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Milwaukie History Series #1: Downtown Development Patterns
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Milwaukie’s physical development patterns have been incremental, small-scale, and eclectic. Early development patterns were responded to physical constraints such as the surrounding forest to the north and east, the Willamette River to the west, and Kellogg Lake to the south. This resulted in a compact city center that expanded outward gradually.
Early downtown development was a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial uses, often within the space of a single block. Into the 1930s, dwellings and accessory buildings occupied lots within the commercial core. In many cases, buildings were separated by vacant lots and open space. Downtown blocks generally retain their original dimensions of 200 by 200 feet square, a dimension which resulted in compact, walkable area.
The extant architecture ranges from remnants of the early pioneer village of the 1850s; the small town of the 1900s to the 1930s; and the suburban community of the 1960s to today. Though Milwaukie is in many ways a traditional small town, its residents have historically been progressive and independent, and have shown a willingness to experiment with architecture as evidenced by unique structures like the Masonic Temple and the St. Johns Catholic Church.
The City of Milwaukie was founded in 1847 by Lot Whitcomb, who purchased a Donation Land Claim (DLC) of approximately 600 acres from an earlier settler on the site. He chose the site on Milwaukie Bay and named the town after Milwaukee, Wisconsin ; he intended the town to become the shipping and transportation leader of the Willamette Valley. The early prosperity of the city was driven by lumber, flour, agriculture, and shipbuilding; however, the town remained a small, rugged trade center reachable only by difficult roads, isolated in the winter, and without a city government until the early 1900s . Significant public improvements, including sidewalks and streetlights, closely followed the town’s incorporation in 1903.
Though Milwaukie has always had a strong civic spirit, early civic buildings were temporary in nature. City Hall had a least three rented locations before moving to its current site; the public library moved numerous times between its founding in 1889 and final move to the Ledding Library facility in 1965; and the first elementary school was established in about 1850, moved across the street to the City Hall site in 1859, and finally moved to today’s Milwaukie Elementary upon its completion in 1916.
The city has experienced three periods of growth, each with a unique physical character:
• 1850-1860: The “golden period,” fueled by the success of the shipbuilding, timber, and milling industries.
• 1893- 1930: Electric interurban rail began service between Portland and Oregon City in 1893; this new accessibility brought growth to Milwaukie.
• 1950-Present: Through a combination of orderly annexations and Milwaukie’s increasing popularity as a Portland suburb, the population has quadrupled since the 1950s.
Pioneer Village (1850-1860)
The city’s first phase of growth was spurred by the interrelated advancements in transportation, agriculture, industry, and commerce. The early pioneers built lumber mills to provide lumber for San Francisco, which was growing quickly because of the California gold rush. According to early photographs, the town was surrounded by thick forests to the north, east, and south; the Willamette River, Johnson Creek, and Kellogg Creek provided power for the mills and the means to transport their products to other cities. Soon after the lumber mills were established, a grist mill was built to grind wheat from the outlying areas into flour, which was also in high demand in California.
In response to the growing population and the creation of the Oregon Territory in 1848, Lot Whitcomb platted the town the same year. The plat shows an ambitiously scaled city of 352 square blocks (or about 1 square mile); each block was bisected by a 10-foot alley running north to south. A public square was located near the center of town. Although the plat showed orderly blocks surrounding a public square, the reality of Milwaukie in 1848 was somewhat different. According to local historian Charles Oluf Olsen, early Milwaukie was a generally unpleasant place:
“Houses and shacks were of raw lumber, unpainted and crude. Streets were narrow, muddy and full of stumps, with miry puddles in which hogs wallowed. Cattle roamed at large. But there was virile life in the primitive settlement, and its position as the future metropolis of the Oregon Country seemed assured.”
By the fall of 1850 Milwaukie had 500 residents, two hotels, a post office, a sheet iron and copper plate works, a shoe store, several general stores, several saloons, four mills, a waterfront warehouse and wharf, and a school. A free public ferry and Episcopal church followed a year later. The city even had its own newspaper, the Western Star, for a brief time in 1850.
Lot Whitcomb built and launched the steamer “Lot Whitcomb” in 1850. His intention was to protect Milwaukie’s growth and damage Portland’s by providing shipping services to Milwaukie while ignoring Portland, which had become a rival. Due in large part to the success of the “Lot Whitcomb,” Milwaukie became a Port of Delivery by Congressional Appointment in April, 1851, and a shipbuilding industry sprang up.
By 1851 Portland had edged ahead of Milwaukie in the shipping business, and the “Lot Whitcomb” was sold to buyers in California in 1854. Although Milwaukie was no longer dominant in shipping, it quickly became the center of fruit production in the region. The Llewelling brothers, Seth and Henderson, carried nursery stock from their homes in Iowa and planted their first nursery on the present site of the golf course at the Waverly Country Club.
By 1860, Milwaukie had fully ceded shipping dominance to Portland. After about 1865, lumber and flour milling became the town’s primary industries. During this time, flour produced by the Standard Mill was shipped throughout the country and the regional transportation network continued to improve: a macadamized wagon road between Portland and Milwaukie was completed in 1863; the East Side Railroad reached Milwaukie in 1869 and provided a convenient way to ship goods to other parts of the state; and the free Milwaukie ferry continued to operate across the Willamette until the turn of the century.
Small Town (1893-1930)
The second phase of Milwaukie’s growth occurred as a result of the electric streetcar line. Service between Oregon City and Portland began in 1893; the streetcar ran north on McLoughlin Blvd to a “car house” at the northeast corner of McLoughlin Blvd and Jackson St, then turned left at Jackson St and continued across Johnson Creek to Portland. The tracks were moved to the west of McLoughlin Blvd in the mid-1930s to make way for the completion of 99E, creating today’s “Trolley Trail.” The new accessibility to Portland encouraged employees of the Eastside Electric Railroad Company to live in Milwaukie, and a number of subdivisions were platted during this time.
The population had declined to 100 people by 1901. The streets were muddy and blocked with stumps; livestock roamed free; and there were a number of “powder houses” within the city that posed a threat of explosion and fire . In response to the poor condition of the town site, the Town of Milwaukie was incorporated in 1903. The town’s first fire department and water works (1904); sidewalks (1906); streetlights (1910s); and franchises for telephone, gas, and electric service followed closely behind.
According to a map of downtown Milwaukie drawn from the memory of early residents, development along the streetcar route remained sparse into the early 1900s. At that time, the center of commercial activity in the city was the Main St and Front St (today’s McLoughlin Blvd) blocks between Jackson St and Washington St. The development pattern throughout this period remained low-density, and the buildings were separated in many cases by open, undeveloped lots. According to Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from 1928 and 1936, residences, sheds, and accessory buildings occupied properties in the downtown core into the mid 1930s and beyond. Several of the remaining downtown buildings were constructed between 1900 and 1926, and most replaced the older frame buildings.
By the 1920s, the automobile had become the dominant form of transportation in the city. McLoughlin Blvd (also known as 99E and the Superhighway) was completed in 1937, which resulted in faster travel times to Portland and other towns to the north and south. Several auto-oriented businesses, including service stations, restaurants, and car garages, were built along McLoughlin Blvd. Despite this development, many streets east of Main St remained unimproved into the 1940s.
Suburb (1950 to Present)
The third phase of Milwaukie’s growth impacted both the physical and municipal development of the city. During World War II, development in Milwaukie came to a halt. Ship yard workers came from all over the country to work in the ship yards of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. The Housing Authority of Clackamas County built the Kellogg Park housing development in the early 1940s to house the workers. The site was sold to the City of Milwaukie between 1946 and 1950, leveled, and converted to the Milwaukie Industrial Park (now the Manufacturing Zone M north of downtown) and annexed to the City in 1956.
The city’s northern boundary expanded in 1956 to include the Milwaukie Industrial park. As a result of the expanded city boundary, many of the buildings north of Harrison St and along McLoughlin Blvd were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the development that occurred during this period was suburban in style, comprised of boxy, low-rise buildings surrounded by surface parking. The Milwaukie waterfront was dominated by a log dump and various industrial uses, and downtown was cut off from the river by McLoughlin Blvd.
Due to declining ridership and lack of interest on the part of the company’s owners, the last electric interurban route through Milwaukie ended in 1958 . Like many small towns, downtown Milwaukie entered a period of decline in the 1970s from which it is still recovering. However, due to the increasing appeal of Milwaukie and the gradual annexation of unincorporated properties, the population and city have continued to grow at a slow but steady rate. Between 1950 and 2010, the population grew from about 5,000 to more than 20,000 people. The waterfront has been prepared for a new Riverfront Park, and the former streetcar line is being converted to a multi-use “Trolley Trail” by the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District.
Milwaukie History Series #2: Downtown Milwaukie Architecture
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Many of Milwaukie’s most well-loved downtown buildings are now gone, but their ghosts, along with historic buildings that still stand, provide a context for the architectural history of the community. In that spirit, this memo focuses on the buildings that no longer exist or have been significantly altered, but continue as objects of shared affection and memory for the residents of the community.
The architectural character of today’s downtown Milwaukie is best described as eclectic, and includes a wide variety of styles and building materials that reflect the incremental development of the city and its various periods of prosperity and decline. Popular architectural styles reached Milwaukie years after they reached Portland, which in turn was about a decade behind the cities of the east.
Due to the isolated nature of the town and the ready availability of lumber from the local mills, early residential and commercial buildings were simple, vernacular wood structures with limited ornamentation. In the 1870s, a brick kiln was founded in the city and masonry buildings became more common; however, wood was the building material of choice into the early 1900s.
Many of the wood-frame buildings from the early 1900s were influenced by the Gothic and Italianate styles, while buildings of the 1920s and 1930s reflect more fanciful styles such as Mediterranean and Gothic Revival. Civic buildings of the 1930s were constructed of masonry in the Georgian Revival and Half Modern styles, reflecting the gravity of their purpose. Later buildings from the 1950s and 1960s followed the trends of the period and display Mid-Century Modern, International, and Brutalist influences.
Many of Milwaukie’s earliest buildings no longer exist, and the many vacant lots in the heart of downtown mark their loss. However, both existing and former downtown buildings tell a story of the people who lived, worked, and worshipped here.
Bursts of downtown building activity coincide with three periods of the city’s growth:
• Pioneer Village (1850 – 1860): The “golden period,” fueled by the success of the shipbuilding, timber, and milling industries.
• Small Town (1893 – 1930): Electric interurban rail began service between Portland and Oregon City in 1893; this new accessibility brought growth to Milwaukie. The railroad reached Milwaukie in 1910, bringing with it an influx of goods and industry.
• Suburb (1950 – Present): Through a combination of orderly annexations and Milwaukie’s increasing popularity as a Portland suburb, the population has quadrupled since the 1950s.
See Milwaukie History Memo #1: Downtown Development Patterns for more information about the development pattern of these eras. An overview of the buildings of the city’s past follows.
Pioneer Village (1850 – 1860)
Milwaukie was founded in 1848, and grew quickly due to its strategic location on the Willamette River and the entrepreneurial spirit of its early residents. Buildings of the Pioneer Village period were constructed of lumber; available records indicate that residential buildings were generally designed in the vernacular style, with simple designs and minimal decoration, while commercial buildings were often constructed with false fronts in the popular “frontier” style of the day. Residences were interspersed with blacksmiths, hotels, shops, and churches, and the riverfront was lined with mills.
Unfortunately, there are no known remaining buildings from this period of Milwaukie’s history, but many images remain:
Seth Lewelling House
10966 SE McLoughlin Blvd
Date: 1849 – 1940
Style: Greek Revival
Seth Lewelling was one of the early residents of Milwaukie, as well as one of the original nurserymen in the city and the country, and was a prominent citizen of the community. He moved into this house upon his arrival from Illinois in 1850.
The house served as a center of the Populist political movement, and was the birthplace of the 1902 Initiative and Referendum law. It was demolished in 1940 and is now the site of a gas station.
Style: Greek Revival, vernacular
These wood-frame buildings were grand homes in Milwaukie’s early days, and likely belonged to owners of the City’s mills. The location of the homes is unknown, but it’s likely they were located along Main Street.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
2038 SE Jefferson St
Date: 1851 – 1961
Style: Gothic Revival
The city’s first Episcopal church was built in 1851 on land donated by town founder Lot Whitcomb; the original location was on Washington Street. It was moved from that location to the northeast corner of Jefferson and 21st in 1862. The steeple, gothic-style windows and enclosed vestibule were added in 1883.
In 1961, the church was in disrepair and scheduled for demolition. Funds were raised to move the church to Portland by barge in 1961. Once it arrived in Portland, it was renamed the Oaks Pioneer Church and restored by volunteers. Today, it is a popular site for weddings and events.
Veranda Hotel / Spencer Hall
NE corner of Jefferson St & McLoughlin Blvd
Date: ca. 1856 – ca. 1920
The building was constructed as the Verandah Hotel ca. 1856. The Spencer Hall boarding school, an Episcopal school for girls, was established in the building in 1861. In 1866, the school relocated to Portland.
The building was demolished sometime between 1900 and 1928.
10722 SE Main St (City Hall block)
Date: 1849 – 1893
This was the second school built in Milwaukie. The location and style of the first school is unknown.
The older part of the school (the left half) was built in 1849; the “newer” part of the school was built in 1859. The front entrance and bell tower are beyond the far right end of the photo and are not visible. The school was demolished in 1893 to make way for the construction of a larger school building on the site.
Wissinger’s General Store
NE corner Washington St & Main St
Date: ca. 1870 – ca. 1920
Style: Frontier / Vernacular
The Wissingers acquired this general store in the 1890s from a woman who came to Milwaukie from San Francisco in the 1870s. At that time, this was the only store between Sellwood and Oregon City. It was also the location of the City’s post office for a time. The Wissingers delivered goods to other shops in town via horse-drawn wagon.
Reverend Abraham Hager House
2115 SE Adams St
Date: 1888 - present
Style: Gothic Vernacular
This is the last remaining residential building in the original town of Milwaukie.
Reverend Hager was a German Baptist minister in the area. He was born in Switzerland, and traveled throughout Europe and the United States before arriving in Milwaukie in the late 1880s. The house has been significantly altered and is no longer recognizable.
Small Town (1893-1930)
The Small Town period of the city’s growth was launched by the arrival of the East Side Railway electric interurban line in 1893. The interurban brought railroad workers from Portland, who made their homes in the city. The arrival of the railroad in 1910 cemented Milwaukie’s place as a center of industry.
Buildings of the early Small Town period were generally constructed of wood, though later buildings were constructed of masonry and stucco. Very few of the wood-frame buildings remain. A combination of the Flood of 1894 and a series of fires in the 1910s destroyed many of them; many of the surviving wood-frame buildings were replaced by newer buildings of masonry. As a result, most of downtown Milwaukie’s extant historic buildings were constructed during the 1920s and 1930s, and are constructed of stucco and masonry.
10722 SE Main St (City Hall block)
Date: 1893 – 1936
Style: Classical / Greek Revival
Milwaukie’s third elementary school was constructed on today’s City Hall block, at what was then the eastern edge of downtown. The architect is unknown. When the Milwaukie Grammar School was constructed in 1916, the old school fell into disuse. It was demolished in 1936 to make way for the new City Hall.
Woodsmen of the World Hall
SW corner of Main & Washington streets
Date: 1902 – 1910
Style: Frontier / Vernacular
This building stood where the Wunderland (Victory) Theater now stands. The upper story was the home of the first City Hall, and the lower level housed a general store. This building and the entire block burned down in 1910. The site remained vacant until the Victory Theater was constructed in 1945.
First State Bank Building
10883 SE Main St
This brick building replaced an earlier wooden bank building south on Main St. The lower level originally consisted of 2 storefronts.
The building was significantly altered during the 1970s and 1980s. It was completely remodeled in 2007.
Main and Jackson Building
10801 SE Main St
Date: ca. 1909
In 1916, this building housed a box factory, a shoe store, a motion picture show, a grocery store, and a number of other businesses. The building was renovated in 1962, and the windows were replaced and the cornice removed. The building still exists but is much-altered.
Hotel Belle / Hotel Gratton
10949 SE McLoughlin Blvd
Date: 1912 – 2000
The Hotel Belle was located on the streetcar line and was a center of activity for the community. It became the Hotel Gratton prior to 1917. The building later became the Lowry Apartments. It was demolished in 2000 and the site is now part of Riverfront Park.
Milkiewa Feed Store and Mill
SW corner of 21st Ave and Adams St
Date: 1922 – 1969
The Milwaukie Warehouse, later known as Milkiewa Feed Mills, was constructed in 1922 to the east of the railroad tracks, south of Adams St. The warehouse housed coal, and later grain. Farmers in and around the city purchased grain for their livestock.
The owners retired in 1969 and the building was demolished soon afterwards.
Emmanuel Evangelical Church
NE corner of Main St & Adams St
Date: 1926 – 1956
Style: Byzantine Revival/Mission Revival
The Evangelical Church sat at the northeast corner of Main and Adams Streets. It was demolished in 1956 for the construction of a Montgomery Ward store.
Suburb (1950 to Present)
Change occurred quickly in the 1950s in the form of commercial and industrial development on the north side of town. As the city’s boundary expanded to the north of Harrison St, formerly rural residences on the north end of town were replaced with new commercial buildings. These new buildings tended to be boxy and surrounded by surface parking. However, several of the buildings constructed during this period are architecturally daring and were designed by well-known architects of the time. Few of the buildings of the Suburban period have been demolished, but several have been substantially altered.
First State Bank / Key Bank
10888 SE Main St at Monroe
Date: 1948 - 1969
This building was originally built in the glass-fronted International Style. It was expanded and significantly remodeled in 1969 in the current Brutalist style, and is now occupied by Key Bank. The architects of the original building and the remodel are unknown.
10554 SE Main St
Date: 1967 - 2003
Style: Mid-Century Modern
This grocery store was designed in the popular “Marina” style developed by Safeway in the 1960s. It replaced a 1951 brick Safeway on the site. The building was demolished in 2003 after years of deterioration; the North Main Village mixed-use development was constructed on the site in 2005.
Several buildings from the Suburban period of Milwaukie’s history display an adventurous spirit. These buildings still exist, but their unique designs warrants their inclusion in this memo.
10345 SE Main St
Style: Modern Commercial
This modest building was designed by Joseph H. Rudd & Associates, a Portland architecture firm. The streamlined design and folded plate roof were commonly found on dry cleaners of the time.
10306 SE Main St
Style: Modern Commercial
This bowling alley was designed by Percy & Lathrop Architects, who designed buildings throughout Oregon, Alaska, and Montana. The striking fluorescent signs appear to be original to the building.
Willamette Savings and Loan / Washington Mutual
10900 SE 21st Ave at Jackson
Style: Modern Commercial
This bank building was designed by Fletcher & Finch AIA. William (Bill) Fletcher later formed the architecture firm Fletcher Farr Ayotte, which has become internationally known for its streamlined and low-impact designs.
10466 SE Main St
Style: Modern Commercial
This building was designed as a health club by Dale Haller, P.E. It appears that alternate banks of windows have been filled in, but it remains a striking visual presence today.
10300 SE Main St
Style: Faux Frontier
This unusual building was designed by Ralph Bonadurer, AIA, a Portland architect who designed many Art Moderne and Mid-Century Modern buildings in the area. The fluorescent signs appear to be original and complement the signs of the Kellogg Bowl building.
10633 SE Main St
The Reliable Credit building was originally two separate buildings, which were connected and remodeled in 1976. The architects were The Kroker Partnership, a partnership between Mel Kroker, David Dunahugh, and Russell K. Hanson.
In recent years, Milwaukie has embraced its identity as a small city, both connected to and distinct from Portland. Downtown business owners are renovating their buildings, young families are moving to town for the Portland Waldorf School and the city’s proximity to the bustle of Portland and the natural beauty of rural Clackamas County. Development has returned to downtown Milwaukie and the future light rail line promises a new architectural era for this resilient community.