by: EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - In the spring of 2013, the 1915 Sellwood Library structures rehabilitation was complete - ready for its new owner to move in. Even the enormous ash tree was saved.There is some truth to an observation made to me by a friend, that “a bad economy is good for old buildings.”

He meant that during a recession, the real estate market often slows, homeowners stay put, banks are cautious in their lending, and new construction freezes. A property owner who is inclined to replace an old building may wait until the banks loosen up on construction loans, and cautious buyers are ready to borrow. It now appears the tentative predictions about an improving economy may be true, as reflected in the rise in demolition and building permits, and Dumpster rentals.

The first indication of economic rebound are the surveyors markers. Like spring tulips, the stakes appear on property corners, flashing bright pink tape or paint, in lieu of green leaves.

If the For Sale sign reads “Sold”, and the house is old, small, or has suffered from deferred maintenance, take some photos immediately – because the next step may be an excavator, followed by dump trucks hauling away the ground-up house, now destined for biofuel or landfill.

However, if a dump box is dropped instead, this usually means a new roof, or remodeling. Unfamiliar vans and pickup trucks will materialize, and neighbors’ days fill with the sound of power tools for months to come, but an upgraded house next door is a likely result.

But as the economy improves, demolition is certainly on the rise in Inner Southeast. The historic Black Cat Tavern at S.E. 13th Avenue at Umatilla Street in Sellwood will depart in August. The future of the first church in the neighborhood – Sellwood Methodist, on Tacoma Street (established in 1885) – has been in limbo, although it now appears it is being bought by another church, and may remain a house of worship. Meantime, as you probably have been noticing, numerous old houses are disappearing.

Since we just passed National Historic Preservation Month, it is a good time to point out two structures that appeared doomed, but were saved and restored. They are my own personal, local preservation success stories, and I hope readers will take heart.

The history of the first, the 1915 Sellwood Library, has been described in previous columns. This is a bungalow-style building at 1406 S.E. Nehalem, across from St. Agatha’s Catholic Church. It is a point of pride in our neighborhood that Sellwood had the first branch library in the City of Portland. It was organized in 1904 as a reading room by local residents, many of whom were parents who wanted books for their children, but couldn’t afford the nickel streetcar fare to the main downtown library.

Encouraged by the minister of the Sellwood Presbyterian Church, a handful of volunteers located a small storefront space on S.E. Umatilla Street, across from Sellwood School; and, with donated books, opened it for several hours a week, in the years 1905-07. They then they persuaded the Portland Library Association (PLA) to assume operation of the branch, which came with a part-time professional librarian, more reading material, and increased service hours.

By 1914 the library had outgrown its second rented space, and the PLA agreed to construct a purpose-built library. They provided plans which were duplicates of the Arleta Branch on S.E. Foster Road, which had been completed just the previous year. The same contractor built the Sellwood library, which opened in July, 1915, and became an important cultural institution. However, the Library Association had only leased the building from its private owner, and when the contract expired in 1965, the property owner decided to sell the building to a religious organization. Dismayed, residents rallied, located a 50x100 lot at S.E. 17th and Lexington Street, moved in an existing house, and a new library building opened within six months.

The religious group met in the old library for approximately 45 years, and made internal changes to the structure to suit their needs, but toward the end of their ownership, they did minimal maintenance. By the time it was put on the market in 2008, it looked forlorn, as moss covered the roof and ferns sprouted in the sagging gutters. Many potential buyers viewed the old structure, but were daunted by the prospect of converting it into a habitable dwelling, which including finishing a partial-dirt basement.

Finally, in 2011 as the structure became more decrepit and appeared headed for tear-down status, it was purchased. Milwaukie native Dennis Gilliam, VP of marketing for Bob’s Red Mill, and his wife, stepped up and remodeled the library as a home for their daughter, whose professional career has been centered for many years in Brooklyn, N.Y. She misses “home”, and the beautiful little library will welcome her back.

Although it was eligible, the Gilliams did not place the library on the National Register of Historic Places; but the quality of work that they have done would almost certainly have met most of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. The restoration of the 1915 Sellwood Library is an example of a thoughtful restoration of a very important historic building, and the Gilliams deserve a big Thank You for saving this piece of neighborhood history.

My second candidate for Restored Building of 2012 is a modest house at 1732 S.E. Ellis Street, whose history I know nothing about. On my daily walks for several years, I watched in sadness as it began to resemble a home for Hobbits. Blackberries covered the sidewalk and were beginning to engulf an abandoned car in the side yard. The deteriorating roof was layered with thick moss and an old upright piano occupied most of the front porch.

When a For Sale sign went up, followed by a giant dumpster, I expected a deconstruction, followed by the appearance of one of the “Alameda” or “Deschutes” model houses that are proliferating in the south end of the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood.

But I am pleased to report that I called this one wrong; the 1910 house was torn apart, instead of down! An upstairs was added within the existing side walls, adding two bedrooms and a bathroom. Lots of paint, moldings, replacement windows, a remodeled kitchen and bath, refinished floors and a new roof and a deck made the house move-in ready for its new owners, Rhonda and Bill Reedy, recently retired from Santa Monica, California.

The redeveloper was Alicia Liberty, of the Premier Property Group. Despite many phone messages to Ms. Liberty, no interview was possible before the deadline for this story. But like the Gilliams, she too is to be thanked for saving this “ordinary” modest neighborhood home, improving it, and sending it forward into its second century.

I hope that BEE readers will be encouraged by these examples to consider rehabilitation rather than removal, thereby strengthening the historical character of the neighborhood. While the mantra of the realtor is “location, location, location,” that of an old-house owner is “maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.”

If you want to learn how to research your home’s history, and how it should be properly cared for (style and materials), the Architectural Heritage Center on S.E. Grand Avenue at 701 S.E. Grand Avenue, has been providing lectures, walking tours, and workshops, for 25 years. Check their website – – for information. Educate yourself, and take care of your old building.

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