Mars Municipal

2006 - 2019
Portland, Oregon
Mars Municipal House

A blow I did not know I could survive led me to the house I called Mars Municipal. Five years after losing my life-partner of ten years to suicide, I was at the far edge of grief and sinking. Hoping to inspire a change in course, my parents carefully offered assistance by co-signing a mortgage with me.

My background had been arts until bereavement cloistered that part of my brain. Construction would immerse me in physical labor, but provide access to craft disconnected from my grief. So began a decade-long project of rehabilitation on a turn of the century farmhouse, and myself.

The house was built in the township of Albina, Oregon (consolidated by Portland in 1891). Records at the Oregon Historical Society from that time show the only buildings in the immediate vicinity were a church, firehouse, and handful of farmhouses. A signature on plaster hidden below the stairs reads, “This house was built in 1887 - Jed Hessler - remodeled in 1939”. Presumably the house was built by Jed or his family, likely one of the early Volga German pioneer families in Albina, as the Volga German Institute lists the family name “Hessler from Norka” for the area and period.

In the 1950s, that neighborhood was razed making way for I-84 and the Lloyd Center shopping mall. An acquaintance whose father worked in construction there and then, shared his father’s memories of carved old growth banisters and other fine woodwork from countless historic houses being burned in towering piles, day after day. The simple farmhouse in question was spared by some frugal soul - jacked up and hauled north to the Boise neighborhood. The lot where the house came to sit, in a once industrial row, was possibly an unofficial garbage site during the first half of the 20th century. A power station soon occupied the house’s original location at Grand Avenue near the corner of Clackamas Street.

Because of the sweeping Rose Quarter demolitions, there’s a very good chance the Mars Municipal house is the only Albina home remaining from its neighborhood and period of construction. Like an impervious lifeboat, this big old box of a farmhouse took me in. I filled it with all of myself I no longer knew what to do with, relentlessly taking things apart and putting them back together again for the better part of the next ten years.

Friends from Portland’s workingclass building community - the musicians’ faction in particular - helped me to rehabilitate the house using mainly grit and salvage. During our most intensive work, I spent several years literally camped in the unfinished basement, first accompanied by two dear friends who labored the lion’s share with me, until floors above ground were suitable for them to inhabit. I made ends meet providing maintenance and housekeeping services by bicycle.

Everything I’ve learned about building sparked then, with a great deal owed to the men who patiently encouraged, taught, and assisted me; beginning with my father.

The surrounding garden caught my overflow, a recess from construction. I planted several dozen fruiting shrubs, trees, and vines. Vigorously focused on a utilitarian landscape, I exclusively planted edible perennials for many seasons before finally, somewhere along my psychological road, I came to also appreciate purely ornamental plants as good medicine. I practiced pruning near daily, watching my choices play out over years. Gardening and pruning naturally expanded into my livelihood.

Friends came and went in residence at the house. More than a few times, previously unknown tenants became family, helping me weather ups and downs. Construction at the house began to recede.

In 2015, new challenges brought me new restlessness. I was reluctantly accepting I would not be a parent, and reckoning with the discovery my father was dying of cancer. I opened a popup gallery and personal studio at the front of the house, culling from my evolving collection of ceramics and ephemera. Prioritizing interaction with those who would randomly wander in, I did not advertise. It was my way of making a very quiet debut, trying to rediscover how to temper life by getting art out of my system after fifteen years compartmentalized.

However, increasingly frustrated with ways our neighborhood was changing, I eventually chose a path of less emotional resistance by launching into two years of fighting with the City of Portland (and failing) to facilitate development of the alley behind the house into a pedestrian-shared community boulevard. I withdrew from bureaucratic mire and wired bread and circus, to take several solo road trips in search of direction.

New Year’s Day, 2017, I began a return drive to Portland OR from my sister’s in Ft Worth TX, planning a pilgrimage to my childhood home in Sierra Vista AZ, which I’d not seen in 20+ years. I had an especially raw and open mind that trip. I stopped by friends’ in New Mexico, and they instructed me to visit Portal AZ on my way to Sierra Vista - which, I did. Portal beckoned me further even as it receded along my route.

In the following days of long open road punctuated by involutary realignment with my childhood desert, I came to the conclusion my time in the Pacific Northwest was finished. I decided I would leave the Mars Municipal house behind, to found a retreat in Portal AZ.

Upon returning to Oregon, I imagined letting go of the house in a way that would be worthy of its history to me, plotting logistics for my goal. Six months later, I met Mariano and told him my plans. We soon married and moved Mariano’s design and print practice into what used to be my popup, threading new life into the steps I took there. Mariano became my collaborator on our plans and future work in Arizona - Casa Petra Vera.

Spring 2018, Mariano and I began the process of getting the Mars Municipal house into the hands of the Portland development team we most admire, led by Owen Gabbert. That transition was completed December 2019; and we look forward to following the property’s evolution and growing integrity under the ownership and exemplary vision of Owen Gabbert and his team.

— Melinda Matson Spina

In loving honor and memory of my father, Sigfred William Matson