Front view of the house in 2014.  Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Gresham’s Oldest House to be Torn Down?

Front view of the house in 2014.  Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Front view of the house in 2014.
Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

A little known farmhouse at the corner of 282nd Avenue and Lusted Road in the Powell Valley area of Gresham is at risk of being knocked down. On June 18, 2014, the City received an application from the property owner to subdivide the 3.59-acre parcel into 20 lots and remove the farmhouse and many of the mature trees that surround it. While demolition of older houses has become commonplace in the metropolitan area, this house is one of—if not the—oldest house in Gresham. Without immediate study and pragmatic advocacy, it may be lost before it is ever researched, documented, and appreciated for the landmark it may be.

Hamlins JohnsonFamily

Living room in 2014.  Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Living room in 2014. Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Swedish Ash tree in rear of house in 2014.  Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Swedish Ash tree in rear of house in 2014.
Courtesy of Gary Washburn.

Known as the Hamlin-Johnson House, Multnomah County records indicate the building dates from 1904. However, a descendant of the family asserts it was built in 1878. It is even possible, judging from the style of the house and reported hand-hewn timber frame, that builder Charles Hunter Hamlin built it after settling in Oregon between 1848 and 1853. That would make it older than other nearby houses, such as the 1874 Zimmerman House on Sandy Boulevard, operated by the Gresham Parks Department; the 1890 Kelly House; or John Roberts’ 1867 Elkhorn Ranch.

While additional research about the pre-1900 history of the house is still being conducted, we know that in the early 1900s, Reverend Jonas Johnson, a Swedish immigrant, bought the house and 25 acres and became the pastor for the neighboring Powell Valley Church. His family lived there for several decades. After the Johnsons, the Vohs family lived in the house for nearly 20 years, and the Helean family for about 35 years after them. It is rare to find an old house in this part of the metro area that has had such a limited number of owners and has not been altered beyond recognition. The exterior of the Hamlin-Johnson House is in very good condition for its age. The interior is beautiful, including original stained woodwork. There is even a century-old ash tree in the backyard that was planted from a start from the Arboretum in Sweden.

The Hamlin-Johnson House epitomizes mid-19th Century Oregon farmhouses, most of which have disappeared from within the urban growth boundary. It also represents the sizable Swedish immigrant community that existed around Gresham at the turn of the last century. There are very few houses of this age and condition left in Gresham, especially ones that embody so clearly the early history of Gresham. Should some part of the house date to the pre-1865 pioneer period, it would fall into Restore Oregon’s endangered places category of rapidly-disappearing Oregon Trail resources. However, even the 1878 date would make it an early example of East Multnomah County’s roots and past agrarian identity.

Next Steps

The Powell Valley section of Gresham borders the urban growth boundary and has been home to considerable development in recent years. Several turn-of-the-century houses have been razed in recent years to make way for rowhouses and large single family houses. Because the Hamlin-Johnson House has no historic designation, the building will succumb to demolition in the coming weeks unless a solution for its preservation can be found. As of this writing, the property owner has indicated a possible interest in tweaking the proposed lot lines to preserve the existing home on site. Additionally, at least one property owner in the neighborhood is interested in moving the house to a nearby vacant lot. However, neither of these preservation options are a sure thing.

The loss of this significant historic resource, especially before it can be documented or considered for relocation, would be a significant loss to the community. Anyone interested in getting involved with its preservation is encouraged to contact Alice Duff of Gresham’s Historic Resources Subcommittee.

UPDATE: New information in the 7/1 Gresham Outlook  

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