As the population of Portland entered a period of growth in the mid 1800’s-early 1900’s, religious leaders saw the need to provide facilities for the religious, educational and social guidance of the growing population. The Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) was organized in response to the conditions generated by the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1840’s. The organization was well suited to providing this type of guidance to the growing community of Portland. It established a presence in 1868 with a downtown meeting room provided by William Ladd. The Y.M.C.A. devoted itself to bible study, bible distribution, charity and Sunday school. In the next few decades, the mission of the Y expanded from religious, educational and social edification to also include “physical culture” or exercise and sports. The Y’s presence grew to include an East Side Y building (built in 1894) and a dedicated downtown headquarters (completed in 1909), both containing gymnasiums to address this expanded mission.
In 1908, the population of Sellwood had grown to 6,000 people. A group of boys met to discuss how they might start a boys athletic club in the neighborhood in order to play basketball which had become a craze at the time. Games were scheduled regularly at the downtown Y.M.C.A., requiring a streetcar ride which was costly and time consuming for many of the working class families of Sellwood. A Sellwood branch Y.M.C.A. was proposed which would provide a gymnasium for the purpose of games as well as 14 dormitory rooms which could be rented by young men in the employ of some of the local blue collar businesses (such as a lumber mill, the worsted mill and various streetcar lines), classrooms and a swimming pool. Further meetings were organized to discuss the possibility of a fully fledged Sellwood Y.M.C.A. with local businessmen and ministers, the final result of which was a fundraising campaign to obtain pledges from the neighborhood. The campaign was successful and in 1909, the Sellwood Bee announced that plans were underway to build a Y.M.C.A. based on the downtown branch that would be designed by MacNaughton & Strong, the same architects who architected the downtown Y. The building was finished in 1910, however financing it proved difficult when the neighborhood did not entirely fulfill the pledges it had promised. The building operated under mortgage, the responsibility for which fell to four local churches.
The Sellwood Y.M.C.A. continued to face financing difficulties, in part due to competition from the Parks Department which had opened a new public swimming pool in Sellwood Park in 1911. The children of the neighborhood could take free lessons at the Sellwood Park pool, drawing away from the membership fees needed to pay for the the Sellwood Y.M.C.A.. The financial problems were mitigated by closing the Y for long stretches in the Summer and cutting programs and classes. After the first community center was opened in 1913 in Peninsula Park, Sellwood residents lobbied the Parks Department for a neighborhood community center and in 1916, the Parks Department decided to lease the troubled Sellwood Y.M.C.A. for 1 year, bringing programs and staffing to the building. Sellwood citizens urged the Parks Department to purchase the Y.M.C.A. and after much negotiation, the city council purchased it in 1920.
Under the Parks Department, it became known as the Sellwood Community House. It was operated by the city for nearly 100 years. During this time, the pool (made of wood) was decommissioned and it became referred to as the Sellwood Community Center. The Tot Lot was also built in 1985. It has been a thriving community center for several generations of neighborhood residents offering classes and programs for children and adults as well as a gathering place for neighborhood residents. The wood-frame building itself is the oldest surviving example of a Y.M.C.A. in Portland (the other Y’s were demolished). It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006 and it is also a City of Portland Historic Landmark.
In 2019, after many years of threatened closure, the Portland Parks Department finally decided to close the center. The Friends of Sellwood Community Center, a sub-committee of the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE), together with hundreds of current and past users of the center, rallied to save the center. The Sellwood Community Center was renamed the Sellwood Community House, hearkening back to the earliest name by which the neighborhood came to enjoy it as a thriving hub of neighborhood activity. The SCH was incorporated in 2019 as a non-profit. It is an offshoot of SMILE and it is now governed by a board of directors, selected by SMILE and has a 501 C3 status as a non-profit.
For extensive and in depth contextual information on the history of the Sellwood Community House, please visit the National Register of Historic Places of Oregon’s database and view the PDF “NR Nomination”, written by Eileen G. Fitzsimons. Special thanks to Eileen for being the primary source for this history page.
1. Fitzsimons, Eileen G (March 2006). “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Sellwood Branch Y.M.C.A.” (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
6. Hoffnagle, Gail (June 2019). “Brief History: Sellwood Community House Policies and Procedures Manual”.