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Dr. Sellwood's Organ: The Melody Lingers On

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


“Dr. Sellwood was a musician. Every local resident knew he had a pipe organ in his home on the corner of Thirteenth and Harney, and people passing the house on a summer evening would stop and listen to the sweet strains.” – From the obituary of Dr. John Sellwood, THE BEE, May 5, 1944

A highly-regarded Inner Southeast resident, John J. Sellwood, M.D., was the nephew of the Rev. James R.W. Sellwood, who, in 1882, sold his 320-acre parcel of land to a real estate company that subsequently developed the property and named the plat for him.

Although he was born in Oregon City in 1866, John moved to Portland at age twelve with his parents. His father, John W. Sellwood, was an Episcopal priest who served as chaplain and music instructor at the Bishop Scott Academy, a private boys’ school in Northwest Portland. It was probably from his father that young John learned to read music and play the piano and organ – he would have been hard-pressed to find time to develop those abilities later in life.

By the age of 21, he had earned a medical degree from the Willamette University Medical School in Portland, followed by additional surgical training in Chicago and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He gained practical experience as physician and surgeon on vessels of the Canadian Pacific Company, sailing between Vancouver, B.C., and Hong Kong. He then worked in Los Angeles and Chico, California – and after marrying Mary Hunder, the couple moved in 1893 to Sellwood, which was at the time a small, independent town.

They settled into their first home (now a hardwood flooring shop) on S.E.13th near Harney Street. Dr. Sellwood purchased a drug store, and began building a medical practice – as a general practitioner, surgeon, and obstetrician. His obituary in THE BEE credited him with performing the first Caesarean delivery in Portland.

The streetcar line that had opened in the neighborhood in the year before the Sellwoods’ arrival stimulated the growth of the small town, which by 1897 had been annexed into the City of Portland. The only hospital in the city, Good Samaritan, was six miles away; and, in 1905, the doctor felt the area could support a hospital of its own.

By 1907, two hospital buildings, a wooden structure followed by one of brick, were in place on Harney Street, east of Thirteenth Avenue. Soon after, a separate dormitory was added for the twenty nurses being trained by the doctor. In 1907 he took up a suite of offices on the upper floor of the new Sellwood Bank building at the corner of 13th and Umatilla Streets.

In today’s language, the doctor might be described as a “workaholic”. When he and his wife built a new home, it was not in the quiet and modern new Westmoreland area to the north, but on the busiest street in the neighborhood, next to his hospital. Harney could justifiably have been renamed “Sellwood’s Street”, because the row of buildings, owned by the physican, lined the length of Harney for two blocks, east from Thirteenth. It culminated at his place of worship, St. John’s Memorial Episcopal Church.

According to diocese records, it was rare for an Episcopal Church to be named after a minister. But in 1893, members of the Sellwood family wished to commemorate Dr. Sellwood’s father, the Rev. James R.W. Sellwood, who had died at the age of 52 in 1892. They provided the initial funds to construct the church, which was completed and consecrated in the autumn of 1893. A large, double-gable wooden structure, it occupied the northeast corner of Harney Street at Fifteenth, across from the Sellwood School.

By the end of 1907, the doctor had his residence, his place of employment, and his house of worship, all in a two-block line – an unusual situation. When not teaching or attending his patients, the doctor was the most active and visible member of St. Johns Memorial. He played music for Sunday services, formed and led and adult and boys choirs, and gave concerts on the church organ. When the building opened, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Corner donated a “cabinet” organ, more commonly known as a parlor, pump, or reed organ.

The enthusiastic support of the Sellwood family was not enough to sustain the congregation, which struggled to increase membership and financial support. By 1912, it was reduced to “mission” church status, and the property was transferred to the diocese bishop. The dwindling membership continued to worship in their church until late in 1924. At some point after that, it was demolished.

A BEE article in 1915 announced “the first of a series of recitals. Immediately after evening prayer at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Dr. Sellwood will play [several] numbers on the organ.” It is not known if the church organ had been upgraded from a parlor organ to a pipe organ, but around 1916 Dr. Sellwood had a pipe organ installed in his home at 13th and Harney Streets. Built for him by the Estey Organ Company, of Brattleboro, Vermont, it was shipped in pieces, well-cushioned in wooden crates, and assembled in the Sellwood house.

Although he sold his hospital in 1925 to his partner Dr. John Besson, Dr. Sellwood continued his private practice and he and Mrs. Sellwood remained in their home on 13th Avenue. In 1938 his wife died, and within two years the doctor remarried and moved to a modest house on S.E. 36th street in Eastmoreland. Soon afterward, he fell, never completely recovered from the injury, and died at the age of 78.

While the church disappeared 80 years ago, and the final hospital building was demolished in 2003, Dr. Sellwood’s home – now 105 years old – is still in use. Appropriately, it has served for a decade as offices for the medical professionals at Sellwood Medical Clinic.

Although much of the interior space has been reconfigured, a large room on the east side of the structure retains its homelike ambience. It now serves as a waiting area, but feels like the library that it once was. It may also contain materials salvaged from the doctor’s beloved Episcopal church. The walls are lined with dark oak panels that terminate in a modified gothic arch, a motif more common in ecclesiastical than domestic architecture. And an office at the northeast corner of the building features what appears to be a section of a stained glass window from a church.

Although currently used as an examining room, the space that housed the pipe organ is easily detected. The corner room of the building at S.E. 13th and Harney Streets has a pair of French doors that open onto Harney. On the western wall is an Arts & Crafts-style, tiled fireplace, with two decorative tiles featuring “medieval” instrumentalists. It is easy to imagine the doctor playing “In the Twilight”, “Andante con moto”, “Marche Romaine”, or Handel’s “Largo” there.

And now, if a spirited nonprofit group of performing artists in Astoria is successful, it may soon be possible to hear, once again, the music of Dr. Sellwood’s Estey pipe organ. It still exists, and now it is in Astoria!

I’ll continue the story in the February issue of THE BEE: The Saga of Guenther Organ #1429 – how Dr. Sellwood’s organ reached Astoria.