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Jewish American Historical Places: Jewish Shelter Home

Portland, Oregon

The Jewish Shelter Home in Portland, Oregon, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on June 14, 1984. The home, constructed around 1902, is important for its importance as an early Jewish humanitarian institution in Portland and for its association with important  Jewish American citizens and institutions responsible for the legal, political and social development of Oregon. First built as a family residence for United States Marshall Elmer Colwell and his family, it was purchased in 1919 for use as the Jewish Shelter Home.

The home itself is a stylistic anagram of the Queen Anne and Colonial Revival architecture styles, rectangular in plan, with basement, first floor, second floor, and an attic accessible by stairs. An L-shaped veranda wraps around the east and south sides of the house with columns, cornice, and frieze resembling the Tuscan order.  The Shelter Home itself consisted of a large kitchen, living room, dining room and playroom on the main floor.  The upper level consisted of five bedrooms and two baths. To the rear of the house was an isolation hospital with housing capacity for four children.  It was considered effective in the containment of communicable disease, often a threat to young children. Activities in the Isolation Hospital were discussed frequently in the Shelter’s Home minute book after 1921.  It was here that the four volunteer doctors would attend the children. The Isolation Hospital now connected to the west end of the house was built as a separate structure around 1920.

The Jewish Shelter Home could obtain legal custody of children and place them for adoption. Though it was never considered an orphanage, the Home was operated with a mixture of paternalism and very professional welfare techniques. When an application for admission to the Home was received, careful biographical records were taken, a staff physician administered a complete physical examination, and the child was given a mental health test.  After 1924, cases were screened for admittance by a professional social worker provided by the Jewish Welfare Federation, and periodic medical services were provided on a volunteer basis by a group of four Jewish doctors.

After purchasing the Shelter Home, its founders elected a board of directors and drafted articles of incorporation to guide its operation. The Shelter Home provided the Jewish immigrant district a certain continuity and support –the Shelter Home allowed Jewish children of disrupted family backgrounds a Jewish upbringing which they quite possibly would have missed had they been placed in a state-operated orphanage. In the course of a year, 18 to 20 children would pass through the house; each staying whatever time was necessary. This process was extremely important to the maintenance of Jewish culture and society in South Portland.

The children at the Jewish Shelter Home were afforded contact with the large population of Portland’s influential Jews as well as the large number of children living in the South Portland neighborhood. The Home’s board of directors wished to raise the children entrusted to them in a Jewish atmosphere and so sent the children to Chanukah parties and Passover services in neighborhood homes whenever possible. While the children did not attend public school, most were enrolled at the Hebrew School at Neighborhood House, which was in close proximity and also listed in the National Register for its similar public service roll in the South Portland neighborhood.

The home, often operating on a limited budget, depended on the volunteer services of men like Israel Dautoff, Hip Shank, and Max Turtledove, all of whom had successful businesses in South Portland. Mrs. Jeanette Meier, wife of Aaron Meier, the founder of Oregon’s largest department store, took a great interest in the Jewish Shelter Home and assisted its operation by raising funds, donating money for special projects and hosting parties there.

Oregon Governor Julius Meier, son of Aaron and Jeanette Meier, and Chief Executive Officer of Meier and Frank Department Store, was the President of the Jewish Shelter Home Board from its beginning until 1933. He maintained a strong interest in the home even during his term as Oregon’s Governor (1930-1934), while he continued to serve as its Board President. Board meetings were held at his office in the Meier and Frank Store where either himself or Aaron Frank would preside.

The Jewish Shelter home was one of eight Jewish immigrant benevolent agencies held under the umbrella of the Federated Jewish Societies of Portland during the 1930s (the other agencies included the First Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Jewish relief Society, the Jewish Service Association, the South Portland Benevolent Society, the B’nai B’rith Center, the Portland Hebrew School and the Neighborhood House).  Oregon Governor Julius Meier also served as President of the Federated Societies of Portland.  By way of the Federated Jewish Societies, the Shelter Home was partially funded with Portland Community Chest money, indicating its importance to the larger community as well as to the local Jewish community. The Home provided security for the Jewish immigrant society and fulfilled a sense of civic duty for many people.  The House is a reminder that the struggle of Jewish people in Portland to earn decent wages and rise in economic status was not always easy.

The Shelter Home operated out of this house through may 1937 and then moved to a new location at the corner of 12th and Jefferson in downtown Portland, which no longer stands. The Jewish Shelter Home is the only visual reminder of the institutions role as the forerunner to the Portland Jewish Family and Child Service.  After the Shelter Home was sold back to private hands it transformed into three apartment units and later a commercial space.

Sources: National Park Service