The old house sits on the ridge that rises above Eastmoreland. Built in 1892-93 for J. N. Russell, Jr., the first Postmaster of Woodstock, it is by legal description (as maintained by the Multnomah County Tax Assessor's Office) within the Woodstock Subdivision, which was filed with the County on November 29, 1889.
However, in the mid-1970's the City of Portland used late 20th Century transportation corridors to establish the boundaries of its Neighborhood Associations, placing the Russell house within the Eastmoreland neighborhood. To this historian, listing the house as the "oldest house in Eastmoreland" is not completely accurate, since the Eastmoreland Subdivision was not filed with the County until June 13, 1911, twenty-two years after the Woodstock plat. However, in this Holiday Season I will relax my historian's precision and propose a compromise: That the Russell mansion is BOTH the oldest house in Eastmoreland as well as the oldest surviving house in the Woodstock subdivision! (If any readers are aware of an older house in Woodstock, I would like to hear from them).
Setting aside this technical quibble, the house is deserving of attention for several reasons. First of all, it is architecturally complex, and difficult to label as being of a single style. Because of the period in which it was built, Queen Anne comes to mind – but the Russell house lacks the multiple gables and dormers of that style. It does have a large porch – deep enough for lounging on a warm day – which culminates in a one-story half-round bay with a curved roof.
But It has some Second Empire features in its prominent square tower with a shingled, mansard roof, as well as several patterns of fretwork. The flat roof is almost Italianate Villa; but there is no bracketed, overhanging roof. A row of dentil (toothlike) decoration runs along the edge of the roof, rather than under the eaves where it should be.
If a style label needs to be is applied, the best might be Late Nineteenth Century Eclectic. An 1893 issue of the Oregonian described it as "unique and attractive."
Presumably the owner, J.R. Russell, Jr., had a concept of how his new house should look and function. Perhaps he had saved illustrations from publications of the period, and his carpenters proceeded as instructed, with or without blueprints. In any case, the house possesses a quirky charm and is distinctive, both for its architectural details and its location.
Unless you are already familiar with the house, the curious BEE reader will have to park on Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard (formerly S.E. 39th) and walk a half-block to view the house, which is obscured behind a tangle of vegetation at Southeast 38th and Martins Street. The structure was formerly visible from the corner of S.E. Carlton and Chavez. Blvd., but the current owners sold half of one of their four lots and now only a bit of the massive chimney and tower may be glimpsed.
Although the view of the house is restricted, it should be remembered that Chavez Blvd. (formerly 39th) was not originally the primary street through the Woodstock subdivision. The most important street was S.E. 41st Avenue (which observant residents may notice is wider than the other numbered streets), because it was the route of the streetcar. Although the Russell house was convenient to the Waverleigh/Woodstock carline's turn onto Woodstock Boulevard, the house was situated a few blocks from the clanging and clicking of the streetcar. When it was finished, its location at the top of the hill must have provided splendid views from its tower.
In addition to its unusual style, and the fact that it has survived for 125 years, the house is significant because its owner played an important role in the early development of Woodstock. Not long after the subdivision plan was filed in Multnomah County, investors began spending money to prepare the 75 blocks for sale. As enumerated in a July, 1892, Oregonian column, expenditures included "$8,000 for clearing and grubbing lots; $4,000 for clearing streets, and $4,500 for waterworks, including wells, pumping apparatus, and piping." A 50x100 foot lot in the new suburb averaged $750.
The work of clearing, surveying and selling the lots resulted in "A Rapid but Very Steady Growth". In the same article, it was stated that construction of more than twenty-two structures was underway in Woodstock. This included a school ($5,000); two churches (Methodist and Evangelical), a depot for the end of the streetcar line ($800). and a store ($2,500). This latter building was a grocery store owned and operated by the Russell Brothers (John Jr. and Burt). The article does not provide an address, only that it was in Woodstock (not on Woodstock Street, as the today's boulevard was originally named).
By the time the grocery business was supplying the needs of nearby residents, John N. Russell Jr. was also serving as their Postmaster. According to recently-retired postal clerk and fellow historian Dana Beck, from 1891-1912 the Woodstock Post Office operated as a subdivision of the Portland Post Office, with the operator paid an annual salary. Mail carriers traveled by streetcar to the neighborhood from the main Post Office in downtown Portland. After 1912 the Woodstock Post Office was run by postal clerks, with one or two carriers delivering mail to homes and businesses. By the mid-1950's the neighborhood had its own stand-alone building at 4423 S.E. Woodstock – before it closed, and service was reduced to the tiny contract station in the Safeway store.
John N. Russell, Jr. served as Postmaster beginning in 1891, presumably in his new grocery store. His family also ran a sawmill somewhere on the Columbia River near the Cascades (probably between what is now Cascade Locks and The Dalles). They hoped to win a contract to produce ties for the new railroad being built in the Gorge. The income from these three enterprises must have been sufficient to enable Russell to begin planning his new house, for in early November of 1892, the Oregonian reported that he was "putting up a home in the spring." Six months later the "elegant residence, to cost $3500" was underway. Then disaster struck.
The final decade of the Nineteenth Century was marked by a global economic recession that lasted for several years. Russell seems to have held on to his new home, because he was living there until approximately 1915, when he moved to North Portland. But he had lost his steady Post Office job. In 1898 the Oregonian mentioned that he had been "bumped" from his position "for a few years". However, his replacement was "not a success" – and in July of 1898 Russell was again serving as Woodstock Postmaster, continuing until he quit a year later.
As he resigned in December, 1899, Russell Brothers also closed their grocery store, "because their sawmill had been destroyed by a disastrous fire." The post office continued operation, but there was apparently no other grocery store in Woodstock. Russell obtained a job as deputy county treasurer, and then from 1903 to 1927 worked as a salesman for a variety of businesses.
The last member of the Russell family to live in the house left after 1926. Between 1928 and 1996 two generations of the John and Charlotte Lee family owned the house; and in 2000 it was purchased by its current owners, Patrick and Coleen Mendola. Having raised their family in the house, the Mendolas are now putting it, and its three and a half lots, on the market, so they can downsize and move to Colorado where their grandchildren live.
Although not visible from the outside, the interior has been well cared for, with few changes since its construction. Original features include back-to-back fireplaces in the parlor, and dining rooms with original, ornate mantelpieces and surrounds. There are many built-in bookcases in the living areas, and cupboards in the large pantry and kitchen. The millwork is a wood crafter's dream: The windows and doors are trimmed in birds-eye maple, with unique tiger-eye maple inlay in the corners.
Fortunately the wood retains its original finish; it is hoped that whoever purchases the house will appreciate its uniqueness and not paint it. Potential buyers can make an appointment with the realtor (who herself lives in Sellwood). A virtual tour is on line – to see details of the interior, go online – www.ruummedia.com/t/3814-southeast-martins-street-portland-mls.html
Thank you to fellow historians Joanne Carlson of Eastmoreland, and Dana Beck, for information about John N. Russell, Jr. and the postal system. And Happy Holidays to all of the readers of THE BEE!
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)