In 1978, When my husband and I were house hunting in Lake Oswego for a home for our family, I fell in love with the First Addition with its many cottage-style houses and its historic feel.
At that time, we decided on a bigger house and yard and a view overlooking the lake, but I determined that someday, when it came time to downsize, I wanted to live in the First Addition.
So, in 2008 we bought our Someday house: a 1920 arts and crafts bungalow. Much has changed about the First Addition in the past forty years but walking through this unique Lake Oswego neighborhood everyday with my dogs, I have come to appreciate how happy it makes me to indulge my passion for old houses that tell the history of the place I live.
Lake Oswego is not a suburb of Portland; it’s a unique city with its own enormously interesting history. Starting as an unincorporated mining town owned by the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, it was re-invented in the early 1920’s into a resort-like community featuring up-scale homes, golfing, horseback riding and water skiing. The marketing slogan was “Live Where You Play” and it still seems to sell. But the First Addition was more “live where you work”.
In the wake of the Panic of 1893, the economic crisis that brought about the end of the iron era, many residents left, but those that stayed became the back bone of Lake Oswego’s early days as a city. Historically, my First Addition neighborhood, (originally called New Town), was actually the third population center after Old Town and South Town.
Platted by the Iron and Steel Company to make additional housing for the workers of the second furnace, the First Addition was up-river from the original furnace and Old Town. As businesses, churches, and schools grew up, the community built their homes and barns and housed their chickens and horses close by. They began to need mail delivery and a volunteer fire department to protect them—and some control over the biggest social issue of the day: prohibition. Promoting the interests of small businesses over the opposition of the powerful Oregon Iron and Steel company, they managed on the fourth try, to incorporate in 1910 as the town of Oswego.
Everyone likes to walk in the First Addition with its level sidewalks and wonderful houses with beautiful gardens. After all, in 2006, “Cottage Living” magazine voted it one of the ten best cottage communities in the country. But with a list of landmark houses in one hand and dog leashes in the other, it’s easy to visualize what it might have been like to live in this neighborhood in the early 1900’s. First of all, it was mostly rural; the Iron and Steel company was left with a lot of vacant lots they were trying to sell for $25. That’s no longer the case, but thanks to the diligent work of early Lake Oswego historians and preservationists, we have some good examples.
I think my favorite is the red Johnson Barn at 490 G Avenue across the street from the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center, the last remaining barn in the First Addition.
This barn was once part of a farm complex which covered most of the block between 4th and 5th Street. It is believed to have been constructed around 1910. Clifford “Happy” Johnson, the first early postal carrier to procure a delivery wagon, used it as a horse barn. The story goes that the first day the horses saw the bright white wagon, they kicked the $90 vehicle to pieces. Happy re-built it, and the horses got used to it.
The Johnson Barn is typical of early 20th century barns usually located in more populated areas. Today, the building continues to reflect many of the character-defining features associated with Vernacular, or functional, style dwellings used in the early development of Lake Oswego. The barn features include board-and-batten siding, small multi-light wood windows, basic forms, and reserved window cases, a gambrel roof design, an overhead sliding door on the sidewall and hinged door to the loft.
Families from Happy Johnson’s to the McCurdy’s and the Vose’s have lived and raised families in the property. The Voses were well known in LO’s early history for their impact on education. Another example of the vernacular style – with a few Queen Anne elements – at 791 4th Street, known as the Brown-Vose House (circa 1885), is also on the City’s Landmark Designation list.
The current owners – including Molly, the beautiful German Shepherd – are preserving the barn and allow us, as we walk by, to peek into our past a bit.
It’s a huge benefit to Lake Oswegans that the early citizens realized the importance of preserving our history for future generations. So, if after you walk, you want to dive into the fun of tracking down information on the First Addition (or other Lake Oswego historic houses) there is a treasure trove of information on the Preservation Society website, at the library, on the City’s web site and in books like Iron, Wood & Water, an illustrated History of Lake Oswego.