A Sellwood house, almost 130 years old, is scheduled for deconstruction to make room for a new apartment building. Known by its historic name as the Benjamin F. Smith House, this simple Queen Anne style dwelling – perched on its high brick foundation, on the southwest corner of S.E. 13th Avenue and Nehalem Street – is probably best known as "the Sock Dreams store". It is across the street from the 1905 Grand Central Bakery building, which has just reopened after interior remodeling.The Smith house was built in 1892 by Sellwood contractor Benjamin F. Smith, and it also served as his primary residence until his death in the early 1920's. The house appears to be the oldest surviving house on Thirteenth Avenue north of Tacoma Street, but it won't be surviving much longer – the 50x100 foot lot will be the site of a new 19-unit apartment building, with retail spaces facing 13th Avenue on the ground floor.
Even back when Sellwood was an independent incorporated town (1887-1892), 13th Avenue was becoming the commercial heart of Sellwood. This trend accelerated after the spring of 1893, when the Sellwood streetcar line opened. Perhaps Benjamin Smith was anticipating the arrival of this new and modern form of transportation, since the route was already being graded in 1892 – the year his house was completed. Once the streetcars began to travel the length of 13th, the avenue slowly changed from being one dotted with houses into a business district with newly-built commercial structures. In spite of the noise of the streetcar – and later, automobiles – this house remained a residence for almost 80 years, until it was converted for commercial purposes in the early 1970's.
The house was the family home, and also the address of Smith's contracting business. After B.F. Smith's death, the house remained under family ownership, probably through his son Benjamin F. Smith, Jr., who used it as a rental property. In the middle of the Great Depression, the basement was converted into a second rental unit, and the house was numbered both 8003 and 8005 S.E. 13th.
In the following forty years, 1933 through 1970, there were many tenants in the structure – often single or widowed women, some of whom lived in the house for many years. Presumably they were tidy individuals who kept the house in good physical condition, as it has retained most of its exterior details and interior floorplan.As a post-World War II desire to "modernize and improve" older buildings swept through the neighborhood, the house nonetheless kept its original windows, the glass becoming ever more wavy. The edges of the center window in the front bay are still ringed with multi-colored glass panes; the purple front door is appropriate to the architectural style of the period, and perhaps original. The small entry porch is embellished with ornamental millwork – often referred to as "gingerbread" – which extends to overlapping fish-scale patterned shingles in the two gable ends. The wide wood siding with deep channels also appears to be original.
Although he may have lived in the Sellwood area before 1885, it was in that year in which Benjamin F. Smith first appeared in a City Directory. He was a Sellwood resident, employed as a contractor, living at the northeast corner of Nehalem and 13th (in a house, later replaced, diagonally across 13th Street). He continued in the building trade until his death in the early 1920's. From 1896 to 1899 he was also President of the Sellwood Lumber Manufacturing Company, a sawmill at the foot of Spokane Street that later became the East Side Lumber Company. His partner was Jasper Young, whose grand 1895 house at S.E. 15th and Nehalem shares its double lot with an 80-foot-tall Heritage Copper Beech tree.As Young's business partner, and an experienced contractor, perhaps Smith was responsible for building his friend's house with material from their sawmill. Smith's business dealings were varied: Between 1889 and 1911 he was associated with boat builder Joseph Paquet, whose dock was at the foot of East Washington Street. In addition to steamboats, Paquet built sewer systems, bridges, roads, and railroads. This connection may have led to work for Smith – including setting the pilings for a sawmill/box factory at the foot of East Ankeny Street.
Smith apparently was married, as he fathered at least one child – a son, named Benjamin F. Smith, Jr. Benjamin the Younger did not follow in his father's career, becoming a draftsman for Portland Railway, Light, and Power Company. After that, he was a plan examiner for the city's Bureau of Buildings. His father, Benjamin, Sr. may have been a widower by the time he built that house on Nehalem Street. It has less than 1,000 square feet of living space, which seems a small dwelling for a man so apparently successful and well connected, unless he was single. An 1895 crime report suggests that he was unconstrained by a wife or the small-town watchfulness of Sellwood – he was the victim of a pickpocket, a crime that occurred in a downtown Portland saloon on a Sunday night.
A major change occurred in Sellwood in the early 1970's. Antique shops began moving into empty commercial spaces and into older homes on S.E. 13th. From 1970 to 1978 the Smith house was "The Corner House Gift Shop", operated by Harry Visse, who lived in Northeast Portland. In the early 1980's, part of the shop – perhaps the former basement apartment – was shared with "Charlotte's Workshop Art Studio". It is not clear whether this was Charlotte Owen's private studio, or if she offerd art lessons. Finally, in the mid-1980's, "Country Collectibles" replaced the two earlier endeavors. Available records do not reveal how long this business continued, nor if there were other short-term tenants prior to Sock Dreams. There have been many changes to the streetscapes of the SMILE neighborhood since the Smith house was built. It began as a single family residence, became a rental property, and finally changed to commercial use. It is unfortunate that there are no nearby empty lots to which this small and historic house could be moved.It is also a sign of the current appeal of the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood, and the pressure for building space, that a 50x100 foot lot which sold in 1890 for a few hundred dollars was purchased this February for $930,000 – almost $258,000 over its listed market value.
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