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Don't overlook Overlook history

TRIB TOWN: Neighbors take over at landmark house and keep parties going
by: L.E. BASKOW, The former home of 1920s Raven Creamery magnates Herman and Elvira Raven, Overlook House once again has become a bustling neighborhood asset and gathering place.

The wisteria that winds along a spiral staircase at North Portland's Overlook House is budding, signaling the beginning of what's stacking up to be a busy summer.

Since neighbors took over management of the historic home from Portland Parks and Recreation in 2003, it has become exactly what they envisioned: a bustling community destination.

The 1927 brick and stucco Tudor-style home sits on North Melrose Drive, a narrow, one-way street just off Overlook Boulevard. It's one of the few homes on the west side of the street, perched on the top of a bluff above the Willamette River.

The colorful cars at a rail yard on Swan Island can be seen from the home's backyard garden, but not for long. This summer, blooming rosebushes and rhododendrons will obscure the view and soften the noise, making the home the ideal setting for at least 100 weddings.

'From June to September, I only have three open weekend days for weddings,' says Carol Padden, event coordinator for Overlook House.

Padden arrived at Overlook House in 2004, a year after neighbors lobbied to manage the home rather than watch the city's parks agency shut it down.

Padden, an energetic and outspoken woman, was given the task of bringing the home to life, seven days a week. Her first year, she doubled the home's revenue by soliciting government agencies and private businesses to hold meetings at the old home for $37.50 an hour. She doubled revenue again last year.

'Kaiser (Permanente) practically lives here,' she says. 'I'm very popular during the week.'

Neighbors can meet for free

Padden rents out individual floors - the basement, main and second floors - on a daily basis for everything from business meetings to baby showers.

The tight schedule she keeps for meetings and weddings allows her some freedom to open up the home at no charge to neighbors: The local neighborhood association, a parents group, and yoga, tai chi and painting instructors get to use the space at no charge.

Although she is paid for her work, Padden considers herself a neighborhood steward to the home. Now 54, she once attended preschool in the basement of Overlook House.

'I also knew this house for holiday events, like Christmas and Easter,' Padden says.

Padden has returned the holiday events to the home, most recently holding an Easter egg hunt for neighborhood youngsters.

'Those little kids were so cute out there in their frog raincoats and matching boots,' she says. 'The parents asked to give donations, but I wouldn't let them.'

Padden is doing exactly what the neighbors had hoped for when they acquired management of the property, according to Alan Cranna, a member of the Overlook House board of directors.

'We wanted this to be a community house again,' he says. 'Over the years, Parks got the community stuff out of here.'

Cranna was one of six Overlook neighbors who lobbied in 2003 to manage the home themselves after Parks and Recreation announced it would discontinue $14,000 worth of annual programming at the house due to budget cuts.

Cranna says he couldn't bear to see it close. He has lived in the Overlook neighborhood all his life, and much of his childhood is tied to the old home.

His mother, who moved into the neighborhood from Canada in 1927, attended Sunday tea socials there. And Cranna has fond memories of occasional ice cream socials at the house with other neighborhood children.

The house a creamery built

Overlook House was built in 1928 and owned by Herman and Elvira Raven. They owned the Raven Creamery, once located at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Yamhill Street, where Pioneer Courthouse Square is today.

The couple was very active in their neighborhood, particularly Elvira, who organized women's art and quilting gatherings in their 4,200-square-foot home. She also hosted the annual Overlook Children's Parade, which ended at her home with an ice cream social.

Elvira Raven donated the home to Portland Parks and Recreation for $1 in 1951, several years before her death. Her instructions were to run the home as a community center.

Today, the parks agency merely holds the deed to the property and performing maintenance on the exterior. At least four nearby neighbors volunteer to maintain the garden, and four others serve as paid, on-call staff who help out at events and clean up afterward.

'Everybody is so hands-on for this house,' Padden says. 'They're my lifesavers.'

Now that Overlook House is bustling with business meetings and weddings, Padden and Cranna say their focus is to strengthen its position in the community.

They've already held one ice cream social and are planning another one for sometime this summer. Padden is particularly interested in expanding the parenting group so young families can use the home for many years.

'Those children are the future residents of this neighborhood who will take on the responsibility of this home,' she says. 'I want it to be a place of pride for them.'

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