Researching the Past

Written by Robert

There are a few things I’d like know about the Going Queen.

As mentioned in a previous post, a neighbor indicated the home was supposedly a mortuary at some point in it’s sordid past.  I’d like to know if that’s true because it’s a fun fact to mention anytime we hear a mysterious noise in the house.

I’ve also been told the house was built earlier than 1910 and I’d like to get to the bottom of that.  Queen Anne’s were built from 1880 to 1910, putting this one at the tail end of that period when they were already falling out of favor.  I’ve been told the roses planted outside are from the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition and that the home was a showcase home in that exposition.  Both of those things would seem to suggest it may have been built earlier than the public records indicate.

Every since I heard this from a neighbor, it's struck me that the Going Queen doesn't really fit in the neighborhood architecturally.  There are no other victorians around her.  The date 1910 seems a little arbitrary.  It's the date that the sidewalks were built in the neighborhood.  It's right around the time that this part of Portland was starting to grow.  It almost feels like the house may have been sitting there, on a dirt corner, when all this growth was happening and someone had to give it a date and they said "lets go with 1910".

My Google-Fu is above average and a lot of information can be accessed from a computer with about a few hours of work.

Armed with the address of a house, you can use any of the real-estate sites to locate the property and get a surprising amount of information.  This info includes valuations, assessments, recent purchase history and published attributes for the home including square footage, construction type, property amenities etc.  Some of the information, so easily available, may be something you would prefer to keep private.  For instance, how much you paid for your dilapidated junk yard.  Maybe you would be embarrassed about that and wouldn’t want your family, neighbors and co-workers judging you.

These sites get their information from multiple public sources and then combine them into a profile.  Sometimes the information is wrong.  Sometimes it’s correct information that has interpreted incorrectly.

Wrong information can have significant implications.  For instance, this home shows as being heated by ‘oil’.  This would suggest that there is an underground tank.  We had to go looking for this tank during the inspection process to find it and determine if it was leaking.  Turns out there is no tank.  Well.. probably no tank.

Homes didn’t start using oil for heating until the 1930’s.  The Going Queen would have used wood or coal for heating (although today she doesn’t have a single fireplace left).  She could have been retrofitted with oil heat, but the inspector told us that it was unlikely because underground tanks are less uncommon in this neighborhood due to the age of the homes.  He also said with all the shit piled everywhere that he couldn’t be certain we didn’t have a tank.  All this cost and uncertainty is caused by the data in the public record.

Consider the square footage discrepancy…

Both square footage numbers are correct.  The 4,420 square feet is the total floor space, including the basement and the attic.  The 2,332 number includes only the ‘finished’ square footage which is the main floor, 2nd floor and one room of the basement.  If you were searching for a home, and using square footage as a search criteria to find what you were looking for, you may or may not get this home in your search results, depending on which tools you were using.  The official MLS sites had it at 2,332.

The last home I owned, which was a custom built ranch home, was listed on the major real estate sites with a construction type of ‘mobile home’ or a ‘prefab’.  It was challenging to find a buyer for a rural property and I’m sure that didn’t help.  If I were looking for a house out there, the first thing that would come to mind when thinking mobile home in the middle of nowhere is meth lab.

So, the information in the public record is useful but possibly wrong.  So when it says the house was built in 1910 I have to acknowledge that it could be incorrect.

The data is being ingested into the real-estate sites is maintained at the county and city level.  One immediately useful piece of information on the real estate sites is the parcel number.  You can use the parcel number to extract more data directly from the same sources used to build the public record.

The parcel number the the Going Queen is R155756.

Most municipalities will have their own systems for maintaining property records.  In Portland, you can access the Multnomah County tax records database for the published property record and use ‘Portland Maps’ as an easy interface to historical records like building permits, complaints, historical plumbing records etc.  There are others, but it starts to get redundant, because sites like Portland Maps get there data from other agency databases that are also available online.

I found out some interesting stuff from these sites like how exactly the square footage was calculated on a floor by floor basis and about some drama in the hood by reading through the complaints made against the former owner.

The additional detail you can get from public record searches are the names of the owners, permits, historical plumbing permits, plat maps, zoning, utilities and city services information.  Whether this leads to answers to your questions or not is a question of luck.

The reason research is fun, is you don’t know what you’ll find and where it’s going to take you.  Mostly, it’s a bunch of dead-ends but sometimes you get something useful.  As an example, going back to the question of whether the house was used as a mortuary, one way to infer that would be to find out who the previous owners were and see if any of them were licensed morticians.  It’s super unlikely you’ll find a smoking gun, so what you are looking for is circumstantial evidence fragments that you can glue together to suggest a possible answer.  

Using internet search tools, you can easily access to recent data from the past 20 years, get so-so results for data going back to the early 1980’s, but then it starts to drop off fast until the only thing you have left are small fragments that you can glue back together to make reasonable guesses.

Tax records are the most direct way to get the names of the previous owners.  In the case of the Going Queen, the information available on-line was sparse.

I was not able to get any hard answers to my specific questions from internet search of public records.  I can see Jim Scheirbeck was the previous owner, but it looks like the ownership was passed into a trust and you can’t get back any further than the formation of the trust.  There is less information on the house than I expected.  My guess is that either, by policy or due to limitations to the data import methods used when these public search engines were brought on-line, data from before the trust formation wasn’t included.

However, I was able to find a receipt for a plumbing inspection:

Notice the owner’s name is Dick Meyers.  I did a quick obituary search for a Richard Meyers for which there were several candidates.  This one seemed to be the best fit based on age and details about his life.

So, this could have been a previous owner, but doesn’t shed any light on either of my two questions.  Dick seemed like someone worth getting to know better.  Maybe someone who has access to better tools, like an account, can research this person, and the family members referenced in the obit, to see if they are connected to the property.

A neighbor referred me to a local reporter named Doug Decker who has an interest in old homes in the Alberta neighborhood.  I emailed Doug for advice.  Then I found his website that had all the answers I was looking for.  Professionally, I’m in Information Technology and work with software engineers.  In engineering, there is a culture of not asking questions about a topic if someone has taken the time to create a document for it.  This is called RTFM and if you aren’t careful, you might get that link sent to you if you violate this principle.  I emailed him back with a nevermind before he could RTFM me.  I’ll reach out to Doug if I get stuck after I’ve followed his suggestions.

According to Doug’s suggestions, in order to find out when a home was built, who owned it and what it was used for, I need to get a library card and I also need to make a field trip to the Multnomah County Division of Assessment & Taxation.