Why Oak Grove's historic Philip T. Oatfield House matters
Today, the fate of the Philip T. Oatfield House (1903) hangs in the balance.
Some have given up on the registered Clackamas County Historic Landmark at 14928 S.E. Oatfield Road, Oak Grove, believing it to be inevitably destined for the dump.
To the contrary, in the course of visiting the house many times to document its place and history in Oak Grove, my appreciation of its architecture, innovation and craftsmanship has risen higher and higher. I share these comments not just to bear witness to its current state — but more, to celebrate its viability and its value in the community as a living marker of our shared history.
Even in a shabby state, the legacy of Philip Oatfield's house is no less important than that of the fine homes built by the area's earlier wave of Euro-American settlers along the river.
Construction of the house in 1903 was the proud achievement of an enterprising second-generation farmer and orchardist whose family was part of a stream of German-speaking immigrants to the U.S. during the last half of the 1800s. The Oatfield House was originally sited on a 100-acre working farm bequeathed to their son by his parents "with love and affection and [a cost of] five dollars." It was built for his bride Dora Jane Thiessen — and in planning it, Philip definitely married plain with fancy: his approach was as simple and practical as any farmer might wish — but it was also well-thought out, innovative and much fancier than most homes of the period — perhaps with thought for his wife-to-be.
The Oatfield House matters today because it is an historic touchstone worthy of reclamation.
It is the oldest hands-on evidence that the Oatfield family arrived, lived and farmed the ridge — establishing a solid foundation for the community that rose around it.
It is a physical point of origin for a name applied to broader geographic associations.
It is an example of period architecture, innovation and craftsmanship which still shines through its neglected condition.
The house and family factor substantially in the story of our community: the influx of German speaking newcomers; clearing the ridge for agriculture; establishing schools, safe water, roads and rural telephone service; the habit of civic engagement and leadership; adaptation to changing market access via wagon, steamboat, Territorial then market roads, rail and highway.
About the Oatfield family
The Oatfield family story is nothing less than an American success story. As a teen in 1853, his father Michael Haberfellner came to the United States from Linz, Austria, with his family, first settling with them in Illinois. They were early arrivals in what would become a flood of German speaking immigrants during the ensuing 50 years.
By age 27, Michael had Americanized his name and set out across the country to reach Oregon where, in 1862, he signed on to work at a Milwaukie sawmill.
In 1867, Michael won the hand in marriage of Minerva Jane Thessing, daughter of the only medical doctor in the area. Together they raised six children and had a dog named Rastus. Twice, the houses Michael built for his family burned down — first in 1880 and again in 1881 when the family lost virtually everything, including a considerable stock of seeds and a winter's worth of smoked and cured meats. The family did save Michael's guns, some fire tongs — and their only daughter, Amanda.
Michael worked the land, first clearing then planting fields of wheat and oats and dozens of fruit trees. In the early days he maintained rain or shine passage on the Territorial Trail, then Market Road that ran directly through his farmstead. In 1890, he offered up an acre of land (for $175) on which the third District 28 school (Concord School) could be built. Active in local civic affairs, two sons, Philip and John, served on local bank and school boards and did business together as the Oatfield Brothers well into the 1930s. The brothers were instrumental in establishing the Oak Lodge Water District (1922) and initiating rural telephone service with offices in Oak Grove.
Michael became the farmer he wanted to be, and so did Philip and John. Having accompanied her doctor father on rounds as a young woman, Minerva served as a midwife for many dozens of families as she raised her own six children. In 1932, at the age of 80, she was elected Oregon Pioneer Mother; four years later and four years older in 1936, she was named Mother Queen of the 64th Reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association at Champoeg.
The Oatfield name
Years later, the Oatfield name still echoes in and beyond the local precincts of either Michael Oatfield's original farmstead or Philip and Dora Oatfield's house in Oak Grove.
Besides being attached to the spine of our principle geographic feature (Oatfield Ridge), Oatfield Road was named and became an important arterial in Clackamas County as early as 1890 —probably because Michael lobbied so hard and often for its improvement. Today, the once dusty (or muddy) track is now a well used north/south alternative to McLoughlin Boulevard (Highway 99E). The ridge route stretches five miles from north to south; starting from the city of Milwaukie's Lake Road/Kellogg Creek neighborhood, it runs south through Gladstone and onto that city's junction with Interstate 205.
Importantly, the U.S. Census Bureau has designated the better part of three census tracts (a geographic area of 3.4 square miles) as "Oatfield" — telling us that in the year 2010, 13,415 people lived in our neighborhood in 5,516 households.
Less reassuring, the Oatfield Fault Zone runs for 30 miles along Skyline and Germantown roads through Bonny Slope in the Portland area — posing a genuine danger in the event of earthquake activity. (Ironically, it is the Portland Hills Fault Zone that runs from Forest Park and the West Hills under the Willamette River to Milwaukie, then on through our neighborhood to end a mile south of the Clackamas River.)
In the private sector, Oatfield Estates, situated entirely within the highest reaches of Michael Oatfield's original holding, has a sweeping view and a national reputation for innovation in the field of senior care. The Estates would definitely be a safe haven — located as they are on Oatfield Island — that smallish hump above water level were the area ever subject to a return of the great Missoula Floods. Currently, the hilltop rises about 300 feet above the Willamette River.
An architectural gem
The house's Colonial Revival heart, embellished with touches of Queen Anne ornamentation, tags the 1903 Philip Oatfield House as a transitional structure — one that bridges the distance between the ornate preferences of an earlier Victorian Era and simpler styles of both the past and a future that still lay ahead.
Called a "Pyramid House" by preservationists, the Oatfield House has the same characteristic four-sided hip roof, a squarish footprint and full-width front porch that other Pyramids do. Its distinctions, however, place it among the most elaborate examples of the type. To my knowledge, Oatfield's is the sole one-and-a-half-story version of a Pyramid.
Economical to build and generally smaller and far less ornate than the Phil Oatfield House (whose living room alone is a generous 17-by-26.5 feet in size), lesser Pyramids once filled the needs of many working-class families. Typically, these had a hip roof and four-room layout, a single chimney and the ubiquitous front porch across the front elevation.
Two-story examples of the Pyramid style are commonly known as Four Squares and look much as though Oatfield's one-and-a-half-story dwelling popped up to gain four additional rooms in place of a half-story attic. It's thought that Pyramid-style houses came West with immigrants from the northernmost southern states — e.g., Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri — in the 1880s. Variations of both Pyramid and Four Square styles continued in popularity well into the 1920s.
Rotting porches, broken windows and garbage strewn around upstairs and down in the Oatfield House are hard to overlook — it has been a haven for vagrants, after all — but once past that, the Philip Oatfield House reveals how well and carefully it was built in the early 20th century. These findings are based on observations made during March and April.
Nine porch columns of Doric design were lathe-turned and smoothly contoured from solid trees. Decorative corbels sandwich three layers of elaborate jig-cut wood; and evenly spaced dentils finish the porch frieze with a classic touch. According to an experienced estimator for the Emmert International house moving operation, all open porches would require removal before any relocation or site change should be tackled. The large 1975 addition on far east (or back) side of the house would also require demo/disposal prior to relocation.
Public rooms retain millwork of simple but high design — casements, baseboards, period trim, picture rails and crown moldings are much painted, dirty but intact. No simple plinth blocks finish off these window and door frames! Phil and Dora Oatfield's are topped with folky scalloped crowns. Woodwork is likely to be fir or pine — and was originally shellacked with a dark stain.
Front and back doors, painted black, have glass windows above and wood panels below. Trim bordering the bottom/top of each door window is ornate. The back-porch doorway was framed by glass side-lights and a transom reminiscent of much earlier Colonial styles.
Two chimneys — one for fireplace/hearth, the other presumably for a kitchen cook stove — emerge from the core roof which, at its ridge, is flattened instead of peaked. This small resulting "platform" was originally trimmed out with decorative cresting, leaving the impression of a tiny (but nonfunctional) widow's walk. Equally decorative snow fencing was installed less than a foot above the eaves on all four sides of the hip roof — lending it a look akin to fancier houses of the Victorian period. The current roof appears to be in good shape; no signs of interior ceiling leaks were seen. Emmert International rep indicated both chimneys would need to be removed before the structure could be moved safely.
Floors of the living and dining rooms are laid with fine straight grained spruce with little sign of separation, splitting or rot. Floorboards are laid in a wide border that parallels wall and hearth contours, neatly fitted together in herringbone fashion at each turn. Stairs that wind up and around the kitchen chimney are built tightly without creaks or flex. Each tread is cut at specific angles to make this turn, and no one is like another. The same craftsmanship is apparent in steps from kitchen to cellar and in tongue-in-groove treatment at kitchen-ceiling level below the attic staircase.
Comments on the Philip Oatfield property would be remiss if they failed to include mention of specimen trees that grow in the yard. Outside the kitchen window, an unidentified conifer is more than 3 feet in diameter. In the backyard, due east of the back porch, another conifer has a diameter of 3 feet, 8 inches. The old monkey-puzzle tree near the front porch is so tall that one must search out its branches high in sequoia limbs. Four giant sequoias that front the Oatfield property are even more impressive with diameters between 4.77 and 5.95 feet.
What the community stands to lose
Underneath the trash, dirt and broken glass, the Philip T. Oatfield House retains much to praise.
The surprising revelations of its unexpected architectural finesse — eg, Doric porch columns turned from whole trees; decorative corbels, dentils and the continuous frieze atop those pillars. A farmer's pride and achievement in spacious public rooms with ceiling heights of 11 feet, fitted with intact picture rails, crown molding, fluted casings/ baseboards and crown plinth blocks atop each window and door. The innovation of its porch system, sometimes open to weather, sometimes enfolded into the core of the house to enlarge a bedroom or to add a bath and pantry. The craftsmanship in its original construction: stairs built solidly with neither creak nor flex; tightly laid floors that frame the room with a generous border of 2 feet; kitchen walls/ceilings entirely encased in painted shiplap and attic walls in tongue in groove on all surfaces.
The name of the Oatfield family has been placed on the entire neighborhood, census area, its principle geographic feature and the primary arterial that runs through it — not to mention important geographic features that reach well beyond it. Loss of the house will erase a physical touchstone, a visible point of reference and connection affirming the family's foundational role in building this community. Equally important, loss of the house will utterly erase an intact, turn-of-the-century time capsule —unique for having stood so very long with so little alteration or modernization.
Planting four giant sequoias manifests the Oatfield family's vision, progressive leadership and influence in developing this community. No one, after all, plants a tree without anticipating what it will one day become. Likewise, no one departs from his home to cross the sea without giving themselves to the promise of something better.
Neither does one plant a crop or build a school, improve a road or ensure safe water to supply a community without caring deeply about it.
The Oatfield family's leadership and legacy in all these areas go hand in hand with milestones that shaped this community. The family's story will be diminished immeasurably if the house that Philip built for Dora is lost to the community these 100 years later.
Your chance to help save building
Is there a will in the Oak Lodge area to save an important but increasingly threatened piece of history called the Oatfield House? Can the legacy left to us by the Oatfield Family 100 years later become our legacy to the community of tomorrow?
The first fields on Oatfield Ridge were cleared and planted by them; the road named for them ran right next to the family's barn. The advent of rail made it possible for the Oatfield brothers to sell their produce as far away as the East Coast. Father, mother, brothers alike were early exemplars of our community's continuing habit of civic engagement. Truly, their story is our story, even today.
Plans are underway to further evaluate the house's viability, to widen community support and develop resources to preserve the Philip Oatfield House — a time-worn (but still intact) time capsule of the very early 1900s.