“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Agincourt’s Alleys (Part 1)
Five days in Portland, Oregon, weren’t nearly enough. The delights of Powell’s Bookstore and the Pearl Bakery are still fresh in my memory. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a city that is more livable, a climate more moderate. I walked everywhere in the CBD or used the trolleys and light-rail; public transit is free in the no-fare square.
As I walked from early morning to late night, something else seemed different—not wrong, just different—but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then I heard the faint sounds of a 1950s folksinger in my mind’s ear. He was singing about “the house with the Queen Anne front and the Mary Anne behind,” recollected from my college years in the ’60s.
In all the orthogonal gridded blocks of Portland’s central business district, I never encountered an alley: all the buildings had faces, fronts—quite interesting facades in a well-preserved variety of architectural styles from the 19th and 20th centuries—but they had no backs, no behinds. How were they serviced? Where were the dempster dumpsters? I had a sudden appreciation for…
Agincourt’s original town site provided more than sixty miles of public right-of-way. But at least one-third of that was intended for service ways, alleys, affording access to garden plots and compost; to carriage houses, manure and garbage. Victorian formality, fountains, sculpture and croquet in the front; clotheslines in the back. Then something changed.
It’s also hard to put a finger on the moment when our city acknowledged the vitality of its backyard culture, the distinct evolving nature of Agincourt’s service ways. Evidence appeared as early as 1885 when The Auditorium was built and the alley running beside it clogged with carriages awaiting opera-goers and other late-night revelers. Within six months of the Auditorium’s dedication, that twenty-foot-wide strip of utility was renamed “Opera Alley,” and a trend was set in motion.
Five years later, fire destroyed the old Hazzard House Hotel (perhaps rightly named, considering its long string of minor disasters). When ground broke for the new Blenheim, a half-block extension of Opera Alley plowed eastward beside it, carved from private lots, ten feet from the Blenheim and a five-foot strip acquired from Belle Miller.
This is what we now call a win-win scenario. The Blenheim acquired a fourth side for rooms and service access. The Millers’ sale was equally fortuitous, financing a livery stable at the rear of their tobacco shop. And, as we learned a few weeks ago, that livery stable made its curious transition into Agincourt’s first purpose-built House of Ill Repute, euphemistically known among polite society as “Mrs. Miller’s Enterprise.” Though the city council never formalized it, that half-block lane soon acquired its own epithet—”Easy Alley”—expanding the meaning of “service.”
Another of our several alley conversions occurred during the early years of the Great Depression. In 1933 Rufini Brothers brought their circus to the Fair Grounds and Agincourt received its next named alley. Times were tough. We were eager for entertainment. But the circus was in difficult straits right along with our factories, shops and institutions. Enter Sheriff Joe Pyne, one of the good guys.
Sheriff Pyne received papers from the Rufinis’ creditors but delayed serving them until the circus’s five-day run was complete. In the meantime—according to local legend—Pyne beat the bushes for help and came up with enough cash to bail the circus out. He visited the usual suspects–familiar names from banking, industry and real estate–but local legend has it that more than half the amount needed (about $3,000 total) came from cookie jars, piggy banks, sewing baskets, tobacco tins and a great many other domestic hiding places that helped families survive those increasingly lean years. Benno Rufini was reluctant to accept charity, so he left the circus’s carousel behind as a “deposit” for the repayment he intendedto make at the earliest opportunity. But when the Rufinis were bought out by a larger circus (somewhat against their will), that “colateral” became municipal property. Agincourt suddenly owned a merry-go-round.
Several public meetings and countless volunteer hours later, the carousel found its way to The Commons by the summer of 1935, where its own peculiar kind of civil service has entertained us in good times and bad for seventy-five years. During the Bi-Centennial, we added a plaque recalling the Rufini Brothers–Benno and Augustino–and built the pavilion that shelters it today.
That same year–1976–the city council officially recognized Carousel Alley, a block-long lane from Agincourt Avenue south toward Louisa.