PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — For much of its 90-year history, Southeast Portland’s Peacock Lane has been the Rose City’s must-see Christmas light show. On Friday, the neighborhood rounded a final turn in its push to become a national historic landmark.
Peacock Lane’s months of work to gain historic district status came to fruition Friday, June 16, when the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation unanimously nominated the neighborhood to the National Register of Historic Places. During two days of meetings in Redmond, the committee considered nominations for eight historic places, including the Covey Motor Co. building in Portland and the Crater Lake Rim Road in Klamath County.
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Peacock Lane was nominated as an example of the “early automobile suburb” developed in just about every major city between 1830 and 1960. The proposed historic district covers the four-block neighborhood between Southeast Stark and Belmont streets and Southeast Cesar Chavez Boulevard and 41st Avenue.
Peacock Lane residents have worked for about a year to earn possible historic district status, mostly in response to a proposed infill project on a lot near Southeast Stark Street. Neighbors were upset that houses on their street could be demolished to make room for new home construction — something that is happening across the city. A plan by Everett Custom Homes of Portland to build a new house on a vacant lot at 514 S.E. Peacock Lane spurred neighbors to action. Developer Vic Remmers received a building permit for the house in January and work on the two-story structure has progressed during the past few months.
Neighbors raised about $4,000 through Gofundme.com to fund the historic district nomination process, which involves hiring a consultant to write a detailed and lengthy report on the neighborhood’s history, explaining why it should be a national historic landmark. They also tapped the collective spirit that turns the 33-house neighborhood into a brightly lit Christmas landscape each December.
“It is a big deal,” said Toni Anderson, who has lived on the street for 30 years. “We’ve put a lot of time, effort and money toward this process.”
Neighborhood relationships were crucial to the effort, Anderson said. Other neighborhoods have stumbled because of dissent and infighting in recent attempts to earn historic district status. Not one Peacock Lane resident objected to the proposed nomination as a historic district, according to state historic preservation staff. The state office received 21 letters of support for the process (20 from Peacock Lane residents and one from a resident of Southeast 38th Avenue).
Anderson said relationships developed during planning for the annual Christmas light show helped build cohesiveness that guided the historic district process. “We really wouldn’t have one without the other. I know everybody’s name on my street. I know their kids’ names, their emails, their phone numbers. How often does that happen in a neighborhood?”
In an 88-page nomination form, consultant and researcher Ernestina Fuenmayor detailed the neighborhood’s history. The five-acre development was the brainchild of architect and developer Richard F. Wassell, who bought the land in an area known as the Ex-Mayor Simon’s Addition in the early 1920s for $21,500 (about $300,000 today).
(Lawyer Joseph Simon was a U.S. Senator from Oregon between 1898 and 1903. He was Portland mayor from 1909 to 1911, and acquired quite bit of property across the city.)
At the time, eastern Portland’s Buckman and Sunnyside neighborhoods were booming as developers marketed the suburbs to middle-class families who could take advantage of the city’s streetcar line to get to their jobs in and near downtown.
Wassell’s development included a four-block grid with a street running straight down the middle. Most of the 32 houses (and one four-plex) were constructed between 1924 and 1930 in the English Cottage, Colonial Revival or Tudor Revival styles. They included unusual amenities for new houses: driveways and garages for automobiles, which were becoming a big part of the region. The houses also had central heating systems and electric lights, unusual elements at the time.
Wassell had construction crews working on 20 houses at one time, something unheard-of for the time.
Most of the houses were slightly less than 2,000 square feet. Anderson said the scale of each house’s interior was set to make it appear larger from the outside. “The scale of the neighborhood has the same feel and design of fitting together,” she said. “It was really well thought out.”
Wassell died in 1927 at age 40 and didn’t see the completion of his development.
Gas streetlights installed in 1923 still dot the neighborhood. Fuenmayor wrote that nine of the 11 gas streetlights that were part of the original development still operate today. The lights were converted to electricity in the 1930s.
Peacock Lane was originally marketed to upper-middle-class professionals and families. Some prominent people moved into the neighborhood, including Dr. Harriet Jane Lawrence, who developed an anti-influenza serum in 1918 to treat people suffering from the deadly Spanish flu outbreak. President Woodrow Wilson honored Lawrence for her work, Fuenmayor wrote.
Other early residents included William L. Morgan, local superintendent of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.; Dr. Newton M. Wade and his son Dr. Benjamin N. Wade, who served in World War I and was a prominent surgeon.
Besides the annual Christmas light show, which began in the 1920s, the neighborhood also hosts an annual street dance/block party, which was honored in the 1980s by then-Mayor Bud Clark.
Anderson said residents are prepared to wait months before the nomination is approved by the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places.