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.

Historic Martin Mayo House Slated for Demolition

Historical black and white photo of Martin Mayo house in 1929
Historic Martin Mayo house in 1929

The Eliot neighborhood may soon be losing an historic resource, a cute house with a unique curved front porch connected to a man who dedicated much of his life to the community over one hundred years ago.  The house now at 206 NE Sacramento Street is a little bit tucked away behind shrubbery on a double-sized lot and proposed to be replaced by bland modern higher density housing.  The current owner, Danielle Isenhart of Emerio Design based in Beaverton, filed a demolition permit earlier this spring and was approved on May 4th.  The one condition posed by the city was a demolition delay of 120 days to provide a possible alternative to the destruction of a historic resource.

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The John Antonio House

Historic Homes & Buildings: The John Antonio House
The Second Oldest House in Eliot

The John Antonio House
The John Antonio House on NE Tillamook with snow in January 2007

There is one small old house tucked away inside our architecturally diverse neighborhood that could escape being noticed during a walk. It is not a fancy Victorian-era house loaded with gingerbread but a simple cottage with a shallow bay window in front. The Antonio Cottage can be found in the middle of the block on the south aide of NE Tillamook between Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and NE 7th Avenue at number 528. The house sits on one of the earliest blocks developed when the “Townsite of Albina” was laid out in 1873. Research has revealed that this is the second oldest structure known in our neighborhood.

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Update on the Rayworth House

Rayworth House 2005
The Edwin Rayworth House (2005)

In October 2012, developer Andre Kashuba purchased the Historic Rayworth House property located at 3605 N Albina in the nearby Boise neighborhood. He immediately filed plans with the city to demolish the existing 1890 single-family house and construct two attached larger homes on the lot. Around November, the city granted approval with a new proposed lot line splitting the property down the middle. In recent years, it has been a primary goal to encourage increased population density in close-in neighborhoods. Even though the Rayworth House is in the middle of a block of single-family homes between N Fremont and N Beech, most of the area is zoned for two families per lot, which explains the short of approval time by the city.

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1890 Home Slated for Destruction

The Edwin Rayworth House - Built in 1890
The Edwin Rayworth House – Built in 1890

The Edwin Rayworth House

Another historic home in the Boise neighborhood nearby Eliot at 3605 N Albina is slated for demolition. A developer from Lake Oswego intends to replace this classic vintage home with a bland modern 2-family structure with a property split down the middle of the lot. This Queen Anne styled home is not a fancy Victorian era mansion but a decorative cottage, typical for a middle-classed resident in 1890. At the time this house was built, the Eliot, Boise, and King neighborhoods were within the limits of the City of Albina, consolidated by the City of Portland one year later.

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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.

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A Little Bit Of Norway in Eliot

Queen Anne Cottages on NE Rodney. Circa 2000.

The residents of Eliot are fortunate today to enjoy ethnic and cultural diversity. What is more unique about our neighborhood is that it was always diverse since the beginning, during the last quarter of the 19th Century.  A healthy mix of immigrants from Europe settled here and built homes.  In the northerly portion of the original town site of Albina, which is bounded by today’s NE Morris Street west of MLK & NE Ivy Street east of MLK, a higher concentration of settlers from Scandinavian countries purchased property and built homes for themselves and related family members.  Most of these men held a variety of occupations that were often unskilled, but they were well-taught and highly skilled in carpentry.  Luckily, clusters of these small but decorative houses stand today and some have been sensitively restored.

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The White Eagle Saloon

White Eagle Saloon

A Building Full of Colorful History & Stories

Our neighborhood is so fortunate to have buildings that have survived for nearly a century or more.  Every building has seen much use from many people over the years and has many stories to tell as well.  The White Eagle Saloon & Café at 836 N Russell Street is a great example of a simple building known for its colorful past.  The White Eagle, as it is now known as, has not only serviced many different people from different walks of life, but also is full of stories of events passed through several generations.  In 95 years of existence, the building has served the same function as a saloon, tavern, or pub.  Perhaps the walls are trying to talk as mysteries still shroud this building and reports of haunting by ghosts continue.

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An 1883 House on the Endangered List

216 NE Tillamook
216 NE Tillamook

The Eliot neighborhood may soon be losing a historic home at 216 NE Tillamook. A demolition permit was filed by the company who purchased it two years ago but the city required a 120-day demolition delay on the house due to the fact that it is inside a historic zone and the age of the house. The delay is designed to provide some opportunity for someone to move the house to another location and restore it. Fortunately for the house, the owning firm who planned a condominium development on the site had financial problems and the property entered foreclosure recently.

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The Rinehart Building

For nearly 7 years, Eliot residents have wondered what the future is for the building that housed the Cleo-Lilliann Club for many years. At the corner of N Williams & Monroe, it was a fixture for social gatherings in the neighborhood until closing in 2001. Since that time, it has sat vacant and been a target for taggers as no real estate deals apparently have been worked out between owners and potential buyers.

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Walling Building Bites the Dust

Walling Building - 1930s
Walling Building - 1930s

Eliot lost a historic building in October 2007, but to the relief of some residents as it had been an eyesore in recent years. The two story wood framed structure was at 2240-2248 NE MLK on the corner of NE Sacramento. Over the last 50 years, it suffered insensitive alterations and neglect. In its last years, structural problems became more apparent as the elements took a toll on the exterior. It was the last of several turreted Victorian structures that formerly lined a busy Union Avenue (MLK today) during the 1890s. Under the present ownership, a future new mixed use building is planned for the site since it is a prime location for retail development.

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John F Wilson – Builder of Quality Homes in Eliot

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.

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