Two vintage buildings headed into their second century
May is "National Historic Preservation Month", and in keeping with past years I am taking the opportunity to recognize two structures which, due to the care and consideration of their owners, have survived for more than one hundred years.
The first is the structure at the northwest corner of S.E. 13th Avenue and Nehalem Street that houses the Grand Central Bakery. Built in 1905, it was the grocery store (until 1941) of J.W. Caldwell, whose name is imprinted in the sidewalk at the front entrance. Late in 2019 the bakery now resident there closed for renovations within the building. Unfortunately, it did not reopen as scheduled because of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The bread is still available at other branches of the bakery, as well as in some grocery stores, but customers will have to wait a bit longer for soup, sandwiches, and other baked goodies there.In the meantime, stop to appreciate the original façade, with its transom windows above the double front doors, as well as the (replaced) plank threshold that spans the gap between the sidewalk and entry doors.
The other structure about which I am writing is a residence in Westmoreland – in the north end of the SMILE neighborhood. It is a one-man marvel of exterior restoration and interior remodeling. When it was purchased in January of 2017, the house at 1514 S.E. Ellis Street – a two-story, Four Square-style house – had suffered decades of physical deterioration as a rental property. I felt a familiar twinge of despair when I saw the chain link fence wrapped around it, fearing that its dilapidated state marked it as a "tear down". It was also zoned for multi-family housing, which also suggested impending demolition.But, I was greatly relieved when I stopped to chat with the new owner – a contractor for many years. He had promised himself that this would be his final project, and that he would reside in the house himself when it was finished. He now confesses that in the ensuing two years he wondered if he should have replaced the structure with a newly-built duplex; but once he started, he had too much time invested to change direction.
It was built in 1903, but a 1911 plumbing record states that the house was "moved here and a foundation put under same." The new owner believes that it was merely moved ninety degrees to face Ellis Street instead of Southeast 15th. This may seem odd to contemporary readers, with our desire to have a night-time view toward the Fulton neighborhood across the river; but, at the time of its construction, the owners would have been looking at trees, underbrush, and very few lights winking in the dark, when facing west. To the north, across Ellis Street, were homes; and a half block to the east, the activity of the Sellwood streetcar line. Indicative of the then-sparsely-populated area was its address, which was just "606 Ellis Street, between Milwaukie Avenue and the river." Lacking access to my usual library-based research materials, I was unable to determine who the owner was in 1903, but the current owner states that, for at least 70 years, it was an investment property, rented to short term residents. In 1942, a toilet and sink were added to the second floor, to supplement the single bathroom and meet the need for extra housing during World War II – when the shipyards were operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was around that time that the original horizontal board siding was covered with ceramic asbestos tiles, a virtually maintenance-free material – but, if damaged, a source of potentially hazardous microfibers in the air (and lungs).
As the contractor planned his work, his first task was meeting the current City of Portland building codes. Their primary requirement was to strengthen the exterior shell of the house, from roof to basement. This meant doubling the rafters, re-sheathing exterior walls with plywood, and pouring a new basement slab. Fortunately the basement had an eight foot ceiling, so it was decided to make the area more habitable by installing in-floor heating and a small bathroom. The house appears more spacious than it is; the curved corners of the bell-cast roof pinch the interior space. The house originally had two upstairs bedrooms and no closets. With the basement upgraded, it now is a three-bedroom, 2.5 bathroom residence.
The satisfaction of gaining a new, cozy, and very quiet basement family room was dimmed by the revelation of three time-and-money-consuming problems. First of all was the 650-gallon oil tank that had settled, and then rusted. As the renters filled the oil tank every fall, they must have wondered at how inefficient the furnace was, requiring frequent refills. Apparently, the absentee landlord was not asked to check the furnace (or ignored the requests); but the tank silently bled oil into a large part of the backyard through a fist-sized hole in the bottom! Not only did the tank have to be removed, but many yards of the adjacent contaminated soil dug out as well. The hole in the back yard was so deep that the contractor decided to extend the first floor by eight feet and was able to enlarge the new kitchen.
The second discovery was an old cesspool – into which toilets, bathtubs, and sinks had drained prior to the innovation of septic tanks and, later, public sewer lines. This was described to me "as a large bottle shape of stacked bricks, unmortared, and narrowing at the top just like a bottle neck." It apparently had not been used for a very long time (the house was connected to the sewer in 1919), and was empty, so the city inspector approved filling it with gravel.
The final big challenge was The Tree. This sat on the eastern property line, it roots heaving up the driveway. The neighbor to the east "owns" one third of the tree, while the owner of the house being remodeled owned the remaining two thirds. As it was wintertime, and city arborists were unable to identify it, a six month "tree root mitigation plan" was applied. Spring arrived, and the contractor recognized it as a very common and not very well-behaved Sycamore Maple, "Acer Pseudoplatanus", probably "planted" by a passing bird. Its Wikipedia entry states that it can grow as tall at 115 feet, spreads easily from seed, and can become invasive, although it also "makes good firewood". The homeowners decided to keep it because it provides heavy shade in the summer.
The only part of the exterior that was altered was the removal of a utility entrance on the west side of the house. This allowed a new interior staircase to the second floor to be built in its place. It also provided access to the back yard via a wooden gate, whose boards have been cut into a "mountain" shape. Old windows were replaced with new ones, porch pillars reconstructed, and new horizontal board siding replaced the asbestos tiles. The final challenge was tearing off six layers of old roofing material, and rebuilding the bell-cast roof, which curves up slightly at its four corners. The project was finally completed a year ago – in March of 2019.
Two lots to east, at the corner of S.E. Ellis Street and Milwaukie Avenue stands a new multi-story apartment building. On its 50x100 foot lot there will be 30 units of "micro studios", but in spite of the unceasing pressure to "upzone" (increase density), this 1903 house remains a single family residence. The contractor and owner and his family wish to retain their privacy, and asks that names not appear in print – but if you see the inhabitants outside their house, consider thanking them for the two years of labor and money that they spent on their old house, which is now approaching 120 years of age.
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