By PATRICIA SANDERS
The German Baptist Old People’s Home, NE 82nd Avenue and NE Oregon Street.
Photo by Thomas Tilton
Montavilla has many historical buildings. But only one is a National Register of Historic Places Landmark: the German Baptist Old People’s Home (now Milepost 5).
It’s a landmark for good reasons, and it’s not just the building’s historical style.
It’s important because it was created by members of the country’s second largest immigrant population— and the largest one in Oregon and Portland in the early 20th Century when it was built.
It’s also important because it represents the commitments and efforts of German Baptists to create a place where their members could retire in comfort and live with others of their own culture and faith.
The need for retirement homes
The decision to build a German Baptist retirement home goes back to 1912. The German population on the West Coast was growing and so were German Baptist churches.
Around this time, there was also an increasing awareness of the unmet needs of senior citizens in the United States. One of these was the establishment of more retirement homes as alternatives to poorhouses.
New retirement homes were already being built in Portland, although not ones specifically dedicated to German Baptists. For example, generous personal endowments had funded the Mann House built in 1910 in the Kerns neighborhood and Altenheim (Home for the Aged) in southwest Montavilla on Division Street, a home for German retirees. For more on Altenheim see our other Montavilla Memories story “What are those old buildings.”
Altenheim (German Old People’s Home) is dedicated. It is now an administration building on the Southeast Portland Community College campus.
Source: Oregon Journal, May 29, 1912
Planning a German Baptist retirement home
Although German Baptists were already thinking about a retirement home for their constituency in 1912, it wasn’t until 1914 that the German Baptist Old People’s Home Society was created to carry the plan forward. It was incorporated in 1915 and in 1916 the Society purchased property in St. Johns.
The home was planned for retirees within the German Baptist Pacific Conference, which then included the 25 German Baptist churches located in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California.
After 1916, plans were stalled for unknown reasons. They resumed after World War I and the following recession.
In 1920, the Society traded the St. John’s property for the property in Montavilla.
The first German Baptist Old People’s Home
Although the property on NE 82nd Avenue was secured, there were apparently insufficient funds for constructing a building. Instead, the Society decided to remodel a house on the property. It opened in 1922 with a 25-person capacity.
The first German Baptist Old People’s Home consisted of this remodeled house on the NE 82nd Avenue property. It was demolished in 1950.
Photo source: Albert John Ramaker, The German Baptists in North America, 1924, p. 115.
The Oregonian of February 19, 1922 described the retirement home in detail. Besides private rooms, there were communal spaces for religious services, socializing, and eating. It also had some modern features, like electric lighting and steam heat.
Residents from ages 65 and up were eligible. Entry fees were according to age and the ability to pay.
Miss Augusta C. Johnson (1922 – 1924), a member of the Tacoma German Baptist Church, was appointed matron to oversee the day-to-day operation of the home.
In subsequent years, the retirement home was run by a superintendent and a matron, usually a husband-wife team, who lived on-site.
The second German Baptist Retirement Home
At last, in 1928, a new building was constructed next to the house that had served the community since 1922.
The first building of the new German Baptist retirement home (left) stands next to the previously used house. The circular drive no longer exists.
Source: An unidentified German-language newspaper included in the application for National Register of Historic Places status.
At the time of its founding, German Baptist services were conducted in German and the 1930 US Census shows that most of the retirees, as well as the superintendent, matron, and a nurse, identified German as their native tongue. Most were born in Germany or in German communities in Russia, Hungary, and Poland. Only five were born in the United States and two of these were children of German natives.
Some German Baptist churches began offering services in German and English in the 1920s and 1930s. But there were still German-born residents recorded in the 1950 US Census of the home, so presumably German continued to be spoken by, at least, some residents for many years.
Expanding the retirement home
From the beginning, the plan was to build additional wings as the need for more resident space grew. Three wings were added in 1931, 1941, and 1950.
This plan of the German Baptist Old People’s Home shows the various sections built between 1928 and 1950: red wing, 1928; orange wing, 1931; yellow wing, 1941; blue wing, 1950.
Source: National Register of Historic Places application
This Google map aerial view shows the configuration created by the various wings. The central (first) unit at the bottom faces NE 82nd Avenue.
After some highly publicized school fires in the early 20th Century, there was a great publish rush to fireproof buildings, especially for high-occupancy structures. One method was the use of inflammable materials.
These were used in the German Baptist retirement home: concrete for basement walls, brick for upper walls, and slate for roofs. The enclosed staircases— except for the one at the 82nd Avenue main entry— are also fire-safety features.
This detail of the west entrance shows the use of fireproof materials: concrete, brick, and slate. It also displays several stylistic elements borrowed from classical Greek and Roman architecture: the broken-pediment gable of the entry roof, the portico porch with columns, the round arch, and the pediment. The brick quoin corners are also based on classical prototypes.
Photo by Thomas Tilton
A Colonial Revival Style building
The Colonial Revival style of this building was established by the first architect, John W. Huget (1885 – 1930), a Russian-born German and a member of the Baptist community. The designers of the three additional wings followed this style.
Colonial Revival architecture was popular from 1880 to 1940. It was inspired by American colonial architecture of the post-Revolutionary period. Hallmarks of the style are red-brick walls with white details and architectural elements borrowed from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The above photo of the west entrance shows several examples.
The west entrance (left) and the south entrance (right) show both the continuity of style and slight variations in the later wings. Both porticos are crowned with pediments and arches supported by clusters of four colonettes. Differences in proportions and in the shapes of the arches are evident.
Photos by Thomas Tilton
Extensions to the original building
A second wing was added to the north of the original building in 1931. It was built by German-born contractors Julius Zink (1978 – 1962) and John Schappert (1882 – 1958).
A third wing was built on the south side of the 1928 building, facing Oregon Street. It was designed by architect Howard L. Gifford (1886 – 1945) and built in 1940 – 1941. He continued the Colonial Revival style outside, but inside he introduced some up-to-date features: air conditioning in the kitchen and dining room and appliances in the kitchen.
Gifford also included a new chapel with seating for 160. Some of you may have attended performances there in recent years after the retirement home became Milepost 5.
In 1941, a year after the US officially entered World War II, the home’s name was changed. The German appellation was dropped, and the facility became the Baptist Home for the Aged. The reasons for the change are not known, although the anti-German feelings of the war years may have influenced the decision. And perhaps the term “aged” was then preferred to “old people.”
The final addition to the retirement home went up in 1950 and was designed by the architectural firm of Annand, Kennedy, and Boone. By this time, the retirement home had 125 residents.
An additional modern building
In 1963, a decision was made to tear down the old retirement home and build a new retirement complex. The Russian-born structural engineer George Alexander Guins (1907-1979) created a design for a multi-building campus, including a high-rise, 329-unit building that looks like a scaled down version of the 1952 United Nations Secretariat Building in New York City. At 15-stories, it would have been higher than any other building in Montavilla.
The Planning Commission found it out of character with the neighborhood and City’s traffic engineer feared it would create hazardous traffic conditions.
The City Council ignored the objections and approved the needed zoning change.
For unknown reasons, the design was never built.
George Alexander Guins’ design for a proposed complex meant to replace the old German Baptist retirement home.
Source: Oregonian, July 25, 1963
But the German Baptist retirement community did get modern building, but a three-story rather than a 15-story one.
In 1968, the need for an extended care facility, prompted the addition of a new building just north of the old one. Instead of matching the existing structure, architect John F. Jensen (1918 – 2011) designed a three-story, International Style facility. Today this is known as The Lofts condominiums.
Perspective drawing of the new nursing-home and apartment building designed by John F. Jensen and Associates. The old retirement home appears in the background.
Source: Oregonian, December 14, 1967
Along with the new look, came a new name. Rev. Eric Kuhn, administrator of the retirement home, said senior citizens resented being called “aged.” On July 9, 1968, the name changed to Baptist Manor.
Today the 1968 nursing home building is The Lofts condominiums.
Photo by Thomas Tilton
In 2005, the old retirement-home building needed renovations. These were considered too costly and property went up for sale. It was purchased and remodeled by Beam Development and opened as Milepost 5 with affordable housing targeting Portland artists. Today it is general affordable housing.
The old German Baptist retirement home has a long history of serving its older members and others. Because of its cultural and historic importance, the German Baptist Old People’s Home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 23, 2020.
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the German Baptist Old People’s Home, The prepared by Jessica Engeman, Historic Preservation Specialist, Feb. 28, 2020. This 53-page pdf document gives a highly detailed description of the property and its history. To access it go here
and click on “NR Nomination” under Scanned document links (upper left).
Portland Historic Resources map
Albert John Ramaker, The German Baptists in North America, German Baptist Publication Society, 1924
Cindy K. Wesley, The Pietist Theology and Ethnic Mission of the General Conference German Baptists in North America, 1851-1920, Ph. D. thesis, 2000
Roberta Lee Schmalenberger, The German-Oregonians, 1850-1918, M. A. thesis, Portland State University, 1983
Steve Schreiber, “Second German Baptist Church – Portland”
“German Baptists to Open New Home for Old Folks,” The Sunday Oregonian, February 19, 1922.
David Hackett Fischer, Growing Old in America, Oxford University Press, 1978
“German Baptist Home Sets October 14 for Dedication,” Oregon Journal, August 30, 1941. This gives a detailed description of the 1940-1941 south wing designed by Howard L. Gifford
Portland” “Second German Baptist Church https://volga.domains.unf.edu/congregations/first-german-baptist-church-portlandhttps://www.volgagermansportland.info/second-german-baptist-church.html
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Thank you for this story I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed all your writing.