Wilhelm's Portland Memorial Mausoleum: Westmoreland's hidden gem
On the bluff, overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, unpretentiously sits one of Westmoreland's hidden gems – Wilhelm's Portland Memorial Mausoleum.
Recently I was invited by Lisa Dahlen, the Family Service Advisor for Wilhelm's, to a tour of their mausoleum. I can't say I was thrilled by the thought of trying to write an interesting article about what I fantasized as rows of headstones along a cold and lonely hallway. But, it turned out, Wilhelm's Portland Memorial and Mausoleum is one of the most interesting museums in the city.
Built over 100 years ago, the mausoleum is a veritable library of the pioneers who at one time contributed to the building of Portland and the shaping of Sellwood and Westmoreland. It's a showcase of some of the Northwest's finest artisans, glass designers, iron makers, statue designers, masons, and woodcrafters, right here in our own back yard.
As late as the 1890's, burial in a cemetery was still the accepted way to memorialize our departure from life. The Lone Fir Cemetery, established in 1866, and the River View Cemetery on the southwest hills by Taylors Ferry Road, were the only major graveyards available for burial in the city in the early years.The Milwaukie ("Pioneer") Cemetery located along 17th Avenue south of the Garthwick district at the south end of Sellwood was a more moderately-priced burial ground, used mostly by local residents who wanted to remain close to the neighborhood they grew up in.
In 1900, a large crowd of Oregonians gathered at the Unitarian Chapel in Downtown Portland to hear a lecture by Frank B. Gibson, Secretary of the San Francisco Cremation Company. The audience was particularly interested in a new, modern scientific method of disposing of the dead – cremation. Many were attracted to cremation as a more affordable option. Ordering a casket, depending on the style, could be expensive, and hiring an undertaker to transport the deceased to a burial plot was another cost to bear.
After that meeting ended, it wasn't long before some of the city's most prominent businessmen established the "Portland Cremation Society" and, with funds collected, began preparations for construction of the Northwest's first crematorium. A short time later, on April 24th, a Spanish Mission style structure with whitewashed stucco walls, tile roof, and mosaic tiled floor was officially open to the public in what would become Westmoreland. Frank Gibson was chosen as the manager and superintendent of Portland Cremation. Charges for a cremation were $45, and for children under the age of 12, $25.
In the following decades, the eastside funeral home became a busy venue, adding additional levels and services – and becoming not only a crematorium, but with its Mausoleum, the desired interment place in Portland. The Eastside Streetcar that ran along Bybee Boulevard installed an additional track extension along 14th Avenue on the east side of the building for use during funerals. Funeral cars could be rented to transport casket and families to the front steps of the chapel for interment.
Lisa Dahlen, an ordained minister and Family Service Advisor for the Wilhelm's Portland Memorial, informs visitors today that the Mausoleum on the north side of the building has expanded to eight stories high, and contains over five miles of corridors and hallways. Many of the marble fronts on the crypts in the mausoleum came from quarries in Italy, and a variety of statues and sculptures found among the open sections were made by the Taverelli Studios in Italy. The most famous statuary gracing the halls is a replica of Michelangelo's "La Pieta" – Mother Mary, with Jesus in her arms after his death on the cross.
A stroll down the marble halls of the crematorium is like taking a trip back into the history of old Sellwood. Familiar names of Sellwood and Westmoreland pioneers are engraved along the marble and decorative drawers of the corridors, reminders of when Inner Southeast was like a close-knit family.
The names include Geneva and Kenneth Cockerline, who operated what is still active as the Moreland Theater – Portland's last surviving single-screen movie theater, and the neighborhood's longest operating theater since its opening in 1925. Kenneth passed away at a young age in 1946, but Geneva continued running the theater – selling tickets out front, and doing double-duty behind the concession stand – until her retirement in the 1970's.
A lesser-known resident, but important contributor to the community, was John E. Reinke, who was chosen as the head foreman of Sellwood's first Volunteer Fire Brigade in 1895. This was a time when fire-hose carts were pulled by hand, and with a lot of sweat, down the unpaved roads of Sellwood. When funds for the fire station ran short by $500.00 to complete the construction of the building, in a speech equal to any made by a seasoned senator in office, Reinke convinced city officials to come up with the remaining expenses.
If you're looking for movie stars in the mausoleum, Humphrey Bogart's third wife, Mayo Methot, lies in a secluded section on the second floor, near her mother, who once lived in the Eastmoreland neighborhood.
Sometimes talent can be found within your own organization, and Phil Rogers – who was Superintendant of Wilhelm's for over 50 years – contributed more than just his managerial skills. Decorative woodwork found throughout the corridors was fashioned by his hands in the workshop, and scrolled pieces of trim and art can be found along the walls and byways. Phil created most of his handywork while living in a house owned by the funeral home on the east side of 14th. It was later torn down and is part of the parking lot where the Moreland Farmers Market is operating on Wednesday afternoons this summer.
Private mausoleum alcoves, or niches, were built specifically for families' intent on reserving space for their spouses and numerous relatives. Many of these niches were adorned with intricate iron gates, professionally-cut stone engravings, and period furniture and art, and stained glass windows. Wealthy families who owned the alcoves hired some of the area's most prominent craftsmen to decorate their lasting memorials.
The mausoleum has some of the most impressive stained glass windows in the city, throughout its various levels. Tour guide Lisa Dahlen points out that there are over forty sculptured stained glass windows, specifically commissioned and placed in the family alcoves, in the mausoleum. Wilhelm's website credits its collection to the Povey Brothers and Gerlich and Louise C. Tiffany, but Albert A. Gerlach might also have had a hand in designing some of these unique stained-glass works of art.
Val Ballestrem, Education Manager of Southeast's Architectural Heritage Center, which has a few pieces of Povey Brothers' artwork in their museum, remarks that "the Poveys are not known to have signed many of their windows. So tracing the windows' origins will be a difficult task." But he suggested that some of the characteristics of a Povey stained glass window might include designs of dogwood flowers with gem centers, and a combination of opaque ripple and cracked glass. There are pieces like that in the mausoleum.
To digress for a minute from our tour, the Povey Brothers were one of Portland's most widely known stained glass professionals at the start of the 1900's. David Lincoln Povey began one of the first glass factories in Portland in 1888. He was able to convince his brother John to join him in what proved to be a lucrative business, and within a couple of years other family members joined the company.
Their craftsmanship became so popular that the Povey Brothers handled a staff of over 25 workers, and they were often referred to as the "Tiffany glass makers of the west".
Returning to our tour, by researching each family's records, one might be able to identify the artist who created their own magnificently-displayed stained glass windows. The Inman family niche is one of the two signed stained glass window from 1922 that I came across in the tour that showcase the Poveys' style and flair.
Another of the artists that I believe has a piece of stained glass on display at Wilhelm's is Albert A. Gerlach, an accomplished window artist who trained at the famous Art Institute of Chicago. Albert was a member of the Giannini and Hilyart Company in Chicago, Illinois, and when he and his wife Mary Sarah arrived in Portland in 1925, his talents drew the attention of the Povey brothers, who were quick to usher him into their business.
Many of Gerlach's designs can be recognized by their generic nature scenes – rivers, trees, and idyllic outdoor settings. There is an impressive stained glass window of Multnomah Falls at the mausoleum, and it wouldn't surprise me if Gerlach himself wasn't the man who designed it. Albert Gerlach remained with the Povey Brothers Company for 25 years, until it was sold to W.P. Fuller, after which Albert established his own company in 1950.
Many of the stained glass windows on display at Wilhelm's Portland Memorial Mausoleum show stunning views of the Columbia River, gigantic trees of the northwest, Mt. Hood, Multnomah Falls, and many plants, angels, flying birds, bouquets of flowers, and native plants.
Captain Delmer Shaver, who started one of the largest tugboat companies in the city, has a dedicated window created in his honor. The boat that he commissioned, the James W., can be seen on the Columbia River with a waterfall in the background in it.
For those who enjoy solving a mystery, you too can schedule a tour at Wilhem's, and perhaps you'll be able to identify a Povey Studios stained glass window, or locate and admire the woodwork of Phil Rogers. Bring a camera to take a photo of one of the many statues, or to document along the walls the names of Portland's founding fathers and early pioneers.
Finally, your tour is not complete until you step outside to view the vast mural of Oaks Bottom Wetlands on the west and south exteriors of Wilhelm's Portland Memorial Mausoleum, which took muralists Shane Bennett and Dan Cohen two years to bring to its final form.