Sellwood business and residential history: 13th Avenue, recalled
At the start of the Twentieth Century, Portland was actually the second largest city on the west coast – dwarfed only by San Francisco, 700 miles to the south. But, at the time, most of the trade, warehouses, major banks, and job opportunities in the Rose City were centered on the west side of the Willamette River.
Hotels and boarding houses were available on the west side, but they were pretty expensive for laborers and blue-collar workers, who earned little and didn't have much to save or devote to leisure activities.
Consequently, 80% of the population lived on the east side of the Willamette, and those who chose to live on the west side were usually of a higher class, and living close to the businesses they owned or at which they shopped. "Uptown" Portland, as it was referred to then, had vaudeville theaters, huge department stores, lawyers, doctors, and dentists – all the necessities for those living in the big city.
It wasn't until the opening of the Morrison Bridge on March 2, 1887, followed by the Madison Bridge in June of 1891, that workers and their families on the east side were provided with more opportunities. They now had free access to cross a bridge to downtown, and didn't have to pay exorbitant prices to ferry goods or themselves across the river.
Previously, vegetables grown in the numerous gardens of East Portland had to be hauled by wagon to the nearest boat landing, and for a fee hauled across the river to the market stalls along Yamhill Street. People living on the east side of the river and traveling to work on the west side also previously had to pay a daily toll, but the opening of the first bridge proved beneficial to all – except for the ferryboat owners, of course.
Streetcar companies also benefitted from the bridges, and they began laying rails along East Portland roadways, in anticipation of the neighborhoods to be built around them. As more and more workers and their families began settling on the east side, neighborhood grocery stores, meat markets, hatter shops, blacksmiths, confectionaries, barbers, saloons, and even movie theaters and fire departments began showing up on main streets, creating commercial districts. A few of the many communities created around such busy commercial streets were Albina, Irvington, Brooklyn, Westmoreland, and "East Portland" – which ran along Grand Street, and was platted by James B. Stephens in 1887.
Property became more affordable; amenities were becoming available; and life was more tranquil on the east side of the river, away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby big city.
In the short-lived town of Sellwood (which quickly became part of Portland, in 1893), the commercial district connected to the Willamette River. Umatilla Street was still the major road for receiving supplies by boat, and the major route for farmers shipping out crops.
In 1892 Umatilla merchants were faced with drastic changes – when streetcar rails were laid along 13th Avenue as far as Malden Street. The Eastside Railway Company streetcars heralded a more efficient and faster mode of transportation for people wanting to attend horse racing or baseball activities at City View Park, atop the Sellwood Bluff.
For a mere nickel, passengers could ride the streetcar from their residence in Sellwood along 13th Street via Bybee Street, thence north on Milwaukie Avenue, with a scenic commute past "Midway" through the countryside, connecting to 12th Avenue, and then to the Madison Bridge.
As sporting events began fading away at Sellwood's City View Park – where homes and Sellwood Park would replace it – large wooden structures were being constructed along the major 13th Avenue corridor. These buildings were the start of a new commercial district in Sellwood, and the beginning of the "streetcar" building era.
Most of the two- and three-story buildings dating from the 1890s to the 1920s were made of brick, stucco, or wood – and were located along rail lines – and so were labeled by most architects as "streetcar construction". Many of these structures still exist – today, those are over one hundred years old – and can be found scattered in local neighborhoods around Portland.
In the 120 years from 1900 to 2019, the commercial district along Sellwood's 13th Avenue has seen many changes. In this issue of THE BEE and the next, together we'll stroll through the history of this business district – and because 13th Avenue encompasses such a large section, I will divide this article into two parts. Starting from Tacoma Street, north to Malden Street, will be our focus this month; and the section from Tacoma Street south to Ochoco Street will follow in the July issue.
13th Avenue, from Tacoma Street to Malden
Traveling on a streetcar at the turn of the Twentieth Century, many passing through might have been enthralled by the beauty of Sellwood, and some must have considered opening a retail store in this growing neighborhood. The result was that people of all vocations and from all parts of the country began to settle along 13th Avenue.
Before zoning laws were implemented, residential houses and merchants' shops were intermixed along the avenue. A single-story wooden structure, built to house merchants and shopkeepers' products and goods, could be located next to a family house. But initially, most stores and shops were clustered around the well-traveled intersections at Tenino, Lexington, and Spokane. Umatilla Street and 13th Avenue were already well-established as commercial districts.
Merchants who set up their trade along 13th often lived next door to their store. Other business owners found temporary quarters in boarding houses, or rented dwellings within a few blocks of their shops, so they'd be within walking distance. Proprietors who couldn't afford their own home lived in space in the rear of their businesses – usually, rather cramped quarters.
And those who built a family home along 13th Avenue later found the commercial district starting to encroach on their property. In response to this intrusion, some homeowners chose to build a store onto the front of their house which could be rented out to a merchant for extra income. Their own family functions were relegated to the back yard. Even today, many Four Square and Craftsman Style homes can be found in the commercial sections of Sellwood, Westmoreland, and Brooklyn – usually set back from the street, and sporting a small square storefront with a plate glass windows grafted onto it, right up to the sidewalk.
Among the early businesses along 13th Avenue were a fruit and preserves cannery established by A. Robertson near Malden Street. In 1900, women were no longer just relegated to household jobs or domestic duties; they had the choice of choosing a career, though the selection was small. Women could find employment outside the home working in retail sales and factories, as well as clerks, typists, nurses, and school teachers.
And Mr. Robertson had the grand vision of building one of the largest canneries in the state, relying on women and young girls seeking work to provide the labor at his cannery. As announced in THE BEE at the time, his warehouse "would be supplied by sufficient produce from all of the vegetable gardens on the east side of the river".
So much for grand visions. The cannery lasted less than five years before it closed.
Within hailing distance of that cannery was A.J. Henneman's Grocery, and the Ideal Cash Grocery (it was ideal for the owner, anyway, because it required cash, and refused credit).
Three of Sellwood's most successful and enterprising entrepreneurs were William Strahlmen, Alfred H. Griessen, and J.P. Zirngiebel – who each established the first two-story structures in the neighborhood.
Strahlman and Griessen decided to build next to each other. Strahlman built a two-story brick commercial building on the northwest corner of Spokane Street, and Griessen's two-story building was made of stone block on the southwest corner of Spokane. Zirngiebel stayed away from his two competitors, and opted to build on the northeast corner of Umatilla and 13th.
Strahlman started a confectionary, a movie house (the Alpha Theater), and held charitable balls and parties, while renting the upstairs hall for fraternal groups and events. He loved to include his family in community functions – his daughter playing the piano, while William and his wife sang duets!
Other shops that rented space in the Strahlman Building, through the years, included a men and women's dress shop, the Bishop Brothers; Alfred Williams' drugstore; "Payn Takit" variety store; and the Leipzig confectionary, which opened in 1923 after Strahlman closed his candy counter.
By the 1950's the slumping brick structure was deemed a fire hazard and torn down, replaced by a "Flying A" Service Station. But today, the spot where residents once gathered to celebrate community events is now a parking lot for merchants.
The Griessen Building was constructed in 1909 by Alfred H. Griessen who previously managed the Alpha Theater in 1907. As mentioned earlier, Sellwood's first movie house had been the Alpha Theater; and it, too, was located in William Strahlman's Building.
But, considering the rent too high, Griessen moved the family house, previously on the south side of Spokane and facing 13th Avenue, to a lot just west of his new stone-block building. There, he opened the Star Theater, and talked Williams into moving his pharmacy from Strahlman's corner into his new building. Williams Pharmacy was replaced, through the years, by the Sellwood Pharmacy, and later the Spokane Avenue Pharmacy. The northeast corner of the Griessen Building is now occupied by The Leipzig Tavern, once owned by Peter and Helen Leipzig, and currently at its third location along 13th Avenue.
Once the Star Theater closed, H. W. Morgan Dry Goods leased the space for five years, and the Sellwood Masonic Lodge was temporarily located upstairs until they moved to a permanent location on Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland. After the Masons vacated the premises, the second floor became a dental office for Dr. Rey Ralph in 1914, and later Dr. Frank H. Smith in 1935. One of five Piggly Wiggly grocery markets in the neighborhood was also located in the Griessen Building in 1931.
At the intersection of Spokane and 13th, residents in this era had no less than three movie theaters to choose from. Besides the renamed Alpha – the Isis – and the Star, the New Sellwood Theater opened to great fanfare on the southeast corner of Spokane and 13th, and this section of town became known as Movie House Row.
Unimpressed by the upstart theaters of Griessen and Strahlman, Bob Roach opened his Sellwood Theater to offer movies with sound and action. The Sellwood Theater was a favorite weekend stop for mothers and small children, who were enthralled with swashbuckling heroes, snarling pirates, and creepy horror films. Dashing heroines, as in the "Perils of Pauline", and funny man Charlie Chaplin were among movie enthusiasts' favorites. Popcorn, ice cream, sodas, candy, and prize drawings for free giveaways during intermission were all popular draw for attendees. The Sellwood Theater, ultimately the last movie theater in Sellwood, later moved around the corner onto Tacoma Street, where its building is now occupied by the Columbia Outlet Store.
Harry Black opened the first furniture store between Spokane Street and Nehalem on the east side of 13th Avenue. Alas, a fire in 1918 destroyed the building and his inventory, but Harry rallied and opened a new store on the southeast corner of Tacoma and 13th, and later added a showroom on Milwaukie Avenue which allowed more accessible parking for his customers.At the start of the Twentieth Century it was hard for ladies to find a dressmaker, or a specialist in making the latest style in hats, on the east side of town. But by 1906, over 300 dressmakers were listed in the Portland City Directory; most of these businesses were run by ladies out of their own home, but a few shops opened along 13th Avenue. These included hemstitching by Mrs. Lile and Mrs. Marshall. By 1913 ladies desiring a hat could visit the Sellwood Hat Shop, or the Bonnette Shop run by Faith Henderson. "The Manhattan" provided ladies' fine tailoring and cleaning, along with "Suitatorium Cleaners", near the corner of Lexington. Footwear of all styles could be purchased at the Pioneer Shoe Store; while J.T. Ayers, Alphonse Besner, and Sam Wollos offered shoe repair. Fine men's wear was available at Worsted Mills Tailors; and Sellwood's professional tailor, Cipricano Trentin, could fill specialty orders for the finest suits in the area from his little shop near Malden, where he did business for 30 years.
The Sellwood Racket Store and J.C Brill's provided undergarments, working shirts, socks, and leisure pants for the working class who couldn't afford expensive formal or social event attire.
Sellwood was relishing prosperity by the start of the 1920s, and shopkeepers wanted to eliminate the need for local residents to take a streetcar downtown to the major department stores – Old's, King and Wortman, and Meier and Frank. The commercial strip in Sellwood by this time boasted selections of fashionable clothes, shoes, makeup, and jewelry for young to old, all north of Tacoma Street.
Few homes were equipped with refrigeration in the 1920s, so a trip to the grocery store was usually a daily occurrence. Needed staples like meat, greens, produce, and milk and other dairy items were purchased every other day, so the corner grocery needed to be close by. 13th Avenue had at least fifteen grocery stores by then, for the needs of busy housewives who lived within a few blocks.
Bored children were often sent down the street to pick up the daily grocery list, which might also include a stick of candy or gum as an inducement to go. Some "mom and pop" grocers had outdoor freezers to store customers' perishables, available for rent on a month-to-month basis – and many staples could still be bought on credit until payday came around.
Grocery stores and meat markets (which were usually located next to the grocer) came and went over the years – to include J.W. Caldwell, Liberty Grocery, City View Market, Woolfenden Company, and the Sunshine Grocery. If you sent a youngster to the store with a list, you made sure he or she shopped at the right store, because among them were the Sellwood Grocery, the Sellwood Market, and the Sellwood Pharmacy.
And, if you were looking to buy a used bicycle, needed ammo for your gun, wanted your umbrella fixed, or needed someone to repair your baby buggy, then a stop at the Sellwood Bike Shop was in order for you.
From the early 1900s until 1950 there were a host of shops and services along 13th Avenue – barbers, beauty shops, bakers, jewelry stores, realty offices, restaurants, plumbers, cigarette and tobacco dealers – and the Kenworthy Funeral home was there too, still burying people the old fashioned way: In a fancy casket conveyed down the street to the graveyard by horse and carriage.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s many "mom and pop" stores were forced out of business because of their having continued to extend credit to their customers – whom now couldn't always pay it back. The Second World War didn't make being a grocer any easier, as many proprietors and clerks joined the military service, there was rationing of food, and even more shops closed up. The big burst of postwar prosperity came too late for many.
By the 1960s, many stores along 13th in Sellwood were showing their age, and many residents preferred to shop, buy, and eat in Westmoreland. That was where Kienow's Market was a grocery destination on Milwaukie Avenue; Sellwood's food market was now the Thriftway store which had replaced the Piggly Wiggly on Tacoma Street (today, it's the site of New Seasons). 13th Avenue in the '60s otherwise only had a few convenience stores, which people stopped in late at night or when they were in a hurry.
But renaissance was about to happen again. In 1965, Elizabeth Fowler opened her antique store "The 1874 House" in the former Sellwood Theater building. Hers was one of just three antique stores located along the then-struggling 13th Avenue commercial district. Those stores proved to have caught a trend at just the right time, and by the mid 1970s Sellwood had come alive with over 35 antique, secondhand, and collectable shops, and for the next thirty years 13th was Portland's "Antique Row", where people shopped from around the country.
Today, in the Twenty-First Century, only a few such shops remain there – but 13th Avenue continues to prosper as a walking neighborhood. Restaurants and pizza shops, coffee roasters, tea shops, bakeries, barber shops, banks, beauty salons, a library, real estate agencies, and mixed-use buildings with apartments above and sidewalk shops below have replaced many old buildings and houses.One historic element that has reappeared in a new form in downtown Portland, but has not yet returned to S.E. 13th Avenue: A modern trolley, to bring back a sense of the old Sellwood streetcar which once traveled back and forth down the middle of the street.
In the July issue of THE BEE we'll continue our history of Sellwood's 13th Avenue – by turning around, and strolling the other direction, in an historical journey through the commercial district south of Tacoma Street.
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