Five homes in the Alameda neighborhood were built by this multi-talented “moonlighting” florist during the boom years of the 1920s.
During the Great Depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, Alameda florist and home builder Carl F. Ruef lost his fight with his Alameda neighbors and the City of Portland to open a greenhouse and flower shop at NE 24th and Fremont. But his local handiwork survives as a testament to the resourcefulness of that time, the chutzpah of his big mid-life move, and the boom times of homebuilding in the mid 1920s.
Ruef built and lived in the Mediterranean-style home at 2208 NE Regents from 1924-1930 before building and moving into the small Tudor revival style home at 2425 NE Fremont. Both homes survive today and were bookends of his Alameda experience.
From The Small Home: Financing, Planning Building, Monthly Service Bulletin No. 41, July 1925. Published by The Architects’ Small House Service Bureau of the United States, Inc. This was the home of Carl F. and Florence Nichols Ruef from 1924-1930. Prior to Portland’s Great Renumbering of 1930-1931, the home was originally addressed as 742 Regents. Today it is 2208 NE Regents.
Carl F. Ruef was a first-generation American from German immigrant parents who was born in Claremont County Iowa on May 20, 1879 and grew up in Salem, Oregon. With his brother Edward, Ruef established the largest floral greenhouse operation in Oregon outside of Portland near the intersection of 17th and Market Street in Salem, with a retail storefront in downtown Salem. In the 19-teens Ruef, built a reputation as Salem’s leading florist, knowledgeable about all aspects of flower growing, gardening, and the cultivation of fruits and berries.
From the Capital Journal, October 31, 1916.
Carl Ruef lived at home with his parents until age 39, when in a bold moment after their deaths he sold the Salem greenhouses and florist business, married Statesman-Journal newspaper social columnist Florence Elizabeth Nichols (ten years his junior), had a baby daughter Mary, and moved to Portland.
Once in Portland, Ruef first appears in city directories as a gardener, living with wife and daughter at 2328 SE Yamhill Street. Evidently, he was also preparing to launch a career as a homebuilder. In 1923, he built 1832 SE Hazel (where the family lived briefly), and two homes that share a back fence: 3527 NE 29th Avenue and 2816 NE Ridgewood. In 1924, Ruef is listed in city directories as a builder; the Ruef family was living in the home he built at 2208 NE Regents, which still stands today.
This third home known to be built by Ruef—located on the southeast corner of NE 22nd and Regents—appeared in several publications, including a catalog of building plans published by the Architects’ Small House Service Bureau. Accompanying the 1925 photo above is the following short story and a quote from Florence Ruef about the house and its landscaping:
1924 was a busy year for new homebuilder Ruef: he built the Regents, Ridgewood and NE 29th Avenue houses and the home at 3834 NE 23rd.
Starting in December 1925, the Ruefs attempted to sell the Regents house for $9,000, advertising it as follows: “Choice Spanish bungalow, a positive sacrifice by owner, tile roof, oversize grounds, gas fired hot water heater, illuminated at night.”
But the Regents house didn’t sell and the Ruef family continued to live there until 1930 when they moved into the final home he built, the tiny English Tudor at 2425 NE Fremont.
Meanwhile in the late 1920s, Ruef turned back toward the floral business, opening and then later selling the Irvington-Alameda Floral Company at 1631 NE Broadway.
The Great Depression years of the early 1930s were a challenging time for the Ruef family and for most families in Portland. They continued to live in the small English Tudor on Fremont where they rented out one of the three tiny bedrooms for $12 per month. On March 22, 1931 Ruef advertised the room for rent in one part of the classified ads, and in a different section sought a loan offering the house as collateral: “Want $2,750 on $8,000 new residence, 6 percent no brokerage fee.” He was evidently trying to capitalize a new floral business.
Working out of the small house on Fremont, Ruef attempted to turn his florist know-how into an income stream for his family, initially growing flowers in the backyard and eventually seeking city permission to put up a small sign advertising the business, and later to convert the garage into a greenhouse.
From The Oregonian, May 13, 1931
In May 1931 he requested a zone change and permission to put up a sign for his flower business facing Fremont: the lot to the west, location of today’s Childroots Daycare, was vacant during those years as was the residential lot to the east. But neighbors didn’t like the idea of businesses in the Alameda Park Addition period, stemming in part from the original deed restriction prohibiting businesses in the neighborhood, and complained to the city which in December shut down both the sign request and later the zone change which would have allowed Ruef to open a small flower shop.
From The Oregonian, December 31, 1931
This annotated photograph from a rainy day in 1935 (click to enlarge) shows the home Ruef built at 2425 NE Fremont where he wanted to establish a flower shop, and the home he built in 1924 at 2208 NE Regents in upper left. The vacant lots either side of the Fremont house would have been perfect for the greenhouse he had in mind. Note: the Broadway Streetcar waiting at the corner of Fremont and 24th in front of the Alameda Pharmacy; the gas station on the northwest corner; and the vacant lots on both the southeast and northeast corners. Original photo courtesy of Portland City Archives, A2005-005.1421.2. For more views of this intersection, click here.
Due to the strong neighborhood opposition, the Ruefs gave up on the home-based business idea and in 1932 rented space at 3125 East Burnside for a new business, Carl Ruef Floral. They continued to live at 2425 NE Fremont and grow some flowers under a revocable city permit. The 1940 census found all three there, listing Carl at age 60, proprietor of a florist shop; Florence, 48, was keeping house; and daughter Mary, then 20, was a model of ladies’ apparel.
From the Oregon Journal, August 29, 1939
When Carl died suddenly one year later in December 1941, the family was living at 1412 SE 25th. His death certificate notes he was a “retired florist and landscape architect.”
Florence and Mary continued to live together until 1943, when Mary moved to Chicago with her new husband Howard Fay, and Florence remarried Portland railroad dispatcher Olof Olsson. Mary was back in the Portland area in the mid 1970s, remarried after her first husband’s death, working as a real estate agent until her own passing in 1985. Florence lived briefly in the late 1950s with her new husband in a Las Vegas trailer park before returning to the Portland area where she died in 1989 at age 100.