Nearly every house history researcher wants to see old photographs or drawings of their house. Who wouldn't, right? Unfortunately for Portland-area house history buffs, this can be one of the hardest bits of house history ephemera to track down! But don't despair; there are surviving photographs of some houses and it is possible (sometimes) to find them.
The challenge is that there has never been a comprehensive house-portrait project in Portland -- or any other city or town in our area -- so there is no treasure trove of photos of local homes that you can dig through. You might wonder, if there's no big archive of house pictures, where should you start? There are a few possibilities:
First, ask your neighbors or the people in your neighborhood association. People who live on your street may have their own old photographs of family events, parties, or other occassions which include your house in the background. And a bonus -- when you find that long-time resident and photo-saver, they may share stories about past residents of your house or other interesting neighborhood lore!
Houses sometimes appear in the background of photographs taken to record activity on the street. The city of Portland has a lot of photographs of infrastructure and maintenance work they've done over the years. Many of these images are carefully preserved in the Portland City Archives collection. These images usually show city workers doing something in the neighborhood (such as repairing the sewer like in the photo at left) or were taken in connection with city planning work, like a street scene before the installation of a new traffic light. You can search for records (including photographs) using the Archives' catalog, Efiles, and some have been published on the archives's Vintage Portland blog -- see below for more about that! But, most photographs in the collection aren't available online. To look at photographs in person, you'll need to visit the Archives reading room downtown (1800 SW 6th Ave., Suite 550; 503.865.4100). Be sure to read the Archives' policies and tips for researchers before you visit!
The Oregon Historical Society library is another treasure trove for house history researchers. Their collection includes more than 2.5 million photographs and negatives of people, communities, commerce, and life in the Pacific Northwest -- the photograph collection doesn't have a section devoted to house portraits, but you may find photographs of your street, or photographs indexed under the name of a former owner of the house. Some of the library's photographs have been digitized and can be viewed in the library's catalog, but most are available only by visiting in person (1200 SW Park Ave.; 503.222.1741). Again, be sure to read the library's policies, hours and tips for researchers before you visit! (And a note: Multnomah County residents can use the Oregon Historical Society library for free if they show picture i.d.; most others must pay an admission fee.)
Another potential source for house portraits and street scenes is the Vintage Portland blog, run by the Portland City Archives. Every weekday the site features a different historical photograph (or sometimes a map or drawing) of Portland. The posts are sorted into categories for neighborhoods, street names, time periods, and topics. For example, if you are curious about the development of your neighborhood as well as the history of your house, you might want to look at the blog's many aerial photographs; or you might try looking at a neighborhood street like Foster Rd., Powell Blvd., or 82nd Ave.
If the house you're researching happens to be in the Albina district, you may find a photograph of it in The History of Albina, by Roy E. Roos. The book begins with a brief a history of the district (and former city), but it also includes brief architectural history for a selection of houses and other buildings that are representative of different eras in Albina's development. Many of the brief house histories are illustrated with contemporary photographs or have no pictures, but some have historic photographs or drawings.
Have fun hunting for a historic photo of your house!
Questions? Ask the Librarian.