Lake Oswego is about to lose another of its charming older homes. The English Cottage “Storybook” style home at 757 “C” Ave (corner of “8th”) in the First Addition was sold to a developer in March. They have already applied for a demolition permit from the City. Future development plans are unknown at this time, but the house sits on a double lot in the First Addition. It is likely that two, much larger homes will replace the one to be torn down. At nearly 3,000 square ft, the already-large existing house makes it an unlikely candidate for replacement. But even larger older homes are not immune from becoming tear-downs.
The existing house is one of Lake Oswego’s few remaining “Storybook” style houses. What distinguishes a Storybook house from a more generic English Cottage is the presence of exaggerated features that make the building appear more quaint and picturesque. It is often said that Storybook houses look like a family of elves or Snow White herself would answer the door if you knocked on it. In this house, the exaggerated features would be the magnificent art-nouveau style leaded-glass front window and the the use of rustic exterior building materials such as split stone and cedar shake singles.
Storybook houses first started appearing in Southern California in the early 1920s. They were often designed by movie studio set designers for whimsical portrayals of “fairy tale” movies. These early Storybook houses were often referred to as “Hansel and Gretel” houses. A few were eventually moved off the sets to nearby residential neighborhoods and a whole new building style was born. In spite of their California origins though, comparatively few Storybook style houses were built there. There was a huge competition at the time for Spanish Revival houses to become the dominate 1920s housing type for the area. Spanish Revival was more appropriate to California’s climate and history. It took the more “English” type climate of the Pacific Northwest for Storybook houses to flourish. Whole streets in Portland were built in this style. If you have ever walked down “Peacock Lane” at Christmas, you have walked through a Storybook neighborhood. Portland was also primed for Storybook houses from the large number of English Cottage style houses there (Lake Oswego too!). Often the line between the two styles was thin. There were many crossovers.
It is said that the whole genre of both styles was due to GI’s being stationed in rural parts of England, Belgium, and France during World War I. Despite the horrors of war, the G.I.s developed a fondness for the quaint rural buildings in those countries. The soldiers of the “19-teens” became the homebuyers of the “’20s”. And the rest, as they say, is history. There! I bet you never thought the house on C Ave had such a pedigree. All the more tragic when we lose houses that have such historic stories to tell.
The house on C has an interesting local story to tell as well. It was built in 1936 for Arthur and Ethel Fiala (nee Fisher). They were married in Oregon City on February 15, 1936. They moved into their brand new house shortly afterward. Arthur said he built the house for his bride. The Fialas owned the house for the rest of their lives. Arthur died in 1987, Ethel in 2006 in a nursing home. Up until the current sale there had been only one other owner the whole time, attesting to the desirability of the house and of the neighborhood.
Arthur worked in the lumber business but he was part of a farming family with deep roots in the area. The senior Fialas (Arthur’s parents), originally from Austria, purchased a 56 acre farm north of the Tualatin River in 1906. It was a small dairy operation but they also grew cabbage and other row crops to sell at a farmer’s market in East Portland. This farm is still in the family ownership It goes by the name Fiala Farms and sells a variety of home-grown produce to the public.. An interesting note re: the Fialas: Arthur and Ethel’s grandson John Fiala is a former linebacker who played professionally for the Pittsburg Steelers 1998-2002.
A local legend says that the Fiala house was a “Sears House”. Between 1908 and 1940 Sears Roebuck sold an estimated 70,000 “pre-cut” homes throughout the country and the world. The components were made in factories and then shipped to local sites to be put together by local builders. A review of Sears home catalogs from the 1930s, however, does not reveal any house designs that match the house in question. Furthermore, although Sears houses were generally considered of good quality, the level of wood craftsmanship inside the Fiala house is exceptionally high, indicating it was probably custom built. Although the house is not on the Lake Oswego Local Landmark List there is a local provision that any home built before 1940 must be “deconstructed”; that is, it must be disassembled piece by piece, rather than just bulld!ozed down. The various house parts can then be resold at salvage firms such as the “Rebuilding Center”, “Rejuvenation”, or “Aurora Mills”. The beautiful woodwork, exquisite cabinetry, and mammoth art nouveau front window will eventually find new life in someone’s home, hopefully someone local who can appreciate the history that went into its making.