A tale of two houses: Historic homes don’t always get the protection they deserve

The Carman House in Lake Oswego was swallowed up by upscale housing around it, and its future is uncertain (bottom left) while the Zimmerman House (top right) was turned over to a local historical society and preserved as a museum.

It’s not easy being an old house. Not only are there the usual aches and pains of age — dry rot, outdated plumbing, foundation troubles — but, for houses in urban areas, there is the increasing threat of economic pressures to demolish and replace.

When these older houses disappear, we destroy a bit of history and lose a part of our cultural heritage. Here is a tale of two historical houses sharing a family connection and similar past, but far different futures.

In 1851, German immigrants Jacob and Lena Zimmerman and their children traveled the Oregon Trail to settle on a Donation Land Claim in Hayden Island on the Columbia River. In 1869, they relocated a few miles east, purchasing a claim from Robert Wilmot. [Remember that name.]

Here, along the bottomlands of the Columbia, they operated a successful dairy farm, building an attractive Queen Anne Victorian house in 1874.

Their son George eventually took over operations and by the 1920s the farm had expanded to over 600 acres along what is now Sandy Boulevard in Gresham. George and his wife had four daughters and the youngest, Isobel (1899-1992), remained in the house until her death.

Isobel was a 1921 graduate of the University of Oregon and taught at Portland’s Franklin High School for 30 years. Before her death, she had the old house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a collection of buildings and other properties significant for their history, design or association with historically important people.

Oregon has over 2,000 listings from the Bagdad Theater to Crater Lake Lodge as well as cemeteries, courthouses, and even campground comfort stations. While a listing provides a level of protection, it does not guarantee a property never can be demolished. However, to do so requires a formal delisting through the state preservation office, exposing it to more scrutiny and publicity.

In her will, Isobel left the house and surrounding 1.5 acres to the East County Historical Organization to be preserved and operated as a historic house museum.

Over time, the city of Gresham acquired a total of six acres surrounding the homestead to create the Zimmerman Heritage Farm Historical Park. Today, visitors can tour the house and enjoy a glimpse of local farm life in the 1900s.

What makes this house unique is its continuous occupation by the same family for 120 years. All the furniture, decor and personal items are original to the house. Protected by the city, National Register listing, and local historical society, the Zimmerman house should be around for many future generations. Learn more about visiting the Zimmerman house at echohistory.org.

The fate of another old Portland area farmhouse is far less certain. Waters Carman traveled across the country with hopes of striking it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1849. He was not one of the lucky ones, and 1850 found him in Oregon Territory settling on a land claim in Lake Grove, now a part of the city of Lake Oswego. He and his wife built a fine, wooden farmhouse between 1856-57, and were joined in the area by other pioneer families including neighbor, Robert Wilmot, the man who previously sold his Gresham land claim to the Zimmermans.

In the 1920s, the families became further entwined when Wilbur Wilmot, grandson of Robert, inherited the Carman house from his mother, Waters Carman’s daughter.

The house continues in the Wilmot family, and like the Zimmerman house is unique in being occupied by the same family for 100-plus years. It remains one of only a handful of houses dating back to Oregon’s Territorial era and is the city’s oldest residence.

Of course, Lake Oswego changed over time, and farms were replaced by upscale housing, leaving the Carman house standing alone on 1.25 acres surrounded by modern townhouses.

Such a valuable piece of real estate was ripe for development and the Wilmot family planned on demolishing the house and redeveloping the parcel.

However, an earlier Wilmot had the property designated by the city as a historic landmark. When the owners applied to delist the house, it came to the attention of a local preservation group who fought the case all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court.

While the house itself was saved from demolition, its future is unknown and, in all likelihood, the surrounding acreage will be developed, leaving the Carman House a lone monument to the importance of saving our history and cultural heritage.

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