A century ago, Shogren sisters defined Portland haute couture

Amilestone will be celebrated this weekend at a home in the Mount Tabor neighborhood.

For 100 years, the Shogren House has quietly stood between Northeast 62nd and 63rd avenues, above Northeast Glisan Street. The sisters who once occupied the house played a significant role in Portland history Ñ but much like the home, it's not known to many.

The Shogren family arrived in the West from Chicago by railroad in 1872. Out of six daughters and one son, it would be daughters May and Ann who would make the family fortune and leave their mark on Portland history.

At age 14, May Shogren was the apprentice to a local tailor, and soon sister Ann became interested in the trade. At a time when women rarely worked or even owned businesses, the sisters opened M&A Shogren, a high-end dressmaking business in downtown Portland, in the 1880s.

'People came from all over the world to be fitted for their clothes,' said Tom Saunders, a former owner of the home and self-appointed Shogren family historian.

The sisters traveled to Paris and New York every year to view fashions and purchase fabric. By 1905, they employed 100 seamstresses and were the second-largest private employer in Portland. One of their custom-made dresses cost $400 Ñ the same as a Model A Ford.

Ann and May lived in the Mount Tabor-area home with another sister, Elizabeth, and her children. They threw lavish parties and hosted weddings for Portland's wealthiest inhabitants, who also happened to be their best clients.

While their business was impressive and the Shogren name was known worldwide, perhaps the sisters' most important contribution to the community was their sense of humanity.

'All their employees were women, and most of them were single mothers,' Saunders said. 'They had a medical program and gave employees vacation time.'

Building an empire

The sisters amassed enormous wealth Ñ so they were able to enter the booming business of real estate when ready-made dresses became widely available shortly after World War I. They bought an orchard and a house in Mosier, built homes near Mount Tabor and in Long Beach, Wash., and built an apartment building on what is now Portland's South Park Blocks (the building burned down in 1967).

Their tithing helped build Hinson Memorial Baptist Church on Southeast 20th Avenue. They also donated generously to George Fox University in Newberg and to the Portland Riding Club.

Ann and May Shogren also were among the first women members of the Mazamas mountaineering club and the Multnomah Hunt Club. They never married.

'I think their story has never really been told in the history books,' Saunders said. 'They only talk about men in the history books.'

Saunders lived in the Shogrens' old house with his family from 1990 to 1993. When they needed to move across town, he decided to hold on to the old Arts and Crafts-style house, fearing that any other owner would demolish it in favor of condominiums.

In 1996, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and ownership went to Shogren House LLC, a trust Saunders helped engineer.

'It's about history'

The Shogren House is now a museum decorated with photographs by Fred Shogren, the sisters' only brother, who was a photographer for The Oregonian. There also are 12 hours of film of the Shogren family, made between 1919 and 1935. The historic house is open weekdays by appointment (see for details).

On weekends, the Shogren House has become a popular location for garden weddings. There are nearly 1.2 acres of meticulously maintained gardens that bloom 10 months of the year. Grounds rentals include use of the home and the gourmet kitchen. This summer, the house is booked for 16 Saturday weddings. The rest of the year, the museum also hosts smaller corporate picnics, family reunions, and anniversary and birthday parties.

So far, the Shogren House has not broken even. It has minimal staff, with a four-days-a-week gardener, an event planner, a handyman and a director who also serves as in-house counsel for Saunders' real estate business.

'It's about history and preservation,' Saunders said. 'It's difficult to do because it's like a museum and a park and a garden all rolled into one.'

'There's huge economic pressure to knock it down and put up apartment buildings,' added Christopher Cournoyer, museum director. 'He (Saunders) has figured out a way to make the place sustain itself.'

Ann and May Shogren had moved out of their Mount Tabor home by the time they died in the 1930s. Fred Shogren had six daughters, the last of whom died last year. Various relatives still live in the Hood River, Mosier and Long Beach areas. The Oregon Historical Society has a large collection of their dresses, though they are not currently on display.

The Shogren House celebrates its 100th anniversary with an ice cream social Saturday, June 10, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The address is 401 N.E. 63rd Ave.

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