Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Albertina Kerr Nursery

The sadness here is not about the loss of a fine old building.  The building will survive.  The sadness is about loss of its pleasant and memorable public uses – no thanks to COVID-19.

There will be no more gourmet lunches or teas at Albertina’s Kitchen, at 424 N.E. 22nd Ave., nor any more sales at Albertina's Heirlooms, one of Portland's finest shops for antique glass, china, jewelry, knickknacks and small furnishings.

 After nearly 40 years of engaging directly with members of the public, the stylish 1921 Colonial Revival Albertina Kerr Center will continue being the administrative headquarters of a non-profit that provides services at several locations to children with mental health issues and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“After thoughtful consideration it is with heavy heart that we have made the difficult decision to permanently close the restaurant and shops at Albertina’s Place,” Jeff Carr, Kerr’s CEO, posted on the agency’s website.  Albertina's Closet, a thrift shop, operated from a separate building on the same property. He said the pandemic led to too much concern for health safety with the public uses.  

The closures do not weigh heavily on Kerr’s bottom line.  The mostly-volunteer-run shops and restaurant netted about $450,000 last year, a pittance in a total agency budget of more than $43 million.

However, the closures will weigh on the many people who enjoyed stylish, leisurely and tasty lunches, and slow ambles through the antiques for sale.  Kerr had a staff of volunteer antiques experts who weighed the merit and value of all items brought in as proposed consignments; they rejected items they concluded were unworthy of the inventory.

On the plus side, closure of the public commerce will not affect the maintenance of the building, which has been well-maintained by Kerr given its 99-year history.  The Albertina Kerr Nursery was built in honor of Albertina Kerr, who died one year after her marriage to Alexander Kerr in 1910.  Mrs. Kerr had a strong commitment to newborn babies who needed help, and the family home in Northwest provided adoption services and daycare for single mothers after her death. 

 Alexander Kerr,  a deeply religious man who was founder of the Kerr Glass Jar Co., carried on with his wife's charitable enthusiasm. Kerr managed his successful business from Portland, but the glass canning jars were produced in San Francisco and in the Midwest. 

Those nursery operations expanded in 1921 with completion of the new Albertina Kerr Nursery, designed by the architecture firm headed by Folger Johnson.  Johnson, who arrived in Portland in 1911, had some of the fanciest training among local architects of his era, with a degree from Columbia University and having studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, then the world’s leading school for classical architecture studies.


Johnson chose a Colonial Revival theme (called Georgian for King George III in England, but Americans  rebelled against King George so we call it "colonial"), which is noted for its red brick walls and classical ornaments such as the Corinthian columns at the front entry and the pediment above.  Johnson included a round window, called an oculus, in the pediment.  It was a technique he had used elsewhere, also.

 In a light-hearted twist to classical design, the Kerr façade includes medallions composed of infants in swaddling clothes above the windows.  The nursery was used for babies awaiting adoptions from its opening until 1967.


Johnson’s work survives in several categories.  He did some elegant homes in exclusive neighborhoods, and four small libraries in Multnomah County funded by Andrew Carnegie.  The St. John’s branch remains as a library, while three others have different uses, including the history museum in Gresham.

 Johnson served as a consultant on Benson High School.  His most elegant building likely is The Portland Town Club, a private club for women erected in 1928 at 2115 S.W. Salmon.  You can see the outside of it here:

 Like many architects of his era, Johnson's’ commissions plummeted during the Depression, which prevented him from adding to an inventory of elegant architecture.  He spent a decade starting in 1940 as Oregon director of the Federal Housing Administration.

 Johnson and his wife were active participants in Portland’s social life, and he frequently spoke to groups about architecture and gardens.  He never forgot his association with the Kerr building.  At his death at age 88 in 1970, his family recommended memorial donations to Albertina Kerr Nursery. 

Some volunteers who worked at the restaurant and heirloom shop hope that those services eventually will return.  It may well be that positive associations with those enterprises helped create awareness and fundraising possibilities for the agency's charitable work. 


Much to no one's surprise, the Portland City Council on June 2 voted 3 to 1 to set building height allowances of 200 feet in the New Chinatown Japantown Historic District in Northwest Portland.

As you can read in an earlier blog post, preservation advocates urged a 125-foot maximum in the neighborhood where most buildings are generally not more than three or four stories.  The 200-foot maximum would allow buildings of close to 20 stories.

As a consequence of the building heights, owners of the small buildings essentially are encouraged to let them run down so they can be demolished.  Kristen Minor, chair of the Portland Historical Landmarks Commission, had urged heights of no more than 100 to 125 feet.  "It's disappointing there was no effort to compromise," said Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who cast the dissenting vote.  Fritz was disappointed that the council wasn't influenced by Minor's testimony. 

A crush of new buildings likely is not going to occur quickly, given economic circumstances.  But eventually it will come.  If the historic district is to have any relevance in the years ahead, it may well be only in photographs and historic displays in tower lobbies.   


  1. I volunteered in the intake room of proposed consignments, where the actual history of an antique merged with the family history of the item.

  2. Great spotlight on the Albertina Kerr Nursery, Fred.
    And thanks for featuring a profile of architect Folger Johnson; a major, but often overlooked force in the Portland design community in the first 1/2 of the 20th century!

  3. It looks like they have shut this woddnerful place down permanently.
    A real shame, considering the pandemic will eventually be a temporaty problem!