Featured Stories

Celebrating our historic small dwellings

EILEEN G. FITZSIMONS - Built in 1906; 750 square feet.May is “Historic Preservation Month”, and in spite of the ongoing demolition of older houses, it is a good time to acknowledge the hundreds of historic buildings in our neighborhood that ARE being preserved. Please take the time to either pat yourself on the back (if you are the owner), or extend thanks to someone who is preserving a vintage structure.

There seems to be a house to suit every buyer, be it cottage, bungalow, or Four-Square; but this year I am focusing on the small house – those that are 800 square feet or less. I have not included basements or unfinished attics as usable living space; only the dimensions of the main floor.

Dozens of houses scattered throughout Sellwood-Westmoreland (and in other Eastside neighborhoods) meet this criteria. Many are on a standard 50x100 foot lot; but when the house is small, more space remains for gardening, landscaping, and outdoor activities.

If there is a one element that defines early Sellwood, it might be its gardens and the modest size of its homes.

In 1887, five years after building lots were offered for sale in the Sellwood subdivision, an Oregonian reporter made the three-mile journey upriver from Portland to describe the newly-incorporated town. In addition to a Methodist church, a school, and three stores, he estimated there were one hundred homes.

“All [of the buildings], with scarcely an exception, are neat and substantially constructed. Most of the dwellings are pretty little cottages of handsome architectural design and finish, generally surrounded by well-kept and orderly planned flower and vegetable gardens.”

Many of these cottages, which were built on into the 1920’s, are now approaching or have passed the century mark. There are some streets where they are to be found almost in clusters. For instance, there are many on the named streets (Miller, Lexington, Bidwell) between Sellwood Park and S.E. Thirteenth Avenue.

In the north end of the neighborhood there are several subdivisions as old as Sellwood (1882), and here and among the bungalows of Westmoreland you will find additional examples.

The many small homes have survived because their size suits the needs of their occupants – not everyone wants to live in and maintain a 2,500 square foot house with multiple bathrooms. If these cottages are sound and taken care of, there is no reason why they should not continue into a second century (or more).

According to newspaper and magazine articles, Portland is today part of a movement to build new small houses. Dignity Village in North Portland is approaching its 14th year as a community established by formerly homeless citizens. Technically a campground, the shelters range from permanent tents to tiny dwellings of 250 square feet or less, built of recycled materials for approximately $3,000. The cost is low because cooking facilities, showers and toilets are communal.

At the opposite end of the scale are the dwellings of the “tiny or small house” movement. Sometimes built on wheels so they can be moved, these houses are often intended for two people, and contain kitchens and bathrooms. Every square inch of these custom-built houses is planned and utilized. Averaging 325 square feet, they can price out at $30,000 to $40,000. By comparison, our original vintage small homes could be considered gargantuan!

The accompanying photograph shows just one of the small houses in Inner Southeast Portland. The year of construction and square footage on the main floor is provided, but not the street address. That’s left out on purpose, to encourage you to enjoy the fine spring weather and take a walk, and see how many such small houses you can discover for yourself.