Built in 1910?

 

If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you know I’ve been trying to verify a few things about the house.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time on these two claims:

1. The house was built before 1910 and the date in the city records is wrong

2. The house used to be used as a funeral home

I’m ready to settle these accounts.

The evidence that suggested the house was built pre 1910.

First, let’s start with the stories and observations that caused me to pursue the investigation into the construction date.

The first day we owned the house, a neighbor told me that the previous owner claimed the house was built in the late 1800s, not 1910.  A few days later a different owner said the house was featured as a showcase home in the ‘world expo’ held in 1905.  I was told by a few neighbors that the roses in front of the house came from that expo.  All of these seemed to corroborate that the house may have been there before 1910.

I then made a few observations that made me think there might be something to this:

The house is a Queen Anne, a popular style of Victorian architecture.  Victorian homes in general, and Queen Annes in particular, were going out of fashion by 1910.  Most sources indicate that 1910 was one of the last year for this style of home (some put the date at 1915).  Either way, it was not all that popular at the time the records indicate it was built.

After thinking about it a little more, the house struck me as being out of place.  Jenny and I took a drive around the neighborhood and could not find another example of a Queen Anne home in the immediate vicinity.  It also seemed much larger than most of the homes in the area.  The total square footage is 4,200.  This is about 1.5x to 2x larger than other homes in the immediate area that were built in the same era.

It's also taller than any home around it.  From the upper floor, you can see Mt. Hood from one window and Mt. Adams from another.  You can see over the tops of all the roofs.  In fact, it exceeds the legal height of a single family residence in this zone.

It seems plausible that it could have been built earlier than recorded.  But why would the records be wrong? 

I formed a working hypothesis so I’d have something to prove or disprove.  I hypothesized that the house was built in an unincorporated area of the city and when they incorporated the land, the date was unknown so the city estimated it as 1910.

The formation of the Elberta Subdivision

I needed the date the subdivision was incorporated into the city plan to test this hypothesis.  The librarian at the Multnomah County Librarian helped me find this document.

 

According to this document, on August 14, 1906, at 9:25AM, the subdivision ELBERTA came into existence.  The owner of the land, the unmarried Angeline B Richardson, created a subdivision to sell lots to prospective home owners in this fast growing area of the city.

The Going Queen's lots are circled in the lower right.  Lots 1 and 2.  Notice that she is on 28th Street, instead of 27th Street as she is today.  On the plat map above, you’ll see that Buckman Street appears between 29th and 30th, but all the streets were shifted to the right and Buckman became 29th Ave.  Confusing?  This is why it’s hard to research into older records.

As you can see, the incorporation date didn’t match the estimated construction date of the house so this put a small dent in my hypothesis.  However the 1910 date has two things going for it.  First, it’s a nice round date.  When you estimate data values, you sometimes round them.  A secondary argument for this would be that 1910 was the date that they laid down the sidewalk infrastructure for this neighborhood.  I know this because the sidewalks in this area are stamped 1910 on some of the corners.

In 2013, the city put in handicapped accessible sidewalk ramps at the corners of the Elberta subdivision.  When they did this, they broke out the old corners creating a bunch of broken concrete chunks.  We saw that happen in this blog post about satellite images.  The sidewalks were stamped with the original construction dates, typically at the corners.  As you already know, Jim, the previous owner, liked to reuse building materials.  You can see below how Jim used a chunk of sidewalk in his already built rock wall.  Peter -Ell & Co built the sidewalks in Elberta in 1910.  Jim used this to commemorate the recorded construction date of the Going Queen.

 

Testing the hypothesis.

I came up with several ways to test my hypothesis that the construction date may have been estimated.  First, I identified sources of direct evidence that could prove or disprove my hypothesis:

1. Find the home or it’s lots on a pre-1910 map

2. Find a picture of the home from before 1910

3. Look for other examples of construction date estimating (was this even a thing?)

4. Evidence of someone living in the home before 1910

5. Research the city historical records to follow the title's backwards in time to find the first owner and date of sale

I’ve gone into some of this research in detail in previous blog posts, so I’ll just summarize below.

The map evidence was inconclusive.

You may have read my blog posts about searching old maps (Plat Maps & Sanborn Maps).  Maps would have provided the most definitiveyes/no answer.  If I found a map of the neighborhood from before 1910 that showed structures on the plot, then it’s confirmed.  The same maps could also refute the claim, making this the best possible evidence.

Unfortunately, since the neighborhood where the Going Queen was situation was in an unincorporated area, there were no assessor or insurance maps available.  I couldn’t prove or disprove using historical maps.

Photo evidence was not available.

Finding a picture of an unremarkable residential structure is a long shot.  The images would have to come from a public source or a private source.  Any public pictures would be accidental.  If the city was surveying road construction the home may have been in the background of the image.  I searched the city archives for these images and didn’t find anything.

Finding images from a private collection from pre-1910 would be even more of a long shot.  Surviving photographs from this era are rare.  Pre-1910 photography wasn’t something the average person would be able to do.  Someone alive today might have pictures from their childhood in the 40’s or 50’s that may include the structure, but this is well after the time period I’m interested.  Anything coming from a personal collection would need to be from old photos passed down from prior generations and the chances of someone having them and even realizing the home was included in the photo would be a miracle.

No evidence of estimated construction dates.

I used some general techniques used in my field of expertise to analyze data to evalutate if it has 'integrity'

Without going into a bunch of detail, I used the city records to look at construction dates of the other homes in the Elberta subdivision.  I reviewed the distribution of the construction dates to see if it aligned with my theory that some of them were estimated.  I looked for evidence that 1910 was over-represented or under-represented, if 1910 was the earliest date or if there were dates prior to the 1906 subdivision formation.

I found a natural distribution of dates on either side of 1910 and found nothing to suggest that the 1910 construction date was estimated.

But I did find something...

Similar to their contemporary cousins the “Yellow Pages”, “White Pages” or just the "phone book",  city directories have existed for a long time.  The Multnomah County Library has copies of these old directories that go back to the 1800s.  The most popular were the “Polk Directories”.

Some of these directories chronicle who lived at which address and what their profession was.  If I could find a record of someone living in the home before 1910, then I’d have a indication that the construction date was wrong.

I went to the library to talk to Reference Librarian Emily-Jane Dawson who works on the 3rd floor in the reference section.  I explained my goals to her and got expert assistance.

She showed me how to gently use the old city directories to try and answer my questions.  She was careful with the old tomes, yet fast and efficient.  Within a few minutes, she’d used the Going Queen's pre-1933 street address, that I’d retrieved off the Sanborn Maps, and found several useful entries.

She explained that the directories are difficult to use for this type of research because they are sorted by name.  Unless you know the name of the person you are looking for, you’d have to read every entry, of which there are thousands.  However, there was one year that a company attempting to compete with the Polk Directory published a directory sorted by address.  Fortunately, that directory was published in 1912 which was right around the time we were looking.  This competing directory company was only in business for that one year.  Their secret sauce was to sort by address instead of name.  Apparently the demand wasn’t there for that sort technology so the company folded.  However, 104 years later, I found it both lucky and useful.  At the old address of 848 Going, we found the name ‘McMillan’.  Once I had a name to work with, I switched to the Polk directory for the following year, 1913, and found this:

As I mentioned above, these old directories would sometimes display the profession of the occupant.  Notice that Mr. McMillan is an undertaker.  The little 'h' after the street address means that Mr. McMillan is the homeowner and this is his residence.

In a similar directory for that same year we found what we assumed to be Mr. McMillan's son living with him.  He was an automobile trimmer.  This is someone who works on automotive upholstery.

No that we knew Mr. McMillan was an undertaker, we went to find out where he worked.  To do this, we checked the business listings in the Polk Directories to see if we could find out if he was advertising his services.

So, there you go.  Mr. McMillan was an undertaker and did his undertaking at the Going Queen.  She was a funeral home in 1913.  At least that part of our question was answered.


The granddaughter of the previous owner found this blog a few weeks ago and sent us a message.  She said that her grandfather told her that when he bought the place there was an old dumbwaiter elevator that was used to lower bodies into the basement where the undertaker could prepare them for a funeral.  I guess that is how he knew it was a funeral home.  The undertaker would lower bodies, do his thing, then raise them back up for viewing and funeral services in the parlour.  We went back into the house to see if we could find a vestige of this body sized dumbwaiter.

There is an odd patch in the floor that was made by the previous owner in 1983 (dated by the newspaper we found in the wall).  The flooring was patched with pieces of exterior siding.  These same pieces of exterior siding were used elsewhere in the house for things other than exterior siding  For instance, walls were built where lengths of siding were used instead  2x4 studs.  This siding was mixed in with the old Kentucky Fried Chicken beams in other places in the house.  Because we know that the previous owner was the one who used the KFC parts and we know this work was done around 1983, we know it must have been him that used the exterior siding in this large floor patch.  It does look like it could have been the location of the undertaker's dumbwaiter and this corroborate the granddaughter's story.


If we check just below this section of patched floor, down in the basement, we see this…

We saw this before when looking around the basement.  It was covered up by some workbenches before we cleaned it out.  It seemed odd to have this ‘look right’ marking on the wall but now it makes more sense.  It could have been an indicator of which way to unload the cargo off the undertakers dumb waiter.

The librarian and I then tried to go back farther in time to see if we could find the Going Queen in an older directory.  We came up empty.  It appeared that 1913 was the first year that the home shows up in a city directory.

We checked going forward and found that in the 1915 directory,  the Going Queen had a new story to tell.  The new owner was named Etta Norman, a clerk.

We found many entries for people living in the Going Queen after 1914.  Stories for another day.

So what happened to Mr. McMillan and his funeral home?  I looks like by the time he shows up in the 1913 directory, his undertaking business was already in some distress.  With help from the librarian, I found this…

This advertisement in the Portland newspaper shows he was trying to sell the business as early as 1912.  It doesn’t look like he was able to sell the business because when Etta Norman bought the property, she wasn’t operating a funeral home there any longer.

So, I’m ready to call it…

The city records show the house was built in 1910.  I have found no documented evidence that challenges that.  Based on the information uncovered in the search, I can form a new hypothesis.

William McMillan, an undertaker, decided to start a business in the newly created Elberta neighborhood on Going Street.  The year was 1910.  He chose a large corner lot, which would have provided ample horse parking.  He needed a grand home for this operation that was suitable for his purpose.  He settled on a Queen Anne.  While going out of style, it offered classic curb appeal and the larger interior space that he needed for his operation.  He’d prepare bodies in the basement and then raised them up to the main floor where he ran his funeral parlour business.  He and his son Rex maintained private residences upstairs.  He invested everything he had in the business and immediately ran into financial problems.  He tried to stay afloat but things were looking bleak.  He had to take a job at a larger funeral operation somewhere else and work his own business on the side.  It wasn’t working out and he tried to sell his business for 2 years, unsuccessfully.  Not only did he struggle to sell the business, but he had trouble unloading the property.  After all, it had an elevator for dead bodies in the kitchen.  He eventually sold to Etta Norman who then converted it into her family home.  Many stories started and ended in the Going Queen, some of them heartbreakingly sad.  In 1983, Jim Scheirbeck, the latest in a long line of owners decided enough was enough and he removed the undertaker's dumbwaiter.  Decades later, his own declining health led him to set up a bedroom on the first floor so he wouldn't have to navigate the stairs.  His bed was In about the same spot as the old dumbwaiter he'd removed.  He laid his head to rest where Mr. McMillan laid the heads of the loved-ones he’d prepared for services over 100 years before.

 

... and then I got the results from the historical title search.  Now I have a new mystery to unravel.