The Loss of the Allen Flowers Houses: The Oldest Black-Built Known in Portland

The Allen Flowers Houses 1803, 1811 1815 NE 1st Avenue, circa 1885. Photo courtesy of Oregon Historical Society

There were three small old houses inside our wonderful Eliot neighborhood that were demolished quickly last fall in a peculiar quiet fashion and not to the notice of most of our residents.  Well, this rapid and hasty act appears to be deliberate and turns out to be a tragedy for our neighborhood and diverse cultural history.  At this time, the author is not clear on the details of what happened on the west side of the block of NE 1st Avenue between Broadway and Hancock Streets on that late fall day back in 2019.  What happened may not be the total blame to the developer and much of it rests on the City of Portland and their policies that severely lack an incentive for historic preservation.  What is a bigger travesty is that these houses may only be replaced by a parking lot to serve the Toyota dealership on this block. 

As of until recently, these 3 houses were owned by Pauline Bradford, a long-time resident of the Eliot neighborhood since 1945 who was very active for many years in the Eliot Neighborhood Association.  She was a critical force in trying to make our neighborhood a better place for residents and made an impact on thwarting much adverse development.  She was also one of the longest living African-American residents of our neighborhood and worked hard to help improve the living standards and rights of black residents.  She also was a strong force in helping put together an inventory of buildings significant in African-American history back in the 1990s that was backed by the Bosco-Milligan Foundation (now Architectural Heritage Center).  Known by the author for many years, she mentioned the many times that there were strong efforts by the property owners of the dealership (formerly Coliseum Ford) to pressure her and her husband in selling as far back as the 1970s.  Sadly, since the 1970s, adjacent houses all around them were gobbled up as the building and parking lots were expanded.  Now the entire block that goes west to N Victoria and north to Hancock may be completely in their ownership.  It is not known if Mrs. Bradford recently passed away or relocated for health or other reasons.  The last time the author made personal contact with her was in late 2017.  The destruction was swift, and apparently, no parts of the houses were even salvaged or recycled.  It is possible the owner(s) knew of the great historic significance of two of these houses as being associated with Allen Flowers, one of the first African-Americans who came to Portland and stayed.  It is also tragic that the small houses could have been relocated in the general proximity at not too high of a cost due to their smaller size.  Recent tax-break economic incentives by the Federal government to encourage rehabilitation of historic buildings would have made it sustainable and economically practical.  There are many young ambitious homeowners to-be in the community and investors that would have been interested to save these houses and taken it on in short order.  It could be that the new ownership acted on panic.

Now backing things up to the 1800s, Allen Flowers came to Portland in 1865 by jumping ship from a steamship where he was employed when it docked here.  He managed to get by with many service-oriented jobs including the Lincoln Hotel in lower NW Portland for a number of years.  Later, he became an operator for ships that delivered goods up and down the Columbia River and managed to secure a homestead in the Mount Scott vicinity.  In 1884 and 85, he had a wife Louisa M. and purchased 2 lots in Elizabeth Irving’s First Addition of East Portland, now the block with the dealership on it.  Interestingly at this early date, people of color were not excluded from purchasing at this location.  He commenced construction of 3 houses, for his own new family and other relatives. Flowers chose this location due to his new occupation as a porter-in-charge for the Northern Pacific Railroad between Portland and Seattle.  He remained in one of these houses for the remainder of his long life until 1934.  He had 4 sons who also lived in these 3 houses with their families.  One of his sons, Ervin M. Flowers remained and became the president of the NAACP during the 1920s.  The entire family was very instrumental in improving the lives of black residents of Portland and their success in business and careers was also a motivating factor for encouragement to others. 

At the present time, it is apparent that the two Flowers Houses that stood here were the oldest known in all of Portland that were black-built.  In the historic photo taken just before 1900, all three are clear and very similar.  Two of these remained until recently. It is a possibility that there could be a few other survivors of near the 1885 vintage in the general close-in North Portland proximity that are still unknown that could have been moved to other locations during the course of the 20th Century.  So far, research has not produced anything known.  It was discovered by the author back in the 1990s that the decorative Queen-Anne style cottage that stood at 1745 NE 1st Avenue was built in 1888 by James Curran in McMillens Addition to East Portland and moved to this spot in 1910 due to construction of an apartment building.  McMillens Addition also allowed people of color and Chinese to purchase and build. That replacement building was torn down in 1960 along with many adjacent structures, for construction of Memorial Coliseum. Pauline Bradford lived in this house since 1979 and the interior was adorned with gorgeous woodwork and very tall ceilings and was in excellent condition.  This was such a waste that we residents hope to never see happen again in our diverse neighborhood and a loss of a cultural resource that cannot be replaced. A tidbit from the book “The History of Albina”, available at Powell’s Books downtown and Broadway Books at NE 17th.

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