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Westmoreland houses celebrating one hundred years

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


by: EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - These are two of the eight homes on S.E. 19th, at Claybourne Street, that celebrated their 100th birthdays in September of last year.At the instigation of the owners of four homes on S.E. 19th Street in Westmoreland, a total of ten houses were honored in a “century birthday” celebration, in September of 2012. Their owners spent the better part of an autumn afternoon touring the interiors of each other’s dwellings, all constructed between 1912 and 1924.

A block party is regularly held on the long stretch of S.E. 19th between Bybee and Claybourne Streets. But when ten-year resident Joan Plank realized her house would be reaching the 100-year mark, she thought a neighborly open house would be an enjoyable addition to the event. She, Joelle Marr, Sue Korn and Scott Chapman, and Gigi and Scott Lundgren formed a planning committee, and invited homeowners to participate.

According to Joan, the idea occurred to her after she took a class on “How to Research Your House History” at the Architectural Heritage Center. She learned that many of the homes on her block were constructed “on speculation” by G.W. Priest, a prolific builder in east Portland in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. More than ten were completed in 1912 on 19th Street, just three years after “Westmoreland” was opened for development.

Prior to that, it was part of the 437 acres of marshy pastureland that belonged to west side banker and property investor William S. Ladd. Mr. Ladd, who died in 1893, had acquired other large tracts of land that he held for decades, until the market was ready for new and lucrative development. Laurelhurst, Ladd’s Addition, Westmoreland, and Eastmoreland were all originally Ladd holdings.

Prior to development, the properties later marketed as Westmoreland (1909) and Eastmoreland (1910) were not unproductive. From a large farmstead on the brow of the hill (now S.E. 28th), an estate manager oversaw the well-being of the prize-winning cattle and horses of Ladd’s “Crystal Springs Stock Farm”. Eventually Portland’s population, especially on the east side of the Willamette River, justified the dissolution of the farm, and its transformation into a new and modern residential development. Construction of Reed College in 1909 added to the luster of the new “Morelands”.

On May 9, 1909, the Oregonian announced that 700 lots, each 50x100 feet, were available, but only in that part of the Farm between Milwaukie Road (now Street) and S.E. 22nd Avenue – extending two lots north of Yukon Street, and on the south, along a diagonal boundary between Rex and Lambert Streets. (There are today some considerably older houses in Westmoreland beyond this development border.)

This historian has not yet determined the exact location of the first house built in this part of the neighborhood originally designated Westmoreland, but the first lot was sold by early June of 1909. Westmoreland was to be a “high class” neighborhood, and those who planned to build were required to spend a minimum of $1,500 on their houses (by comparison, small cottages were still being constructed in Sellwood for $800).

And, while the “old fashioned” former town of Sellwood was still trying to get the City of Portland to provide the new water mains and paved streets that they had been promised when they annexed in 1893, the new Westmoreland subdivision to the north would include concrete curb strips, sidewalks, and dust-free paved streets. The newspaper ads also pledged that 100 acres would be retained in the center, for a park.

Although all of the original lots were sold by 1925, some were purchased for speculation and resale, or held for future building. Joan Plank’s neighbor, Bob Vancil, who has lived on the street for sixty years, shared the account of a former resident who “went back to the beginning”: Her husband would walk to the corner of Bybee and Milwaukie to catch the streetcar (a walk of three long blocks), but this expanse was all open fields to the west, and she could see him wave to her as he boarded the car.

Within two years, enough construction had taken place to justify a large capital improvement, paid for by the developers (and which was probably included in the price of the lots). In 1911 the Ladd Estate Company assumed the cost of building a streetcar spur from Milwaukie Avenue/Bybee through Westmoreland and Eastmoreland, to S.E. 32nd and Rex Streets. The extension was more than a mile in length, and included construction of a viaduct over the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The only drawback to the extension of the line was the demolition of the “fine masonry pillars and arch” at the entrance to Westmoreland, at Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee Street. This destruction was necessary in order to widen the corner to allow the streetcar “to make the turn at full speed”. The Eastmoreland cars, a branch of the Sellwood line, were to run every 15 minutes, and would make few stops on the way to/from downtown Portland, where – it was presumed – most of the new subdivision residents would be employed.

It is evident, from a stroll down 19th Street today, that builders provided housing for a variety of incomes. There are small two-bedroom houses that probably reached the $1,500 range and larger, as well as three-bedroom abodes that cost closer to $4,000.

An ad placed by Mr. Priest offered potential buyers newly completed two-story, six-room houses for $3,850 (at a time when a millworker made $2.00 for a nine-hour day). Although these homes all had the same number of bedrooms (3) and bathrooms (1), as well as full cement basements, hardwood floors, etc., the floor plans were slightly different, and the exteriors even more so. They are all approximately of equal square footage, which from the street makes the mass of the structures the same – but, in style and detail, the exteriors are quite different, which is a nuance that contemporary “spec” builders might do well to emulate.

The neighbors who opened their houses to each other’s scrutiny last September greatly enjoyed sharing their homes, and recommend this experience to others. Once committed, a flurry of housecleaning, painting, and landscape tidying took place, and everything was ready for the 15-minute tour of each house. Owners were intrigued by the similar interior spaces and details, and of the remodeling that had occurred (or hadn’t) over the decades.

A potluck and barbeque followed, and the dessert was an enormous candle-laden sheet cake, inscribed “Happy 100th Birthday to Our Block”.

As an aside to local owners of old houses, if you have enjoyed this account, and would like to know how to preserve and repair your own wood frame windows, a new 20-page “Window Repair and Weatherization Guidebook” is available online, at no cost.

It was prepared with the support of the Irvington Community Association – a neighborhood that now has “National Register of Historic Places” designation. However, the advice from those homeowners is useful for anyone with wood frame windows, old or new. It includes a list of professionals who can do the work for you, if you don’t want to undertake the care and repair in the manual.

Go to the Internet website of Portland’s famed Architectural Heritage Center – www.visitahc.org – and follow the hotlinks through the “Resources and Research” page.