prominent young businessman, patriot and pilot hero.

From The Oregonian, August 1, 1917

Did you catch the last two sentences? Sheesh.

“As president of the Oregon Home Builders, a concern which has gone far toward aiding those of small means in home building and owning, Mr. Jeffery is well known. The airplane factory is distinctly his own, although he will still retain his interest and presidency in the first firm.”

You can read the company history to see how it all ends (which we’ve updated with this new nugget). Proof that the early neighborhood-building years were a little crazy as investors and speculators jostled to get in on the profits.

At the moment—among several other research topics—we’re focusing in on another series of amazing neighborhood homes from the same era built by another company—Arnt Anderson’s construction company—which appears to have traveled a similar path, though Arnt was convicted and served time in a federal prison for larceny. More to follow.

Northeast Portland’s Aircraft Factory

Gordon’s Fireplace Shop, 3300 NE Broadway. Home of a former aircraft manufacturing plant owned by Oregon Home Builder’s President Oliver K. Jeffrey.

One of Alameda’s most prolific home building companies—The Oregon Home Builders, Inc.—is also responsible for building an aircraft manufacturing facility in the neighborhood that endures to this day.

You probably know this building as Gordon’s Fireplace Shop on the southeast corner of NE 33rd and Broadway. But in the late 19-teens, after serving as a workshop for house parts and domestic carpentry projects that now reside as built-in cabinets in homes across Northeast Portland, the building moved into full aircraft production mode and began churning out spruce struts, beams and braces for “flying machines.”

First a little context about Oregon Home Builders and its president Oliver K. Jeffrey…

There is much to be written about Oregon Home Builders, Inc.—and we’ve been on their trail for several years now—but suffice to say its owners had a big vision. They founded the company on a business model that involved selling shares of stock at .25 cents each to investors at large, and building and selling homes. They also built some of Alameda’s prized national register houses, including the Oliver K. Jeffrey House at Regents and Shaver, and the Thomas Prince House at Alameda and Regents. Others, including the George Eastman House on Stuart Avenue—designed and built by Oregon Home Builders—should be on the register.

In 1914, the company built 45 houses here in northeast Portland, and drew plans for many more. As a base of operations for this big vision, Oliver K. Jeffrey and his colleagues needed a workshop and warehouse near the market they were serving, and near transportation. So in 1915 they set out to build a warehouse on the Oregon Railway and Navigation Line in Sullivan’s Gulch, today’s Banfield corridor. Here’s a snippet that’s a tad fuzzy but readable from the January 17, 1915 pages of The Oregonian.

From The Oregonian, January 17, 1915.

But by 1917, O.K. Jeffrey’s passions—and the Oregon Home Builders warehouse—were focusing more on airplanes. A flamboyant character in Portland business and social life, and a man of means, Jeffrey received much coverage in the pages of The Oregonian during these years, whether in his role as a top Rosarian, his very public divorce proceedings, or his role as a brave tank commander during World War I. The story below in the August 1, 1917 edition focuses on the airplane factory building at 33rd and Broadway.

Click to read full size. From The Oregonian, August 1, 1917.

The O.K. Jeffrey story takes several more interesting turns, including bankruptcy for Oregon Home Builders by 1918, further innovations in aircraft design and operation, and his untimely death due to blood poisoning from a freak accident in December 1934.

Much more to come about Mr. Jeffrey, his company, and the homes they built, but back to the airplane factory in our midst.

Perhaps like us, you’ve driven by the building a million times and wondered about it. Following on that curiosity, and hoping for clues to the company that might have been forgotten in some nook or cranny in its upstairs floors, we dropped in for a visit over the weekend and can offer the following observations:

The folks at Gordon’s are helpful, and interested in the history of their building (which they’ve been in since 1990), but their collective memory of the building can’t see back around the corner of time. They do have a story here and there about a pasta manufacturing company that once inhabited the building. Some sense of the retail furniture company that operated there for 30 years. And a fabulous picture from 1929 that was first and foremost a portrait of Union Pacific Engine 17 coming around a bend in the track, but secondarily a picture of the building. See the distinctive brick pattern along the parapet? Look also how the building extends quite a ways east around the bend of the gulch.

Looking east in Sullivan’s Gulch on January 20, 1929 at Union Pacific Engine 17. The “Beaver State Furniture” building is no longer an aircraft parts factory. The building wraps around the rim of the gulch. Note also how much narrower the gulch is…widened in the 1950s to make room for the Banfield Freeway, requiring replacement of the viaduct. Photo courtesy of Gordon’s Fireplace Shop.

Check out this image below as well, which shows our aircraft factory building in 1956 as Erickson’s Furniture. The new viaduct associated with construction of the Banfield freeway (I-84).

Looking south on Northeast 33rd at Broadway. Construction of a new viaduct. Courtesy of City of Portland Archives. 

During our visit this weekend, we learned that the building houses the second oldest freight elevator in Portland, and it’s big. Like a two-car garage that levitates between the first and third floors. It doesn’t take much imagination to see it filled with furniture or spruce airplane parts. But pasta? Hmm.

A detailed look at aerial photography of the area over the years (with thanks to Ed McClaran), confirms that the building did indeed once extend east across what is today’s parking lot, and connected up with the building that now houses Rose City Furnishings in the 3400 block of Northeast Broadway.

The view from the top floor is impressive: both up and down Sullivan’s Gulch to the east and west. North across the busy intersection toward the Dolph Park neighborhood. But there are no hidden nooks or crannies with artifacts from Oregon Home Builders. It’s a tidy and well-organized warehouse on the upper floors. Here and there you can tell from marks on the floor where heavy machines and equipment may have been anchored, or workbenches secured to the walls.

No aircraft machinery to be found here. Just a warehouse for Gordon’s Fireplace Shop.

But the aircraft heyday of the building has passed and it stands on the north rim of Sullivan’s Gulch as an artifact itself while the busy intersection below surges with traffic and big development plans are underway for the blocks to the west. In the midst of the shuffle and change, it’s a time traveler with stories to tell.

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