A legacy of providing aid to the most vulnerable
In the early 1900s, pregnant, unwed women had few options because of the stigmas of the time. Many would be shunned for what was considered their transgression. But in west Gresham there was one place they could go for support and kindness.
Tucked away amidst a grove of Douglas Firs is the historic Louise Home Hospital and Residence Hall, a place that has maintained its mission of helping those in need. The impressive structure, located at 722 N.E. 162nd Ave., has helped mothers, housed disabled children, educated girls and much more. It currently serves as the centerpiece of the Gresham campus for Albertina Kerr Centers for Children, which provides mental and emotional health services.
"If you look at our history, the thread that continues through all the years is we helped the vulnerable and those with a stigma attached to them," said Jeff Carr, chief executive officer of Albertina Kerr. "That is still true today, as mental health is something we don't like to talk about."
The Louise Home was born during a time when the United States government did not offer robust social services, forcing the private sector to step in and fill the need. The home, designed in 1925 by architect Carl H. Walworth, was once part of an extensive farm and wooded campus for unwed mothers. The facility was funded by private philanthropists and religious organizations.
The three-story, 16,000 square-foot building is a Georgian Revival style, with a "U-shaped" layout and brick siding. The current 17-acre campus is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, though at the time it was built the location was remote.
"If these walls could talk," Carr said. "I think about the thousands who have passed through here with stories of desperation and transformation."
Origin of a name
The Louise name and style of care at the Gresham location was adopted from another part of the region. The original Louise Home was purchased in 1908 in the Goose Hollow district of Southwest Portland. It was constructed to house and care for "wayward" young women, who had turned to prostitution to survive.
"They had been quarantined of a sort because of the era they lived," Carr said.
The name "Louise" is believed to have stemmed from one of two sources. Either for Louise James, who donated the first $1,000 to support the burgeoning program, or for the sellers of the home who offered a favorable price in exchange for honoring their daughter who'd passed away.
William G. MacLaren, who established the Louise Home, wanted to raise public concern for unwed mothers. His goal was supported by the work of Alexander Kerr and Dr. Wynne Watts, who was focused on educating those who had fallen through the gaps, among others. The specialized medical care needed by unwed mothers who had venereal diseases could not be given readily in regular hospitals, so delivery rooms to accommodate the mothers were provided at the Louise Home.
In 1911, Albertina Kerr died of typhus shortly after giving birth to her son. Alexander, her husband, decided to give their family home to the Pacific Coast Rescue and Protective Society, which was operated by MacLaren. The home was renamed the Albertina Kerr Nursery Home, located at 424 N.E. 22nd Ave. in Northeast Portland, and served as a place of respite for children and daycare services for single mothers.
Both the Louise Home in Goose Hollow and the Albertina Kerr Nursery were quickly running out of space, so a new location was needed.
Four years later, in 1915, nine acres of mixed forest and farming land was purchased on what is now Northeast 162nd Avenue. Shortly thereafter, the Louise Home relocated staff, services and patients to the Gresham location. More land was purchased in 1917, bringing the total area to 20 acres. That became enough to support multiple programs. The residents of the Louise Home were joined by an extension of the Albertina Kerr Nursery and the Wynne Watts School, forming the campus.
The nursery provided care for infants, usually orphans, and children of unwed mothers. The Louise Home was a residence for pregnant girls, some of whom needed treatment for venereal disease, while the Watts School provided education and training.
Between 1925 and 1927, the Louise Home Hospital and Residence Hall was completed to better serve the mothers coming for care at the campus, with a focus on helping babies born with developmental disabilities. It later would have residences for the girls during their time of waiting and recuperation.
During the Great Depression, when other facilities struggled to make it, the Louise Home and campus did relatively well.
"They were pretty well cared for here because they could grow their own food, they were self-sufficient," Carr said. "The girls living there learned to grow, harvest and preserve food from the farm."
The farm provided meat, poultry, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. The Louise Home also had a cannery to process food.
Eventually the Louise Home Hospital and Residence Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
In 2016, the Louise Home received a needed expansion to better facilitate care for the people Albertina Kerr serves.
A two-story addition infills the area between two wings on the east side of the building, tucked behind the main entrance. The new construction is separated from the old walls by an interior light well. The goal behind the new wing was to continue to help others, while not losing the charm and history of the building.
"We made sure to save the exterior façade, but there have been lots of interior upgrades," Carr said.
The cost was a little more than $3 million to rebuild the interior, but the result is allowing for better outpatient processing as well as space for clinic-based therapy. The remodel had to follow strict guidelines, which are put in place because they were working on a historically designated building.
Albertina Kerr's mission isn't far off what the Louise Home was originally intended to be. The organization is trying to empower people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health challenges and other social barriers to lead better lives and achieve their full potential. They do this through crisis psychiatric care, family resource centers, treatment programs, youth group homes and much more.
"Serving the unprotected, that has been Kerr's mission," Carr said. "We will always serve vulnerable people, and we are working for a world where that is no longer an issue."