Meara and Philip's house has been around for more than a century. Meara, a fourth generation resident of the neighborhood, grew up in Portland but left for college in the East. In 1997 she returned to Portland along with husband Phillip and their three children, and in time bought the house next door to her grandmother’s place. They’ve been enlivening Sullivan’s Gulch ever since.
Arguably the most unique feature of their remarkably distinctive home is the speakeasy in the basement, but a converted maid’s quarters in the attic and the original carved woodwork throughout the house serve as reminders of its storied past. We asked Meara to tell us about a home where the past, present and future are all embraced:
Sullivan’s Gulch is very small and blocked off on two sides (by the Banfield to the south and 28th to the east). If you have no reason to be here, you may live your whole life in Portland and never know about the Gulch. This relative isolation gives us a sense of being a little village. Things like Soup Night, Gulch-o-Rama and other annual events have created a uniquely tight-knit community. It is the antithesis of suburban neighborhoods where no one seems to know their neighbors.
On the down side, the crime has gotten to be pretty constant, just petty stuff; car break-ins and packages stolen off porches, but it makes you feel less secure. In true Gulch style, there is a Safety March coming up soon that will bring out a bunch of neighbors to walk the hood and talk about how we can improve safety with better lighting and such. This is not a passive neighborhood.
Soup Night is a tradition that began at least eight years ago. Gulchers Pam Pfiffner, Harrison Petit, and myself decided to start having soup together once a week as a way to connect. We started inviting any neighbors that wanted to come, and eventually put together a listserv that told everyone where Soup Night was happening. The weekly event went on for at least three years without missing more than a week or two. Eventually, we bought a giant soup pot and all the bowls and spoons someone would need to host, and those supplies rotate from host to host.
Guests bring what they can as potluck, but the soup is always the star of the show. It has been an incredibly potent act of civic engagement for our entire village. We came to know each other better, and help each other (fix our cars, find babysitters, provide comfort during hardship, network for resources and feel a part of something authentic and hyper-local). After three years, it started to unravel a bit, but it continued at least once a month for another three years. In these times, we should re-start it. We all need to feel connected.
We added on a special room to the back of the house for my mother several years ago, who died far too young of ALS. Her favorite e.e. cummings' poem, i thank You God for most this amazing, is emblazoned on the rooms' doors.
“i thank You God for most this amazing” by e.e. cummings
i thank You God for most this amazing day:
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
The doors were done by Jere Grimm, a venerated Oregon artist and one of my mother's closest friends for many years. Only the first two lines appear on the doors, but the full poem makes clear that Mum was leaving the message for us to remember her after she passed.
My mother was the one who encouraged any pet or animal we ever wanted to have, including my brother's crow, Poe, who once scared off a man who definitely meant me harm far up on the Wildwood Trail in Forest Park.
I have always rescued crows as a way to pay repay that debt. Our favorite crow, Raucous, flew all around the neighborhood and through our house. He learned which houses in the neighborhood would feed him when he flew to their kitchen windows, and which wouldn’t.
A local writer was teaching a class to some aspiring poets in his backyard one summer evening, telling them that they needed to write from their own experience.
In the middle of the class, Raucous flew into the middle of their circle, kicked over their wine glasses and sucked up the chardonnay (his favorite) before flying off. Every poet there wrote about drunken crows.
With the house built in 1904, I imagine the speakeasy was created sometime in the 1920's. When Prohibition kicked in, I know from my grandmother that the parties were wild down there. The drunks would stumble up and pass out in her flower beds. She was not a fan. It was designed to evoke an alpine ski lodge, with fake snowscapes painted on dummy or boarded-up windows. The escape hatch leads to the area under the porch—an easy route for folks evading the police.
These days, we use it for private shows with talented musicians who use my husband's microphones to perform shows for audiences of about 30. The vibe of these shows is very intimate, with an hour of pre-show mingling between guests and the artists, so everyone feels connected by the time the music starts. The bar serves the house drink of Rye Whiskey and Ginger or beer. As long as it’s not raining, we light a fire in our backyard fireplace after the shows to continue the music and conviviality. I think we please the speakeasy party ghosts.
The people that we know in this neighborhood have a wide range of occupations and creative vocations, and I think that demonstrates to kids that they can do or be whatever they want. As a community, we applaud children's efforts with vigor. The community’s support of my daughter’s music has been remarkable and helped her through the early days of performing. My son Gordon Graham is a writer and has a podcast called Narrow Century. His twin, Emmett, is at Savannah College of Art completing his degree in Sequential Art (comics), and my daughter, Malachi Graham, has two successful bands—Malachi Graham and Small Million.
After 20 years as a software engineer with an increasing alienation and disinterest in the work, my husband started spending more time tinkering in the basement after making my daughter a microphone for Christmas one year. Eventually, he quit his day job to do it full-time (a big risk at the time since the economy was in the gutter and no one had ever made microphones like his).
He started growing the business, called Ear Trumpet Labs, and now, five years later, has a large workshop on the other side of the Gulch and employs six people, many of them Gulchers. His mics are used by very well-known performers—Elvis Costello, Earls of Lesters, Jason Mraz, Tim McGraw, and the Violent Femmes, just to name a few. My daughter runs the business side of the company and he continues to invent and build new microphones specially tuned for live performance.
Building on my involvement in the music community, I have started an industry advocacy program called MusicPortland.org that is committed to measuring and supporting the music industry. I am working with the local industry leaders, TravelPortland and City Hall. You can read more at www.musicportland.org.
D. Larson, Editor