Old buildings can tell a story about their early history. Alterations to those buildings can reveal the era in which they occurred. Two altered houses on Fourth Street might tell of a period when America was at war, the economy was slumped and community values were trampled by political posturing and mudslinging.
According to the Evening Astorian Budget, the following occurred during the first three weeks of May 1950:
Nationally, the Cold War seemed to scare some people silly. Republican Sen. Ralph Flanders of Vermont asked the Senate to hold future communist investigations in private. He said "the wide-open procedure is 'handicapping' American foreign relations." Then in New York, the board of education was trying public school teachers under civil service rules. The teachers, members of United Public Workers, were accused of being communists and a part of a red organization.
There was fear, too, America might collapse into a Godless society. Even a nationally-known economist got into the act, predicting self-destruction of the Protestant faith. Beside paying low, uncompetitive wages to their ministers, congregations did not exploit their facilities. "If Jesus returned to earth on a Monday afternoon," warned the economist, "He would need a 'burglar's jimmy' to enter most Protestant churches."
Locally, money was tight. Editor Fred L. Andrus lamented the loss of activities for youth in our city. Furthermore, he stated young people did not feel like they had a place in the world. In the past, they worked in their parents' business and learned to become productive members of society. In 1950, he said, many teenagers drifted aimlessly. Three boys, aged 13 to 16, responded to an ambivalent world in their own way. They shot out 95 windows at John Jacob Astor School.
Unacceptable dwellingsHousing in Astoria was abysmal. A survey by the federal census was damning, finding one-third of the city's dwellings unacceptable. Of these 849 residences, 42 percent were dilapidated and 47 percent were substandard - meaning they lacked flush toilets, hot water or bathing facilities. One or more minor children occupied 45 percent of the units.
A subsidy was offered by the federal government, through the Public Housing Administration, to construct 150 units of low-cost rental housing. Instantly controversial, Astoria's standing city commissioners sought an advisory vote from the public.
The subsidy became a reoccurring theme in primary candidate debates. The League of Women Voters, chaired by Edith Henningsgaard, offered one such debate for mayoral candidates. There, the lone Democratic candidate, William Nolan, spoke in favor of the subsidy. Nolan said, "You can't have industry without a labor pool; you can't have a labor pool unless you have housing."
Two of the Republican candidates spoke against the subsidy. Dr. O.W. Lindberg said Astorians should stand on their own feet and not rely on the government. He also believed we should get industry and jobs here first, then worry about housing. Joe Garcia said, "There are plenty of contractors here; let's kick them in the pants a bit and have them build our homes privately." Candidate Peter Cosovich said he needed more time to study the proposal.
One of the women in attendance asked the candidates their view of the "nation-wide effort" to legalize prostitution - presumably as a means to economic development. All four men shunned the proposal.
The following week, candidates met at the Astoria Lions Club. Cosovich joined his Democratic contender in supporting the housing project. Although 15 percent of Astoria families lived in poverty, Lindberg and Joe Garcia cautioned subsidized housing was "going down the road to socialism."
Lindberg rebuked Cosovich. "If someone should build a home across the street from me with a bunch of urchins running around it," he said,"why should I pay for another man's pleasure?" A proposed National Health Plan, the doctor noted, was no different. Cosovich did not support socialized medicine, but he expressed empathy for the poor and believed in "live and help live. "
President Harry Truman scoffed at the "old fogies" who fought better housing, education and social security. "The cry of socialism is as old as the hills," he said. Truman concluded women's suffrage had also been called "socialism." Interestingly in Portland, where citizens also wrestled with the acceptance of the same housing subsidy, it was supported by the League of Women Voters, American Association of University Women, Catholic Women's League of Portland and ... the Young Republicans.
Peter Cosovich won the primary and eventually won his bid for mayor. But, Astorians rejected subsidized housing by a two-thirds vote.
Proponents claimed failure was because of a smear campaign by the Home Owners Council. There was more to it than that. A distrust of government, combined with disputed tax burdens and a lack of understanding of where and how the houses might be constructed all figured in to the failed proposition. Andrus surmised that people, if given the chance to vote, would nix most of the so-called "welfare legislation." "It might be well for congressmen and senators," wrote the editor, " ... to consider the large silent mass of taxpayers who are fearful of the mounting burden of governmental costs."
Word of bad housing spreads Later, word of Astoria's miserable housing situation reached a national audience. The Navy's December issue of All Hands warned its readers about our city. Astoria was one of 17 cities nationwide which did not provide suitable housing for military families. The magazine discouraged personnel from coming here without prior arrangement for their families. It is unknown how many potential civilian businesses and industries read this article and declined to locate here.
Astorians, it seemed, were either unwilling or unable to help themselves. But there was a bright spot. Two fishermen/carpenter Finns, Arvid Leppinen and Arvo Salo, purchased two houses on the city's tax-delinquent holdings. Located on Fourth Street, between Bond and Commercial streets, the houses were destitute. Water to the buildings had long been turned off. Transients used the structures for overnight lodging. One house had "hundreds of pounds" of empty bottles stashed below after a "generation of parties."
The two Queen Anne cottages, constructed by 1890, had classic elements of the era: sunbursts on the gable ends, oculus windows at the attic level, bay windows below and turned posts and orient-inspired spindling about the front porch. However, that no longer mattered. It didn't matter that one house once belonged to Daniel P. Belcher, head of the Teamsters Union and two-term street superintendent. Nor did it matter the other house was once owned by Henry J. Wherity, Astoria booster, multiple-time grand marshall of the Regatta parade and well-known shoe salesman.
What mattered, was houses throughout the city needed to be saved and returned to usefulness. Quickly. And, with an eye toward low-maintenance housing for those with moderate incomes, Leppinen and Salo stripped the buildings of their ornamentation. Then, composition siding was rolled over original wood siding, Fix-Tex tiles were applied over watermarked plaster ceilings and old light fixtures were replaced.
The result disheartens preservationists today who view it as "remuddling." Regardless, it is better to view it as "meatball surgery" for the survival of the building. The work is easily reversible and it provided two generations with affordable houses.
Today, there are more options for owners of old houses. They don't have to choose between historic integrity and affordability. The Community Action Team for Housing Rehabilitation and Weatherization has done wonders for Astoria. Also, the State Historic Preservation Office offers tax incentives for historic structures within National Register Historic Districts.
Now, if we could just get our politicians to quit grandstanding and mudslinging ...
John E. Goodenberger is a historic building consultant who lives in Astoria.