No one would ever confuse Gresham, Portland’s largest
eastern suburb, as being a bastion of interesting historic architecture. Still, the smallish English Tudor gem at 410
N. Main Ave. is worthy of celebrating for its past, its present and its future.
The 1913 brick building designed by one of Portland’s
leading architects, Folger Johnson, started life as one of seven libraries in
Multnomah County built with grants from the extremely wealthy steel magnate,
Andrew Carnegie. After the Gresham
Public Library moved to larger and much less distinctive quarters, the old
library was taken over in 1989 by the Gresham Historical Society, making it the
Gresham Historical Museum.
At just over 2300 square feet, the building is smaller than
many houses. But it is filled with
interesting details from the patterned brickwork, elegant entry and interesting
leaded windows designed to reflect the commercial insignias of major book
publishers of the era. Many of the
bookshelves remain from the early library era.
Fortunately for old building lovers, the Gresham society has
done a good job maintaining the museum without seriously affecting its
historical qualities. The society had
hoped to ramp up its public profile with the hire early last year of museum director
Mark Moore, who is well-known in region’s realm of ephemera, antique
collecting, streetcar history and pioneer steam equipment.
But the pandemic hit just as Moore took charge last
March. “COVID really put a damper on our
events and activities,” he said. “When
this COVID thing is over, we plan for more events.”
Though the museum is not open at the moment, a visitor can
get a good look at the Carnegie-inspired details from the exterior. Carnegie delegated building designs to local
architects, but his foundation offered general floorplans and included a few specific
One of the requirements was for stairs leading to the front
door – to give the impression of library visitors being “elevated” as they
entered. Another requirement was
prominent electric lighting near the entrance, to give the feeling of enlightenment. Carnegie provided money to build
approximately 2500 libraries – including 31 in Oregon and seven in Multnomah
County – but local communities had to provide the land, the staffing, the books
and money for maintenance.
Another requirement was that the libraries had to be free to the
public. It was a major advance in the
library world because many libraries were operated on subscriptions paid by
Carnegie, himself an
immigrant from Scotland at age 13, placed his libraries in small towns and
neighborhoods, rather than building large libraries in major cities. He wanted his libraries to be used by
immigrants learning English and for general education.
Carnegie’s personal story is one of the Gilded Era’s great
adventures in capitalism. He started
working in a bobbin factory in 1848 at age 13, then learned telegraphy and
learned about railroads when the nation’s rail network was improving its
bridges from wooden structures to steel.
He then ventured into steel manufacturing and leaned heavily on
technological improvements and rigid management as his empire grew.
He sold his steel business in 1901 and embarked on an
aggressive philanthropic strategy to give away many of his riches. He wrote an explanation called the “Gospel of
Wealth” in 1889 in which he said exceptionally wealthy people had an obligation
to use their funds to improve society.
Folger Johnson, the architect for the Gresham library, also
designed Carnegie libraries in St. Johns, Arleta and South Portland. Other architects designed East Portland,
North Portland and Albina. Albina, St.
Johns and North Portland remain as parts of the Multnomah County system, while
Arleta and East Portland have been sold off for private offices. The South Portland library is now a Portland Parks Bureau office.
Johnson, a native of Columbus, Georgia, had been trained at
the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris before coming to Portland in 1911. He was one of Portland’s most skilled
architects, whose career was stymied by the Great Depression. His other notable buildings include the
Portland Town Club, an exclusive women’s club, and the Albertina Kerr Nursery. He also was a consultant on Benson
Polytechnic High School.
Once the current
pandemic resolves, Moore hopes to build the cadre of museum volunteers and
people willing to offer financial support.
The museum survives at present on donations and a portion of a tax levy
shared by several historical societies in Multnomah County.
“I’d like to see us get on a steady financial footing so in
20 years down the road this place will still be here,” Moore said. It is, after all, a beautiful piece of history.