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Hard-wired for history

• Hardware-store owner gives old house parts a chance at new life - and in process, reveals some stories
by: KATIE HARTLEY, Surrounded by the fittings of old buildings and homes, Bret Hodgert, owner of Old Portland Hardware & Architectural, enjoys helping elements of others’ built history move into new spaces and lives.

Lamps that predate electricity dangle from the high ceilings of Old Portland Hardware and Architectural, a store that opened this fall in Southeast Portland.

Stained-glass windows, from the days when glassmakers used secret formulas for coloring their deep-hued glass, hang from the rafters and bare wooden walls.

If they could speak, carved doors with leaded glass and carpenters' signatures might tell tales of what went on behind them, their stories connected to families across the United States.

Proprietor Bret Hodgert, 40, has a fascination with the old and unusual that began when he was a child.

'I lived in a boring '70s home without a television,' he says. 'I spent my time reading science fiction and fantasy books, and anything unusual inspired my sense of discovery and aroused my curiosity. I wanted to know more than what something was for. Where had it been? Who used it? Touched it? Whose life was it a part of?'

Hodgert asks the same questions of the items he collects to sell in his store. 'These old artifacts from buildings tell us how people used to live and what mattered to them,' he says. 'We can get a feel for their sensibilities and sense of aesthetics if we pay attention and ask questions.'

He opens a display case and takes out a claw foot clutching a purple glass orb. The foot is part of a set of four iron feet, each bearing the face of the North Wind.

'An old rockhound hunting for rocks in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Oregon stumbled across a table buried in the sand,' Hodgert says. 'Only these claw feet were visible. He dug all around them and found that they were attached to a table that was at least 80 years old. It's likely that a family on a wagon train left it behind to lighten their load. It stayed there undiscovered for decades.'

The glass, once clear, turned purple from the sun's rays. The brass plating also faded under the sun's light, revealing the iron at the claws' core. The tabletop, buried under sand, was eaten away. Destroyed.

'The claw feet, though, survived, and they're just waiting for the right furniture maker to discover them,' Hodgert says.

Wood tells children's stories

Some stories are heart-rending, and the cedar fir Hodgert used to panel the main room of his store has tragedy etched into it.

'This wood,' he says, sweeping his arm to indicate the length of the showroom, 'came from what was originally called the Oregon State Institution for the Feeble Minded. Later, the name was changed to the Fairview Training Center.'

When a friend asked him if was interested in salvaging any of the wood before the two buildings were torn down, he hurried over.

'There wasn't much left to harvest by then' he says, 'but I found 1-by-6 cedar fir - some up to 22 feet long - in the attics.'

There was no electricity available while Hodgert removed the wood, and the only light came from the dormer windows. As he began disassembling the rooms, one piece of wood at a time, he noticed each attic had a row of hooks down one wall.

Above each hook names were stenciled in black block letters or written in crayon. K Wright. L Mitzel. L Eggers. G Barker. T Snider. Curious, he did some digging and discovered a dark part of Oregon's treatment of developmentally disabled people, many of them children.

From research he did on the Internet, Hodgert discovered that the first inhabitants of the building, which was built in the early 1900s, were mainly children with disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy and even fetal alcohol syndrome.

'These kids were so stigmatized, their parents would bring them in and never even come back to visit,' Hodgert says, shaking his head. 'Sometimes, nurses would meet them in the driveway, and the parents would simply hand them over and drive away. It's as if they never existed. They were disappeared.'

Scrawled notes stay intact

According to the Oregon Blue Book, in the early '20s the Board of Eugenics formed, and 'legislation provided for the sterilization of all feeble-minded, insane, epileptics, habitual criminals, moral degenerates, and sexual perverts who are a menace to society.'

When the children became sexually mature, they, too, were sterilized. From his research, Hodgert has deduced that it is likely the hooks in the attic held the few extra pieces of clothing the children owned, most likely jackets or coats.

'And on the floor underneath their hooks, they probably kept a pair of boots or an extra pair of shoes.'

Hodgert sees keeping things alive as one of his roles as a merchant of the past, and so when he installed the wood in his store, he kept the hooks and names intact.

'These children were simply disappeared from their families,' he says. 'I left their names and hooks in the wood to bring the kids into the public light, to give them a chance to interact with other people, even if it's just symbolically.'

He climbs a ladder to read writing barely visible, messages crudely scrawled, furtively with pencil in an attic room. 'Miss Jeanette Gorselin is my own mother who died in 1914.' 'Miss LA Snyder is her sister. She is Elsie's mother.' 'I am jealousy (sic) of boys who had go with family today.'

While Hodgert hopes that a family member might come in someday and recognize a name on the wall, he thinks it's unlikely.

'These kids were written out of their genealogy,' he says. 'Their siblings might not have ever known they existed.'

History adds value

One of Hodgert's more recent finds was a range of fixtures and architectural features from an old Victorian mansion in Northwest Portland, circa 1890.

He runs his hands over a door casing that came from the mansion. 'I have 25 of these door casings from that house,' he says. 'All the Victorian millwork, the likes of which I've never seen before, was intact. I also have the front and back doors to the house, with their original Eastlake hardware.'

He also has Victorian hinges, floor registers and lighting from the mansion. 'It's a little overwhelming that all this stuff was in one house,' he says. 'It's not just the cake, it's all the frosting on it as well.'

Hodgert is philosophical about a developer converting the Victorian mansion that once housed these treasures into condos.

'One building's loss will be other buildings' gains,' he says. 'I look at it as dispersing the stories more widely. Now someone else can put these historic details into their own homes. Their family's stories will blend with the stories of the families who once lived in the old Victorian that held all these incredible pieces.'

Hodgert has great respect for the craftsmanship that went into the architectural fixtures he sells.

He says: 'Some people come in here and see an old fireplace mantel and say, 'Oh, $800 is too much. By the time I have it installed and have tile work done, it could cost me as much as $2,000.' Yet this same person leaves the store and spends the same amount of money on a computer that will be landfill within two years.

'These pieces from the past not only have history, they also will add more than double their cost when the home is sold. And most important of all, they become part of a family's story, a child's memory. The things I sell have been around for more than a hundred years, and I'm doing my best to make sure they're around for at least another hundred.'


Old Portland Hardware and Architectural

Where: 4035 S.E. Division St.

503-234-7380

Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday- Sunday