Please note that a response to this article, as well as an editor’s note, follow this article.
What started as a way to buy an affordable house ended up a many-years-long adventure to refurbish a home while unexpectedly experiencing the spirit world up close and personal.
Gardner and Donna Murphy knew they wanted to get out of the northwest Portland apartment they were living in and started the search to buy a home. In 1979 homes were much less expensive than they are today but still, most home prices were out of reach for the young couple. After being shown many homes by their real estate agent in “white” neighborhoods they wondered if there were any other neighborhoods they could explore where they could afford to buy. As was common practice, their real estate agent would not take them to any of the homes for sale in the “black” neighborhoods so the Murphys took matters into their own hands. While looking in the Oregonian real estate section, one house jumped out to them. The sweet home at 206 NE Sacramento Street built in 1896 seemed like just the property they had been looking for. The current owner was a businessman who owned several properties that he had brought up to code and then rented them out. However, he was getting ready to move out of Portland and this particular house needed a lot of repairs to bring it up to code. He had been able to obtain a loan because of the success of the other homes he had refurbished. The Murphys agreed to provide a lot of sweat equity and to assume his loan for what was a very affordable price. They were given a deadline to complete the repairs, but it would end up taking a lot more sweat equity than originally anticipated to complete the project.
“I thought Gardner knew more about construction and he thought I knew more about construction,” says Donna Murphy. “We had to get an extension of a few more weeks from the owner,” Donna says, “but, he liked what we did.”
The home had no heat at first except for a sawdust burner. “For the first 2 or 3 years ‘til we got the PDC (Portland Development Commission) loan there would be ice on the inside of the windows,” Donna remembers. Gardner recalls, “there was almost no interest on that PDC loan.” They were able to get other PDC loans for the storm windows and insulation.
A few months after they had moved into the home the ghost activity began. Donna confesses, “I never believed in ghosts ‘til I saw one within a few months of moving in. Our little baby, Annie, coughed in the middle of the night and I looked over to see if she was okay and there was a man with a plaid shirt on, like a flannel shirt, looking over the crib looking at her. I thought it was Gardner. I thought Gardner beat me to the crib and then I realized, no, Gardner’s right here (next to her in bed) and this man that was crouched over drifted that way and into the kitchen. It was never scary, it was just interesting. The next morning I thought, ‘I saw a ghost!’ I read that Martin Mayo had a baby while living at that house.”
Donna learned that fact much later after they had moved from and sold the house so she didn’t know who this ghost might be.
Because of this detail and other details about Martin Mayo, the Murphys think that the ghost could have been the spirit of Martin Mayo. Mayo was a cook at a restaurant which he ended up buying and naming it the Mayo Restaurant. Lucretia and Martin’s only son, George P. Mayo was born in that house.
Gardner recalls, “I never had any thought of ghosts until living in that house. In a gas stove, there is an igniter that usually goes click, click, click (fast). Ours started going at night when you weren’t in the room as you were getting ready for bed and it would go click (pause), click if it was bedtime and you weren’t in the kitchen. Our renters asked us about that too.” The stove was changed out three times and each would have that same random clicking at bedtime which would stop when anyone went into the kitchen.
Also, says Gardner, “I felt the bed shaking once and you did too (Donna). I woke up. I took a quick peek and then back under the covers!”
Donna also recalls smells coming from the kitchen. “There was the smell of oatmeal and bacon in the middle of the night.”
“And the voices… One day my sister, as we were bringing in the groceries said, ‘did you leave a radio on?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s the spooks.’ The one was a man having a conversation with himself and the other was a female upstairs in the attic talking slow and measured for hours at a time. You just get used to it. It was like living with roommates next door,” says Donna. “I never felt in any danger. However, I was having nightmares about the clicking and one night I said, ‘You have to stop!’ There was two separate loud pops or bangs and pretty much after that, there was no more ghost activity.” So it seems that Donna had gotten through to the ghosts for the time being!
Apparently, others who have lived in the house have experienced the same thing including tenants of the Murphy’s, some kids who came by and said they had lived in the house and asked if they had heard any ghosts and also some friends of their daughter, Annie, who also lived in the house. Pretty persistent spirits, those Mayos.
Even though the house was haunted, the Murphy’s loved owning and living in the Mayo house and enjoyed the diverse neighborhood and wonderful neighbors. They also enjoyed the adjacent two lots which they purchased from a developer who was going to put up a 6 unit apartment building. They basically purchased those for just over the cost of the back taxes. Saving the lots from development, they turned the property into an urban forest, farm and playground for the kids. Tall trees to climb, room to play baseball and ride bikes, it was a veritable wonderland. Ironic that now the property will again be transformed by a developer building an even larger complex than the one originally avoided in the 1980s.
Fast forward to 2019 and the lucky opportunity to meet the Murphy’s at the Mayo house move on January 27th. The Murphys and many other neighbors, friends, family and intrigued residents gathered to watch a house move for the third time down the same street. This time the house will become home to the Black history archives courtesy of Cleo and Kayin Davis. They purchased the house and through a lot of bureaucratic sweat equity and help from the city planners, were able to get a zoning change, fees waived and coordinate the logistics to move a house to their property at 236 NE Sacramento. The actual process was awesome to watch and hard to imagine possible that a 123-year-old home can handle that much movement. Who knows, maybe Martin Mayo and his wife are happy that the house is moving to a third location on the same block and their spirits will be at rest. As for the Murphy’s, they are at peace. Back in 1986 when they sold the house to one of their renters they bought a house in the Beaumont Neighborhood. Thankfully the house they now own is, “at peace with itself,” according to Donna.
We’re not going to say this is the final chapter of the Martin Mayo house story because there is so much more to come with the “ARTChives” the Davis’s are going to create. Who knows? The house may last another hundred years so it will have a chance to have a much longer story with guaranteed interesting twists and turns and perhaps some new ghosts to haunt its rooms.
Shara Alexander submitted this response to the above article.
Response to “A Story of Sweat Equity”
The April 2019 Eliot News story about a previous owner of the Mayo house used a word in the title that has a connotation other than ghosts. That word is “spooks”. (“A Story of Sweat Equity and Spooks- More Martin Mayo House History and its Amazing Move”) People over the age of 50 or people of any age who have read about or experienced racism will be familiar with this racist epithet for African Americans. The title of the article has been changed online.
In addition to using a racist epithet in the title, the article seems to be indifferent to the context of racism, loss and displacement for many residents of this neighborhood. It’s the story of a white family taking advantage of the disparity in home prices and conditions in a redlined area of the city in 1979. This is not just one family’s experience, but is a broad national economic trend founded in racism. I am also white and took advantage of the seemingly irrational low prices of homes and lots in this quadrant of the city when I bought my home in 1992. Even if I didn’t have much money at the time I bought my house, I was in a better economic position than many existing residents and had access to more resources (bank loans, family money, job opportunities) as well as the ability to be comfortable and welcomed in any neighborhood in the city due to my race. This is not a victimless advantage, and it’s not a coincidence, even if we are blissfully unaware as white home buyers. As long as the homes and lots in this neighborhood were owned by people of color, they had lower value. Once the area was transferred into primarily white hands the values began to increase. It was gradual but irreversible, and we are seeing the result of this process today. Economically disadvantaged people are priced out and scramble to find housing again in the currently less desirable parts of the city. The parts of town deemed less desirable by real estate agents and high income buyers changes over time, but are always home to the poor, people of color and immigrants through this economic process of loss and gain. If we are blind to that history and to the continuation of economic disparities by race and other biases we are allowing the system to continue. This entrenched problem may be complex, but if we recognize and acknowledge it we can begin to work together to find solutions.
This neighborhood paper has published many articles about the neighborhood’s history of racism, most recently “ARTchives could be a Game Changer for Portland’s Black Diaspora” January 27, 2019 and “Emanuel Apologizes” September 6th, 2017. I hope readers will continue to think critically about what they see in the neighborhood, how we got here, and who is most impacted by the continuing gentrification and displacement of families in Portland.
Additional resources for learning about racism and the home ownership history of Albina/Eliot:
“Priced Out” the documentary film will be shown from 7pm at the Leaven Community Center on May 2nd
High Country News: https://www.hcn.org/issues/50.9/race-racism-portlands-racist-history-of-housing-discrimination-and-gentrification