Robert E. Menefee: Profile of an Albina Businessman & Resident

During the early years of rapid development in the town of Albina, which most of is now inside the Eliot neighborhood, many well-known businessmen were involved with the process.  When Albina was incorporated in 1887, it saw phenomenal growth through 1892.  Much money was spent and made on real estate investments and industrial expansions tied into the railroad industry.  Businesses during these years thrived on healthy profits in part due to an abundant supply of immigrant workers willing to work at working-class wages.  The real estate market was exceptionally healthy due to soaring lot prices.  After Albina merged with Portland in 1891, the value of property skyrocketed.  Most Albina businessmen and property speculators though lived in today’s NW and SW Portland, which was generally where most of the “well-to-do” lived.  Robert E. Menefee and his brothers were an exception to this rule as they resided in Albina during most of their lives.  Some of the homes they lived in are still standing in the neighborhood today.

16 NE Tillamook, oldest surviving house where Menefee lived with his father from 1890 to 1892.

Robert E. Menefee was born in November 1865 in Santa Rosa, California where the family settled in 1864 after leaving their previous homestead in Missouri.  Older brother Joseph P. Menefee moved to Portland in 1878 and immediately settled in Albina where he established a painting business.  During the 1880s Albina was booming and he established a real estate business and prospered.  Brother Robert Menefee joined him here in 1887.  Soon, father James Menefee and younger brother George W. Menefee moved here from Santa Rosa and formed a speculation home building team.  During the next few years, many houses were built and sold.  Some of the early houses still stand on the blocks between NE Hancock and NE Tillamook between N Williams and NE Rodney.  One interesting small house that stands today at 16 NE Tillamook is a Queen Anne styled cottage built for Robert Menefee and his father James in 1890.  Joseph Menefee purchased a cluster of lots on this block in 1888.  In 1889, he built a fine home of the Stick-Eastlake style for himself at 2054 N Williams (at the SE corner of Tillamook) but it was replaced by a commercial building in 1970.

1927 NE Rodney, Menefee lived in this home from 1898 to 1905.

In 1890, Joseph and Robert Menefee helped found and became part owners of the Bank of Albina.  It was housed in a beautiful brick Victorian building that stood at the NE corner of N Russell and Mississippi until demolished in the 1980s.  This banking institution was special in the community as it served all residents of Albina and backed many of the homes being built.  They loaned money to new settlers wanting to build no matter what their ethnic background was.  These services were vital in helping young families get established in owning their own homes in the neighborhood.  During the 1893 Bank Panic and Depression, the Menefees endured financial reverses but managed by diversifying into other businesses.  The bank was sold out to new owner George W. Bates to avoid failure.  Also during these hard times, the family faced tragedy as father James was killed in a freak streetcar accident and Robert’s first wife died suddenly.  As property values plunged between 1893 and 1896, they pulled out of the real estate business.  For a few years, Robert Menefee operated a bowling alley on Williams Avenue with another business partner.  But by 1898, he got back into the real estate game and established a new business with insurance services and had a new wife named Laura.  In 1898, a new Queen Anne styled Victorian cottage was finished for his family.  This attractive house still stands at 1927 NE Rodney at the corner of San Rafael and was restored in recent years.

A renewed economy spurred home building activity in the neighborhood and the speculation building business was resumed with his brother Joseph.  Their speculation homes were quality built in a variety of architectural styles and sold on very reasonable terms to suit middle-class families.  During the early 1900s, their operation was in full stride.  Groups of these houses still stand on the west side of NE Rodney from NE San Rafael almost up to NE Thompson.  During these years, Robert Menefee seemed to take a more active role in the firm, often referred to as R. E. Menefee & Associates. In 1905, he was appointed to the Portland City Council and served until 1913.  He was noted in 1906 for daring to challenge the local gas company monopoly.  It was clear by this time that Robert Menefee wanted to represent the voice of the common working man instead of being a puppet for the monopolies and trusts.  By 1908, the family firm was also building higher-end speculation homes in Irvington.

In 1905, Robert Menefee built a larger home of the American Foursquare style across the street at 2007 NE Rodney for his family. When he retired, he moved into a home in the Beaumont neighborhood on NE 43rd.  After many more years, he died there in October 1954 at the age of 88.

An excerpt from the book The History of Albina, available at Broadway Books at 1714 NE Broadway, Rejuvenation Inc. at 1100 SE Grand, and Powells Books at NW 10th & Burnside.

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