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A bit of Sellwood's early history is embodied in an old house -- one about to be demolished

EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - This 1884 house at 835 S.E. Spokane Street in Sellwood, although connected to the early history of the community in more than one way, is nonetheless slated for demolition in the near future.  A "For Sale" sign was recently driven into the curb strip in front of a cottage at the northwest corner of S.E. Ninth Avenue and Spokane Street.

The only notable architectural feature of the small corner house is the scalloped shingles in the gable of the house, repeated on the garage.

Since 1994 it has been the home of Lee and Coleen Hoffman, who – now past retirement age – are preparing to move into an apartment just one mile upriver. In the almost 25 years of Hoffman occupancy, the couple has made modest interior improvements to the kitchen and bathroom; but the exterior, with its recessed service entrance on one side, has remained unaltered.

They knew that their sleepy neighborhood had become a "hot" real estate market, but were nonetheless surprised to receive three offers in the first three days it was listed. Two were full price cash offers, and one was for a conventional mortgage, which was their preference.

Unfortunately that offer fell through and the house was recently sold to the Modern Construction Company. The Hoffmans are now sadly aware that their carefully-tended property is slated for deconstruction, and replacement with two new structures.

As it happens, I described the history of this particular house many years ago, when I first began writing for THE BEE. Although easily overlooked, it was the home of a man who played an important role in this community's formative years (1887-1893), when Sellwood was an independent incorporated city. The house was built in 1884, and it was just two years earlier, in 1882, that the Sellwood Real Estate Company had purchased the Rev. John Sellwood's 320 acres, began clearing the land, and started dividing it into 50 x 100 foot lots.

The house at 835 S.E. Spokane Street was built and occupied by Redmond Bean, who worked as a porter (baggage handler) and clerk. In spite of his modest employment, Bean was selected as Chairman of the Sellwood City Council for three of its six years of existence.

Redmond Bean was born in 1827 in Andover, New Hampshire. He found his way to the West Coast, perhaps during the California Gold Rush of 1849, when he would have been in his early twenties. His daughter Emma was born in California in 1869, and must have come to Portland with her parents, for she was married in Multnomah County in 1887. Her mother's name has eluded me, but when Redmond died in 1901, he was listed as a "widower". His funeral service was held at the Sellwood Presbyterian Church, and he was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery on the Milwaukie Road (now south of Garthwick on S.E. 17th Avenue). The house was next occupied by another important figure, Alfred N. Wills, son of Jacob Wills, who had a Donation Land Claim centered near what is now the crossing of McLoughlin Boulevard and Tacoma Street. Alfred grew up on the family farm, and worked in his father's brickyard, until he opened his own at S.E. 26th & Taylor Streets. He championed the growth of Sellwood, and was chairman of the committee that built the Sellwood YMCA (now Sellwood's historic Community Center).

After Wills, the house had several owners who made few outward changes to the 1,000 square foot, two-bedroom property. It was disconnected from its cesspool in 1914, and connected to the new sewer system, meaning that at that time, the waste was flushed downhill into the Willamette River, because Portland's first treatment plant did not come on line until the early 1950's.

And although the channel-pattern siding covers the garage on the north end of the property, Lee states that it was built by Tyron R. Easton, who sold the house to him in 1994.

Unless some miraculous change of heart takes place, the house will be taken down by the new owners, who have been advised by the city that the row of maple trees on Ninth Street will also need to be removed. Although they add to the city's much-desired leafy canopy, they are the wrong tree for their very narrow curb strip, and will soon be put out of their misery. Presumably they will be replaced with more appropriate trees.

I am often asked if these old houses are not "protected" if they are in the city's (outdated) historic building inventory. Or if they aren't automatically saved, if they have been accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places. Sadly, the answer is "no." The NRHP is a designation of historic significance. Only a caring and vigilant property owner can save a building. A National Register nomination can be researched (a complicated procedure) and presented to the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation for approval, and subsequently forwarded to the US Department of the Interior in Washington D.C. for inclusion.

But even with that designation, the building owner can still demolish the property. This was a lesson learned by the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood about 15 years ago, when Reed College refused to sign the National Register nomination for the Sellwood Street Car Barns, cancelled a promised sale to a developer who proposed to retain them, and instead chose to demolish them, and sell the property to a developer for new construction.

I have previously quoted a friend, a contractor who restores historic buildings, who comments, "A poor economy is the best friend of an old building." As is becoming clear, a surging one and a hot property market makes a 50x100 foot lot desirable for new construction – but can render the older existing structure on it, no matter how historic, invisible and expendable.

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