Friday, January 28, 2022

Highs and Lows at the Jennie Bramhall House


The big old house in the 5100 block of Northeast Garfield Avenue is unlike any other in Portland.  The mostly do-it-yourself effort to restore it is almost unmatched, too.

 Francene and Tim Grewe wanted to buy the unusual residence in 2000 as soon as they heard it was for sale.  “The house was marketed as being lovingly updated, and it was magnificent to look at,” Francene Grewe recalls, “but the reality was that cosmetic upgrades were completed on a shoestring budget with artistic flaws.  Health and safety issues were in abundance.”

They leaped in, nevertheless.  What they bought was a three-story house built in 1909 with facades made of “Miracle Pressed Stone,” a product amounting to concrete blocks pressed to look like cut stone.  The house featured sharp gables on the roof and a dramatic turret reaching for the sky. It was known throughout the neighborhood as “the castle.”

For the next eight years, the Grewes poured money and energy into the project.  They rewired and replaced plumbing on the ground floor, refinished floors, remodeled the basement, replaced the furnace, revamped the kitchen and tackled sundry smaller projects.

 The biggest task, however, proved to be replacing 200 concrete balusters forming balustrades that protected a ground-floor terrace and a second floor balcony.  “It was dangerous beyond imagination, to have that second floor platform off the master bedroom with no railing AT ALL” Francene said. 

Many balusters had been removed, and those remaining were deteriorated beyond repair. “From the second floor, I could see parts of my house in backyards; on walks I would see more parts down the street.” She said.  A bid for replacements came in at $120,000.  “So I decided to do them myself.”

 With help from acquaintances she had made at the Architectural Heritage Center, molds were created into which Grewe would pour concrete that she mixed in the garage.  Each baluster weighed 45 pounds.  The project attracted the attention of a cable television remodeling program, which boiled the process down to a few minutes and made it look like anyone could do it.  It took Francene Grewe two years.

While the Grewes were busy working on the house, they also were trying to track its history.
  It bears the name of the Jennie Bramhall House, although she apparently was not the first owner.  The house was built by M.F. Donahae, a builder who ran unsuccessfully for a Portland City Council seat in 1909. He soon sold the house to Bramhall, about whom little is known. 

 The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, but the registration from does not list an architect.  Portland architectural historian Jim Heuer has traced it to Albert Faber, who practiced in Portland from 1907 to approximately the start of World War I.  Heuer’s research showed that Faber liked using the cast concrete blocks, and operated small factories in Portland where they were produced. Donahae also worked on Faber-designed houses in Ladd’s Addition.

 Imposing as it was, the Bramhall house was abandoned on two occasions and at some point was used as a rooming house, complete with numbers attached to bedroom doors.  As Francene put it, “There was always something really weird about that house.”

The neighborhood had seen difficult economic times after World War II.  Neighborhood demographics changed as a result of Portland's de facto racial segregation, and the upheaval was worsened by construction of the Interstate-5 freeway.  Houses nearby had been involved in drugs and prostitution, and when the Grewes first moved in, a pizza restaurant they had ordered from for many years refused to deliver.  Lenders and insurers were leery of doing business.

 By 2008, the house was in its best condition since its earliest days.  The downstairs main rooms reflect the exuberance and elegance of late-Victorian era interior design.  But the Grewes' days in the house were numbered.  Tim Grewe had been assigned in his U.S. Treasury Department job to a project in the Republic of Georgia, and their two children had grown up.  Francene Grewe found herself rattling around the big old castle by herself.

 She decided it was time to leave – just as the Great Recession imposed itself on the national economy.  Given what they had paid and invested in the house, the sale of the Bramhall house, she said, “was a financial disaster.” 

Francene has stayed in partial touch with the subsequent owner.  She believes the Bramhall house is now a rental while its owners travel throughout the world.  By visual inspection, the house remains well-maintained and continues to stand proudly as an amazing neighborhood landmark.  The ballusters remain in good condition. 

Overall, the house was a bittersweet experience for Francene.  “It’s a mixed bag.  I loved it and I loved being there,’’ she said.  “I am happy to have had it, and I am happy to have moved on.”

-----Fred Leeson

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Thursday, January 20, 2022

Some Good News Downtown


Despite all the physical trauma wreaked in downtown Portland lately, few people may have noticed that one of the city’s historic architectural jewels has undergone a modest renovation that makes it sparkle, well, like new.

 The building is the Roman Corinthian temple known as U.S. National Bank, a half-block structure that was built in two stages in 1917 and 1925 between SW Sixth Ave. and Broadway adjacent to what was then called Stark Street.   The architect, A.E. Doyle, was Portland’s most prominent of the era, and the elegant bank is one of  20 downtown buildings designed by Doyle’s prolific office before his death in 1928.

 The building continues to be a banking site for U.S. National, although the parent company sold it  many years ago.  The current owner is a limited liability company based in Stamford, CT.

The building was closed for a few months late last year as workers repainted the ornate coffered ceiling that stands 30 feet above the marble floor.  While the building was closed, a talkative security guard explained that the top two floors were being refashioned into prime office space, while the grand main-floor bank was being polished in its original condition.

 It is a grand space, indeed.  George McMath, an important preservation architect in the late 20th Century, called it one of Portland’s finest interior spaces.  “On occasion this magnificent room has been pressed into service as a banquet hall for prominent visitors to the city,” he wrote in 1967. 

 In the era of its construction, banks commonly often were among the most prominent structures in any city.  Their design was intended to suggest strength and stability for customers wanting to store their money or seek loans for residential or business uses.  It was not unusual, then, for architects like Doyle to revert to classical Roman and Greek “temple” forms.  When the bank is closed, the muscular design also is reflected in the heavy curving bronze doors that close at the two entrances on Sixth and on Broadway.


From the exterior and in the grand lobby, there are no hints that this building was erected in two pieces; they blend together perfectly.  The only indication, according to the loquacious security guard, is a bump in the basement floor.  The block slopes modestly from west to east, and Doyle maintained the block-long lobby by creating a platform with a double-sided stairway at the west entrance.

 Doyle often used terra cotta in his downtown buildings, but never so prominently as in U.S. National Bank.  The fired clay can be pressed into molds and glazed in a variety of colors.  McMath said the buff color Doyle selected was intended to look like Roman travertine.  The hardy material holds up well in Portland’s wet climate.

 The banking world has changed dramatically in the past few years.  Few of us bother going to a building when we can handle basic banking functions on a gadget that fits in our pockets.  So if you go to see this wonderful lobby, chances are good you will see hardly anyone else there.  You can understand why bank customers of yore dressed well when going into an elegant place to transact important business.

 But please go enjoy this marvelous taste of the past.  Walk the lobby full length.  Feel the ambiance of "business elegance" of the early 20th Century.  Now, more than ever, it is a wonderful place to enjoy peace and quiet. 

 ------Fred Leeson

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Thursday, January 13, 2022

Another Sad Chapter Downtown


Downtown Portland suffered yet another loss thanks to the pandemic, sidewalk campers and risk of hooliganism as the Raven & Rose restaurant and bar closed up shop in one of downtown's last and oldest wooden buildings.

The upscale restaurant and its charming upstairs bar opened in the historic Ladd Carriage House in 2011, after the former barn was saved from demolition in one of Portland’s most dramatic and successful preservation efforts. 

 In 2007, when the building was 124 years old, it was jacked up and transported three blocks away while its original site could be excavated to provide underground parking for the big glassy adjacent apartment tower.  The carriage house returned to its original location in the 1300 block of SW Broadway in 2008, and underwent a massive internal makeover leading to creation of the restaurant and bar.

You can see some of the move back to its original location is this video. It is amazing to think there was only a couple feet of  clearance bringing the structure along SW Columbia Street.

The good news is that the building is not in immediate jeopardy of demolition.  It is virtually turn-key ready for any potential new restaurant and bar operation.  But a new tenant is not likely to be found while the city grapples with homeless people living in tents on sidewalks and the threat of windows being broken and other damage being inflicted by roving bands of masked hooligans and anarchists.

Uh, hello City Hall?  Anybody home? Anybody there remember the Portland we used to know? 

Of course, change is nothing new at the carriage house.  It was built in 1883 by William Sargent Ladd, a successful banker, property developer and two-term mayor back in the 1850s.  Ladd also built a 30-room mansion across the street to the east, which eventually became absorbed into the expanding downtown and in 1948 became the new home of the Oregonian newspaper.

 In the 1920s, the main floor of the carriage house was converted to small shops, with an apartment and dance floor taking over the upstairs hayloft.  Later yet, the building housed an architect's office, a major construction firm and, later yet, law offices. 

In 2004, the Frist Christian Church raised the possibility of demolishing the carriage house to make way for the residential tower.  In part because of outcry from preservationists, the church agreed to change the location of the new tower on the same block and to let the carriage house be moved to the parking lot of another church to allow excavation for parking.

 As the building was prepped for its return journey, Cathy Galbraith, then one of Portland’s leading preservationists and director of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation’s Architectural Heritage Center, said, "This embodies historic preservation at its finest.  This is really a pivotal moment for our city."

While its original use was humble, Portland architect and historian William J. Hawkins III ranked it among the best of Portland’s remaining early buildings.

One hopes that it once again can become a vital element in downtown Portland, when the sidewalks are clear of campers and when windows need not be boarded up for protection from risk of wanton destruction.

-----Fred Leeson

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Friday, January 7, 2022

Lake Oswego's Small Miracle


We roam out of our usual geographic boundaries to report on a small miracle in Lake Oswego, a suburban city that likely ranks as Portland’s most affluent neighbor.

 The small miracle is a house of 900-some-odd square feet that must be one of the smallest in town.   The house also is a small miracle owing to a charming design that has been maintained in almost original condition since its construction sometime in the late 1930s.

The Blondell house, named for an early owner, was designed in the English cottage or American Craftsman style.  The architect probably was Richard Sundeleaf, a Portland architect who also designed some other residences in the neighborhood.  Its shingled roof, basalt chimney and extravagant use of old-growth, tight-grained fir in beams and extensive cabinetry make the modest house almost a picture-perfect example of the Craftsman style advocated by Gustav Stickley’s “The Craftsman” magazine, published from 1901 to 1916.


Stickley’s inspiration for bungalows and interiors featuring good woods and simple but artistic joinery set off a national penchant for the Craftsman style for many years leading up to World War II.

 The Blondell house and its one-third acre, wooded lot came up for sale this year, leading to speculation that it would be bought and razed for bigger, more expensive housing.  A member of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society called up an architectural historian friend in Portland and urged him to come see it.

 Jack Bookwalter, a retired public preservation planner, had planned to downsize from his Northeast Portland home, but he was in no rush.  Until he went to see the Blondell house.  "As soon as I saw the house I was hooked," Bookwalter said.   "It was love at first sight."

 Stickley’s Craftsman design aesthetic was largely a rebellion against Victorian-era buildings that were heavily encrusted with machine-made ornaments like spindles and balusters.  Stickley favored simpler designs, using wood that was stained rather than painted to celebrate its grain and joinery created by skilled woodworkers.

 Stickley also designed a popular line of tables, chairs and sofas using fumed oak for their frames.  Seats were often leather or even heavy woven fabrics based on Native American.  The Stickley “brand” remains available today, as well as many knockoffs using similar furniture designs.

Front door, outside and inside 

Hand-forged hinges, door knockers and other metal elements also were part of the Craftsman aesthetic, and interesting metalwork abounds in the Blondell house.
  All of it will remain under Bookwalter’s tenure as owner.  Bookwalter believes the house first served as a sales office for other new homes in the neighborhood before the Blondells bought it in 1942.

The house is an interesting addition to the work of Sundeleaf, who is better known for his more modern work.  His best-known buildings include the former Jantzen Knitting Mills headquarters of 1929 in Northeast Portland, the former Oregon Museum of Science and Industry near Washington Park (1955) and the Portland Medical Center, an older structure that he expanded from seven to eleven stories in 1957 and encased with a sleek glass fa├žade. 

Two other fascinating Sundeleaf projects are the New Fliedner building, another older building that he refaced with an interest Zigzag Art Deco exterior (discussed here on June 5, 2020) and the Oregon Portland Cement building of 1929.  Regrettably, Oregon Portland Cement is substantially hidden by a Hawthorne Bridge ramp, but is well worth viewing for people willing to find their way to the 111 S.E. Madison St.

 People who enjoy the Craftsman aesthetic should be pleased that the Blondell house will be well-maintained by Bookwalter, who knows and appreciates its architectural history and importance.  Think of it as another miracle at the Blondell house

---Fred Leeson

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