Portland YWCA Buildings

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How Did the Portland YWCA Carry out the National Organization's Mandate that Housing and Shelter Be "the very foundation of YWCA services?"[1]

Research by Marlene St. Onge, Sandra Dixon, and Ismoon Hunter-Morton

       Female-only space carried great import for the YWCA's social and evangelical mission. Buildings allowed for the protection of women and girls from the vagaries of social dislocation and economic change. Buildings and meeting space helped YWCA leaders to gather women together in order to spread the Gospel across lines of age, class, and neighborhood, thus fulfilling its role as "handmaid of the church." The Portland YWCA, like other YWCAs all over the country, created a home-like environment without men from which to exercise authority in the public sphere in an era of restrictions on female citizenship and mobility.

       The Portland association began by renting rooms at SW Oak and Sixth Avenue in the downtown business district. This suite included offices, classrooms, and parlors, some of which were converted to dormitory use when need arose. The success of this venture inspired the opening of a tearoom and cafeteria in the Wortman, Olds & Kings department store. These eateries enabled outreach to a key constituency, young white women who were employed in the store and in other nearby shops. It also provided a training ground for the YWCA's students in cooking and domestic science. Finally, it created much needed income for the organization. Because of legal restrictions on married women's ability to own property or negotiate legal instruments, the early board of directors required assistance from a white male "board of trustees" who, as fully enfranchised male citizens, were empowered to sign checks and negotiate contracts on behalf of the YWCA.

Lewis & Clark Exposition, 1905
       The YWCA board next sought to extend its protective embrace over women at the Lewis and Clark Exposition held in Portland in 1905. Supported by the Travelers' Aid society, the YWCA purchased land at the Exposition site in order to construct a "Headquarters" building. Their goal was outreach to employed women, recruitment of potential YWCA members, and oversight of the moral tone of the dance halls and beer gardens on the fair grounds. They held luncheons, worship services, musicales, and lectures. The money raised from the Fair provided seed funds for the construction of a permanent YWCA building downtown.

       Thus began a pattern of construction that would, over the course of the century, touch most of the sections of the city of Portland. North Portland, an historically white working-class section, Northeast, which became coded "black" in the early twentieth century, and downtown, located in the wealthy Southwest, all received attention from the YWCA. Southeast remained outside the organization's purview, stigmatized for its mixed-class, ethnic, racial, and bohemian composition, despite the presence of the toney Westmoreland neighborhood around Reed College. Comments of a board member as late as 1968 typify this bias against the neighborhood as a haven for "hippies, a Spanish-speaking community, fatherless homes, drug availability" as well as "communists" and "lesbians."[2]

1. Elsie D. Harper, The Past is Prelude: Fifty Years of Social Action in the YWCA (New York: YWCA, 1963), p. 37.
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2. Executive Committee Meeting Minutes, 14 October 1968, Portland YWCA Archives, Portland, Oregon.
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