A large North Portland house gets new life as urban environmental lab
Friday, October 10, 2008 | ERIC MORTENSON | The Oregonian Staff
It's a story of sustainability, but that doesn't quite cover it. Try revival.
On North Williams Avenue in Portland, just south of Killingsworth and within strolling distance of Alberta and Albina, is an imposing, 104-year-old house on one-third of an acre. In one of those only-here stories, it's become the new home of the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, which itself has evolved from its agricultural, Dust Bowl roots to become an urban environmental resource.
In addition to running its educational programs out of the old house, the conservation district plans to develop the property into a hands-on demonstration of sustainability. It will have a rain garden, eco-roof, pervious pavement in its parking strip and an 11,000 gallon cistern to catch and store rain, not to mention Portland's first commercially approved composting toilet. In the process, it will bring a swath of green to what's considered an "under-natured" neighborhood.
Call it urban conservation, v.2008.
Conservation districts formed in the aftermath of the Depression and were intended to mediate and prevent soil erosion. Approximately 3,000 conservation districts operate in the U.S. today. In Portland, the East Multnomah and West Multnomah districts have seen their roles change significantly as the metro area developed. Formed to aid farmers, the districts have adapted and now offer programs to meet urban environmental interests: handling storm water, gardening, eco-roofs and the like.
The house has seen changes as well. It was and is again a grand old place, two stories high and roughly 4,000 square feet, not counting the immense basement. It retains a wrap-around porch, formal entry, expansive living room and other refined spaces, and even a back stairway originally meant for servants. Over time it evolved from family home to neighborhood sanitarium, one of the few places Portland's African American women could go to deliver their babies. In later years it was a funeral parlor.
"Life, death and now genesis," says Noell Webb, the Portland businesswoman whose gut-instinct decision to sell the house to the conservation district is what started this whole thing. "I see genesis because they are trying to save the universe, make things grow and get us to save resources."
Spin the story backward and you have Kathy Shearin riding her bicycle along Williams on her commute to work as the district's "naturescaping" and sustainable urban landscapes expert. The conservation district at the time was sharing an office in the Montgomery Park building in Northwest Portland -- ironically on the west side of the Willamette River and outside its own boundaries. The district was looking for a new location, however, and Shearin was convinced she'd found it.
Passing by the old house, looking longingly at the broad expanse of open space around it, Shearin noted a broken upstairs window and thought it might not be completely occupied. She "went into this little frenzy," as she puts it, and insisted that Jean Fike, the district's executive director, pursue it.
Fike was skeptical.
"Wait," she said, "it's not for rent, it's not for sale . . ."
"Jean, just go look at it," Shearin said.
Thus set in motion protracted negotiations, beginning with a cold call on Webb, the owner, who wasn't intending to sell it. Certainly not to developers, she told the district staff. Even if she did, Webb wanted assurances that the weeping pine and Atlas cedar in the northeast corner of the lawn would be preserved.
But Shearin sensed a kindred spirit, at one point whooping to Webb over the phone, "I could kiss you right now!"
"Protecting this land for trees is so in line with what this organization is about," Shearin explained later.
The feeling was mutual, Webb said.
"After spending some time with them, listening to them and understanding their mission, I felt this was an organization that would maintain the integrity of the property and serve the community," she said.
The district eventually bought the property for $1.4 million and moved into the house in April.
The remodeling has brought some changes and accommodations. The kitchen will become a document center, and the cupboards now hold files. One of the upstairs offices has a tile floor with a drain in the center -- it may have been an operating room during the home's days as a medical center.
Fike, the executive director, points out a key feature. The formal living room is large enough to hold sustainable-landscaping workshops, and then instructors can march the group outdoors for an immediate demonstration of rain gardens, organic vegetable garden, native plants, pollinator garden, porous paving or cistern system.
This summer, the district won a $99,500 grant from Metro to work on the grounds. In its grant application, the district said its vision was to "transform a neglected historic property into a buzzing, humming and chirping neighborhood asset."
The grant application noted that the neighborhood is "quickly being covered by concrete and infill development." Despite gentrification in North Portland, the area remains a pocket of poverty, with a 65 percent minority population and 92 percent of the children at nearby Humboldt School qualifying for free lunches.
The meshing of location, need and the conservation district's mission is a compelling combination, Fike said.
The district staff believe moving into the house strengthens that link to urban neighborhoods.
"It says community to me," Shearin said. "Once we get the landscaping in it will be so inviting. It will say, 'Come in and work with us.' "
Webb, the former owner, fully approves. "I wouldn't have parted with this property to anyone else," she said.