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Sellwood and Westmoreland historical secrets revealed

COURTESY OF SMILE HISTORY COMMITTEE - The neighborhoods first bank, the Sellwood Bank, at 13th and S.E. Umatilla, opened in 1907. This two story building with light tan bricks housed medical and dental offices on the second floor. Today Arch Fitters is the tenant on the ground floor.Sellwood and Westmoreland abound with remnants of history, and residents can boast that their area is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

But there are still many hidden treasures that people who work and live in the area might never have noticed.

I have comprised a small list of historic places, structures, and items, divided into three categories – Historic Buildings, Historic Landmarks, and Small Historic Items. That is not to suggest that local history buffs won’t come across something else old and of interest that should be added to these lists!

If you’re new to the area and don’t know Sellwood’s three buildings on the National Register, here is your chance to impress relatives and out of town guests with your knowledge.

At the top of the list is the former St. Johns Episcopal Church of Milwaukie, today sited at S.E. Spokane at Grand Avenue, and now known as Oaks Pioneer Church. Its significance to the history of Sellwood cannot be overstated, as detailed by my colleague Eileen Fitzsimons in her BEE centennial article ten years ago, still posted online near the top of the front page at: www.readthebee.com. It is the oldest existing Presbyterian Church building in the state, going back to 1849.

Also listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the Car Men Workers Clubhouse at 11th and Marion Street, built for the use of the men who drove the electric streetcars over a century ago.

More recently added to that National Register was the Sellwood Community Center at Spokane Street and 15th Avenue. It began over a century ago as a YMCA.

Very few neighborhoods can brag that they have three historic listings on the National Register, and it took many painstaking hours of research by volunteers and considerable money to save these buildings from a possible end with a wrecking ball.

But there are more buildings in Sellwood and Westmoreland that could qualify for the same recognition.

Historic Buildings of Sellwood and Westmoreland

Some of the first brick buildings in Inner Southeast were built along bustling 13th Avenue during the early streetcar era. Many of those still standing include the Sellwood Theater (Spokane & 13th, now housing the Columbia Sportswear store), the Griessen Building (now Leipzig Tavern), and the Zirngiebel building (Tacoma & 13th).

Many overlook one of my favorites, the Sellwood Bank building on the corner of Umatilla and 13th. Opened in 1907 by Sellwood resident Peter Hume, the neighborhood’s first financial institution served local residents for eighteen years until the dedication of the Sellwood Bridge convinced bank officials to move their business just north to where the OnPoint Credit Union now serves the public. The original safe, with a hand-painted scene of Mt Hood inside the bank, remains one of the few secret historical features of the area.

In Westmoreland the Portland Crematorium, part of Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial, was built in 1904, and predates even the Sellwood Bank. It was one of Portland’s first crematoriums.

At the north end of Westmoreland along Milwaukie Avenue, between Harold and Ellis Streets, was once the small community of Midway. A two block area named because of its location halfway between Portland City Limits and the town of Sellwood in the 1900’s, with homes east to S.E. 20th still designated by the city as being in the “Midway Annex”.

Residents of this small area included German immigrants, the Midway School, a store, a church, and the Midway Volunteer Fire Department. The horses and fire equipment are long gone from the firehouse, as are the schoolhouse and one of Westmoreland’s oldest shops, the Tabke Grocery at Harold and 18th.

But the wooden structures of Yukon Tavern and Papa Hayden’s bring back memories of when Midway was a major stop for the eastside streetcar that ran down the neighborhood. The Methodist Church building at 17th and Ellis has stood for over 100 years.

Historic Landmarks

This would include any permanent feature, statue, plaque, or fixture that now exists in the neighborhood or was fondly remembered before it disappeared. If called upon to locate any of the landmarks mentioned below, a resident of Sellwood or Westmoreland should with this article be able to state, “I know exactly where that landmark is located.”

The most prominent landmark Westmoreland is the sidewalk clock, which is still sometimes operational in front of Johnson’s Jewelry Store on Milwaukie Avenue just north of Bybee Boulevard. If you have visited any small town or community that has begun the process of reviving its historic business district, often a vintage sidewalk clock can be found.

Since the 1950’s, this decorative 1880 Howard Clock has showcased the Westmoreland neighborhood. Jewelry store owner William Johnson salvaged the clock from the Portland merchant district, where it stood in front of the Mohawk Building at S.W. 3rd and Jefferson. Once it was installed on the sidewalk on Milwaukie Avenue, and after the death of William, its upkeep was left to his widow Alice Johnson, and subsequently this responsibility has fallen upon her sons Craig and Jerry.

If you’re sitting outside half a block south, drinking a cup of Starbucks coffee or partaking of Nectar’s many yogurt desserts, then you might want to glance over at The Moreland Theater marquee, on the last movie theater in this part of town.

Dating back to 1925, when it first opened, the theater’s original neon sign extending from the front of the theater was replaced in the 1950’s after various trucks had hit the front of the sign, and city officials feared it was protruding too far into the traffic along Milwaukie Avenue and needed to be replaced. (The many impacts lent credibility to this concern.)

Other less obvious but nonetheless historic landmarks might include the neon sign on the front of the West Moreland True Value Hardware store, just north of the theater. Another would be the small “Kay’s” sign on the bar at the northwest corner of Bybee and Milwaukie. Let’s not forget the neon sign welcoming patrons to the Yukon Tavern a bit north on Milwaukie, or Bertie Lou’s at 17th Avenue and Spokane.

Westmoreland’s most majestic, but sadly short-lived, landmark was a metal “Westmoreland” arch perched near the intersection of Milwaukie and ByBee. In 1905 one of Portland’s premiere architects, A.E Doyle, was commissioned by the Ladd Real Estate Company to build the sign that would be the envy of other neighborhoods.

But envy was exchanged for profit, as within the next ten years the later developers the new residential neighborhood ordered the arch removed to make way for the new rails being laid for the Eastmoreland street car. Why the landmark arch was not preserved and placed along one of the less busy streets is, to me, a mystery and a disappointment.

There is still an historic WPA-built casting pond in Westmoreland Park, but it was not the only one. Among the landmarks that no longer can be found is a smaller casting pond at Sellwood Park, in a space that is now just part of the parking lot on the northeast side. A white gazebo that once stood in the center of the park was a highlight for Fourth of July celebrations, band concerts, community outings, and family picnics. Maintenance by Portland Park and Recreation Bureau was not forthcoming, and eventually it just rotted away.

Along “Golf Junction” at 13th and S.E. Marion was a quaint little streetcar shed used by passengers who braved the elements to wait patiently for the next arrival of the interurban train. At one time there was a ticket booth, ice cream shop, and restroom available there. Curiosity-seekers can still view a small section of the original streetcar rails that carried passengers south through Waverley Golf Course.

When the last remaining streetcar barns in Portland were torn down at Golf Junction in 2009 to construct a townhouse development, the only remaining memento of the streetcar era was a thirty feet high and 100 foot long brick wall that was part of the street car garages. That too was demolished, in 2012, when it was deemed unsafe.

Along the foot of Spokane Street at the water’s edge, if you look closely, there is a brick foundation that was once a part of the Sellwood Ferry Landing, dating back as far as the early 1900’s. Before the brick was installed, horses and wagons traveled over wooden slats, or logs laid lengthwise, or relied on dirt road, to access the ferry. Those barely-visible bricks are part of Old Sellwood history.

Metal horse rings and curb protectors can be found on many curbs around Inner Southeast. They were installed during the early 1900’s when residents demanded their dirt roads be paved and sidewalks installed.

Portland had numerous cement contractors in the early Twentieth Century, and at many street corners can be found, engraved in the cement, the calling card of the companies that finished the walkways, and the date they were completed.

Upon closer inspection the names of the street they marked can still be found, and often older street names like Leo on today’s Lambert, Douglas on Harney Street, and South Street on what is now Knight Street, may come as a surprise. It should be noted that since the City of Portland has recently installed curb cuts on corners to accommodate wheelchairs and bicycles, these markings have been reproduced on the new concrete to carry forward the history they report, but they are often not the original pavement inscriptions.

Residents may wonder who Theo Nolf is, and and why his name is engraved in the cement foundation near the door of today’s 12x16 Gallery in Sellwood. At one time a buggy-maker and the owner of a gentlemen’s fashion store, Theodore Nolf previously opened a candy kitchen in Salem with his wife Fredonia Lacey, and later established a general merchandise store there. When they arrived in Sellwood in 1902, the Nolfs opened a general store called The Bee Hive, serving patrons for the next eighteen years.

Although Theodore passed away in 1920, the pavement signature of his proprietorship has been present along 13th Avenue for over 92 years. Today’s Sellwood Flower Company in the imposing house across from SMILE Station at 13th and S.E. Tenino Street was where Theodore and Fredonia lived during their time in Sellwood.

If you attended class, played on the fields, or have accompanied a student to Sellwood Middle School, and have a hard time remembering how old the building is, then stop and glance at the front of the building along 15th Avenue. It was constructed by renowned architects Floyd A. Naramore and Oregon native George H. Jones in 1914, who also built many other Portland buildings and public schools. The gilded figures of eagles adorn the entryway, and phase two of the school building was completed in 1925, with that date stamped on the north-side entryway of the school.

Does anyone remember what happened to the log cabin that stood just north of the Oaks Pioneer church? Westmorelanders Lori and John Fyre and Eileen Fitzsimons remember this log cabin before it was torn down. Perhaps it was a replica of one of Oregon’s first pioneer cabins, built to celebrate the State of Oregon’s 100th anniversary in 1959. Even SMILE Treasurer Pat Hainley, a lifelong resident of Sellwood, is mystified by its disappearance, and no record can be found in historic records I have consulted.

Small Historic Items

This category consists of small objects that are not stationary, and might be found in the neighborhood for a while, or might have been moved to another section of town – such as the brown historic signs found on the front of buildings along S.E. 13th Avenue. They appear, disappear, and reappear, both inside and outside merchant’s stores as the years pass. Close to forty of these informational signs were purchased by the individual shop owners in the 1970’s to display on the front of their buildings or inside their shops. You never know where or when they will show up.

In 1973, artist Austin Meyers designed and created a street banner for the Sellwood-Moreland Antique Business Association to increase merchants’ visibility. The remains of one of the street banners can be seen over the entrance to the 1875 house near Tacoma Street. Just recently, a different banner or store-hanging was discovered inside Unique Antique. The proprietor of Unique Antique found a banner that says “Sellwood Antiques” at a garage sale. Where it originally hung in the neighborhood is still being debated.

One of my all-time favorites is a rolling destination sign, originally from the front of Sellwood streetcars that traveled up and down through the neighborhood. I spied this gem while dining at the Muddy Rudder near the historic Sellwood Bridge. The Sellwood destination sign can be seen behind the restaurant’s bar.

Inner Southeast still has a variety of historical memorabilia waiting for someone to discover. If you come across a landmark, building, or small tidbit that I have missed, let’s add it to the list.

It’s just one of the many reasons why this community is such a unique place in which to live and work.