In our neighborhood full of wonderful old homes, we often wonder who the actual builder was that put his design and energy into these buildings. Many of the skilled men who actually built our homes also lived inside Eliot. Some of them were masters at the design as well as the carpentry. John F. Wilson was one of these men who left their building legacy behind for us. But unlike most builders of the day, he remained inside our neighborhood for six more decades even though he switched residence in several houses.
John Fremont Wilson was born 1862 in Vermont and came to Albina during a building boom in 1887 and by that time, he had his trade mastered well. He may have had training in design in addition to carpentry skills learned while previously living on the east coast. The carpentry trade was often passed from father to son. Wilson did design the homes he built instead of taking bids from local architectural firms. In the late 1880s, he built his earliest houses in lower Albina in the vicinity of N Russell Street west of N Vancouver Avenue. By 1890, he built several houses along the south side of NE Russell between N Williams and NE Rodney. In 1891, he built a fine Queen Anne styled home for Alfred Abramson at 61 NE Sacramento (see sketch). Also at this time, Wilson started building homes on speculation on this block and selling them when completed. He did quite well with this and purchased other lots around the neighborhood repeating this same process. In 1892, he built a larger home for his family at 203 NE Sacramento. In 1894, due to debt and financial reverses from the 1893 Depression, Wilson was forced to turn the property over to his lender. Robert Brown, a local newspaper boy in the 1930s who liked early architecture in Albina, sketched this house. This house still stands today but looks different due to alterations during the 1940s. John Wilson and his family moved into a house likely built by him in 1893 at 2116 NE Rodney, now a duplex.
In 1898 as the economy started improving, John Wilson created a partnership with Elliott Lee Sanborn, another local builder featured in a previous article. At this time, Mr. Sanborn was active in building homes in the proximity of NE Thompson and Rodney and the pair built countless homes throughout the neighborhood on speculation. In 1902, the partnership was ended as building activity increased more. John Wilson built a fine home for his brother Charles Fred Wilson in 1900 at 60 NE Sacramento. This late Queen Anne still stands and is currently being restored. In 1901, John Wilson built a new home next door to that one for his family, a simple Dutch Colonial Revival at 72 NE Sacramento. In the early 1900s, Portland underwent a major building boom and Wilson benefited greatly from it. He conducted a higher level of speculation home building, inside and outside the Eliot neighborhood. In 1907, he formed a partnership with Leslie T. Peery called Peery & Wilson with a role in real estate marketing. Leslie Peery was another Albina resident who lived at 2008 N Williams since 1900 and conducted the real estate selling end of the business. John Wilson designed the houses and had his own crew of tradesmen. The firm remained until both partners went separate ways in 1911.
In 1910, John Wilson built an elegant Dutch Colonial Revival styled home at 2118 N Vancouver Avenue where he remained with his family the rest of his life. The lower level was built with smooth bricks and the home had unique architectural detailing. It stood until the 1980s and was interesting enough to be photographed and ranked in Portland’s 1st Historic Inventory. Wilson remained a builder, who often was known to design and build custom homes for friends and relatives. He also diversified after a downturn in home construction in 1916 and became a mechanic and also started a metal products company next door to his home on N Vancouver. He returned to building again in the 1920s when home construction rebounded. Wilson retired from building homes by the mid-1930s and became a tender for the Steel Bridge. In September 1947, he died in his home on N Vancouver at the age of 85. Wilson was unique as being an active builder who chose to remain inside Eliot as most builders frequently moved outward to the new subdivisions as they sprouted new homes. He was especially active as a member of the Albina Pioneers Association and most certainly loved living in our neighborhood and cherished the history he was a part of.
This is an excerpt of a book The History of Albina, anticipated for publication in 2006 by the author. He still seeks any old photographs and historic stories and also conducts historic research on homes in the Eliot & Boise neighborhoods at very reasonable rates. He can be contacted at 503-282-9436 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The previous article was originaly published in the Eliot News Vol 15 Num 1 (Winter 2006).