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A Sellwood Family's 'Dream House'

COURTESY OF IRENE HYDE LITTLE - The original Hyde family cottage on Lexington Street in Sellwood, completed in 1925.May is national Historic Preservation Month, and as older buildings go down and new ones go up in Inner Southeast, it has been a relief to visit with the surviving member of a family that has been deeply rooted on Lexington Street for more than ninety years.

Their home, built by three generations of the family, still stands at 1584 S.E. Lexington Street (formerly “634 Lexington” in Portland’s original street-numbering plan). It was the home of Albert and Hester (Armstrong) Hyde, and their four children – Jim, Jean, Irene, and Ray.

After reading about the replacement of the 1925 Sellwood Bridge, one of Irene’s nieces contacted THE BEE to suggest that her aunt Irene had many memories of life in the earlier days of Sellwood.

Indeed she did; and her recollections of the Hyde home and its “remodeling” were among the many topics we discussed….

Albert Hyde grew up in Kalama, Washington; and, following military service in World War I, he moved to the St. Johns neighborhood in North Portland. Hester Armstrong was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but came to Oregon with her parents when she was eleven months old – her family settled in Oak Grove.

In addition to being a master carpenter who completed much of the interior work on Portland’s U.S. Custom House, Hester’s father, Louis E. Armstrong, played the violin. In 1910 he organized the Oak Grove Girls Band, which Irene believes was the first all-female musical band in Oregon. Hester played the cornet and one afternoon, after finishing orchestra practice in downtown Portland, she was waiting for the Oak Grove streetcar. Albert, carrying his a saxophone, noticed Hester’s instrument case, and used their mutual interest in music to strike up a conversation, and ended up “escorting” her home on the streetcar. The couple married in 1921, and lived with her family for two years while Albert commuted to his job with Standard Oil in Willbridge, at the opposite end of the city. Jim, the first of Hester and Albert’s children, arrived in 1922, and the new parents purchased their Lexington Street lot in 1923, with a down payment in the princely sum of $5.00.

They decided on the design of their home-to-be: A small bungalow, with large knee brackets supporting a sloping roof over the front door – they had spotted a similar one on S.E. Division Street. As family members stepped forward to build their house, Irene used a small notebook to record every phase of its construction. Under the supervision of her father Louis, his brother Warren Hyde, and a cousin, Guy DeGolia, as well as Albert, work started on December 19, 1923, with excavation of the basement by hand. The concrete was poured in April of 1924, followed by delivery of the lumber for the one-bedroom house. The total cost of the lumber was $78.17. On January 24, 1925, linoleum flooring was laid, and by February 5 the family was able to celebrate with their first dinner inside the finished home. Three days later they assumed occupancy, just in time for Irene’s birth. Irene joined her two other siblings (sister Jean was born in 1924 in Oak Grove, as was brother Jim two years earlier).

By 1932, with the arrival of their fourth child, the single-bedroom house was feeling a bit cramped. Irene and her sister Jean occupied a bedroom on an enclosed sleeping porch at the back of the house, while brother Jim slept on a cot in the living room – moving into the back yard under a grape arbor in fair weather. Infant Ray initially shared his parent’s bedroom, but Albert and Hester knew they needed more space.

Consequently, in 1935, the Hydes undertook the remodeling of their ten-year-old house. According to a 1957 BEE article, the family did not want to leave Sellwood because they liked the school, the parks, and the businesses. So, with their children helping, they deconstructed the house, all the way to its 2x4 walls and horizontal board sheathing. The roof was removed and a second floor was added – containing three bedrooms and a second bath. The enlarged living room featured a new leaded-glass window. Then the tiny cottage completely disappeared, as the house was covered in red clinker brick, installed by a mason named Mr. Orwig. For an additional six dollars he included a matching outdoor fireplace/barbeque in the backyard. The grapevine was saved and a goldfish pond was built, with a low seat surrounding it. An inventive man, Albert Hyde designed, poured, and molded, a unique driveway in front of the matching garage: It is laid out as a huge tree, its branches rising in relief from the surface of the concrete. His ideas were expressed in other ways: Irene still has her father’s 1934 automobile registration for an “assembled sedan” – the family car that he cobbled together from five different car models! They were perhaps salvaged from Bowman’s Garage on S.E. 17th at Tacoma, where Albert began working as an auto mechanic, after retiring from 25 years at Standard Oil.

With new windows, and a winding front walkway, the house now resembled the one on the cover of the 1926 sheet music “Dream House”, an architectural style known as “Storybook”. The refrain of the song echoes the romantic wish, “I have built a dream house, cozy little dream house, happiness is there, hiding everywhere…and tho’ it’s big enough for you and me, someday there may be Tea for THREE, in that little dream house that I’ve built for you.”

Irene’s photos indicate that when the Hyde family purchased their lot in 1923, there were many that were vacant – the one to the west was empty until 1930. She recalled Mr. Riley, a house painter, who lived across the street, and Helen Peterjamus, who played the bugle in the Army in 1942. A fish seller and a junk man made regular trips along the streets. One highlight of the work week was “Friday Surprise” at Meier & Frank (now Macy’s). Bargain sales were offered, especially in the basement and sub-basement, and Irene and her mother would take the streetcar on S.E. 13th Avenue to downtown Portland for some competitive shopping. She recalls the human street sweepers who tidied the city. A big truck had a low platform extending from the back of the vehicle. On it stood a man with a broom, who would jump down, sweep up debris, and then throw it upwards into the back of the truck.

Irene, like her siblings, walked to Sellwood School (then grades 1-8). The school had a 4-H Club, and Irene reported its activities in THE BEE. Beginning in the seventh grade, she began playing the trumpet in the school orchestra. The Hyde children spent many hours at the Sellwood Library on Nehalem Street, and in the Community Center. With other neighborhood kids, they also spent a great deal of their time outdoors. Walking the “monkey trail” along the north edge of Sellwood Park, they entered The Oaks Amusement Park, while avoiding payment of the nickel entry fee if possible. Other excursions included crossing the Sellwood Bridge to hike the wooded ravines around the cemetery on the west side of the Willamette.

Irene’s brothers made “golf clubs” from lengths of 2x4s, attached a small scrap of angled wood to the bottom, and played their own rounds in Sellwood Park. And of course they spent hot summer days at the Sellwood Pool; but Irene really learned to swim at the indoor pool at Neighborhood House, across from Lair Hill Park, in Southwest Portland. Her instructor was a Mr. Tate, who had taught movie star Buster Crabbe to swim before moving to Portland.

In the late 1930’s the Portland Parks Bureau held annual swim contests at Jantzen Beach Park (then a vast amusement park, with several large open swimming pools, but now the site of a shopping mall). Swimmers from Sellwood always competed, but because they only had three months to practice, they often finished at the bottom of the match. This changed in the early 1940’s, with assistance from Westmoreland resident Tye Steinbach, a talent scout for the Multnomah Athletic Club. Coached by Steinbach, the Sellwood swimmers began serious training, and Irene adopted the challenging breaststroke. In late August of 194l, the Sellwood swim team was triumphant, sweeping the annual Swimathon event at Jantzen Beach.

Becoming city champions was a happy memory for the Sellwood team to savor, as the United States soon became involved in World War II. During the war the Hyde family and other neighbors cultivated a Victory Garden in an empty lot across from the Hyde’s home.

Irene graduated from Washington High School in 1944, and worked at a series of office jobs, on early IBM systems – for the State of Oregon and for Consolidated Freightways. After the war she went to Hawai’i to visit a girlfriend, but only stayed for six months because she “missed the seasons” in Oregon. She then lived on a houseboat on the Columbia River, and it was at a moorage Christmas Party that she met Ray Little, a merchant seaman, whom she married in June, 1961, at the Sellwood Methodist Church.

Her husband became an employee of the Bechtel Corporation in its marine oil division, and then Irene’s life of adventure really began. Soon after their marriage, the Littles moved to Iran, where they lived for seven years – in Abadan, and then Tehran. They were transferred to Libya, and it was while they were on a vacation in Spain that they received word from the company that Muammar Gaddafi had seized control of the government and they were not to return. The company put them in luxurious limbo at the Hilton Hotel in Rome for two weeks, followed by stint in Malta.

Finally, in 1974, the Littles were sent to Brazil. Irene recalled their three years in that country as her favorite posting, as she greatly enjoyed the people and culture. She was learning to speak Portuguese when they were transferred for a final seven years in London. Ray retired in 1983, and after a short period of time in California, the Hydes moved back to Oregon – first to Raleigh Hills, and then Tualatin.

Irene’s siblings made lives of their own beyond Sellwood, with older sister Jean remaining closest to home. She graduated from Girls Polytechnic High School, married, and lived on a farm near Salem with her first husband and their seven children.

Brother Jim graduated from Benson High School, became an architectural draftsman, married an English woman, then had a Naval career in communications and radar.

Like his sister, Irene’s youngest brother Ray attended Washington High School, where he developed his skills in baseball as a left-handed pitcher. He graduated from Lewis & Clark College, played baseball for the U.S. Army team, and pitched in the 1955 Pan American Games.

Ray did some traveling on his own and landed in Munich, Germany. Here he taught fifth and sixth graders in U.S. Department of Defense Dependents’ school and married a German woman, but he returned every year to the family home on Lexington Street.

Albert Hyde remained in the home he had helped to build until he had to move into a nursing home after suffering a stroke; he died in 1978. His wife Hester stayed put until she, too, required care, and passed away in 1982.

The parents willed the house to their four children, and Ray bought the shares of his three siblings. After his retirement he spent part of his time in Munich and the rest in Sellwood, where renters kept an eye on the house in his absence. He died in 2015, and while the house is rented, it has now fallen to Irene to help determine the future of the historic Hyde family home still standing today at 1584 S.E. Lexington Street.