Northwest Renovation Magazine

A Home Improvement Magazine

The western slopes of Mt. Hood hold a myriad of recreational opportunities and scenic wonders. The area, clustered along Route 26 from Welches up-mountain to Government Camp, also contains dozens of artistically rustic “Steiner Cabins.” Between the late 1920s and 1940s, German immigrant carpenter/homebuilder Henry Steiner and his son, John, constructed as many as 100 of these one-of-a-kind log dwellings (the exact number is still a matter of speculation).Many cabins and houses were built on Mt. Hood by others in this and later periods, but none of those have the particular charm and imaginative whimsy the Steiners managed to create. In a word, the Steiner cabins are “magical.” Each exists as a unique work of art. And, if that weren’t enough, they each display excellent Old World craftsmanship, and functional practicality as well. Once you have been to a Steiner cabin, all other mountain dwellings seem rather ho-hum.

Stair rail made from curved tree limb felled on property.

“Fogelbo” cabin located in Southwest Portland.

This cabin, with its characteristic sunburst gable, sits astride the historic Barlow Trail. Creative use of a sutural tree trunk that doubles as a porch seat.

Former church now being restored as private residence.

Above and below far right; Curved and mis shapen limbs and branches find a decorative and structural use.

Door pulls fashioned from branching tree limbs.

Henry Steiner got his start building Mt Hood log cabins in the mid-1920s, when Swiss immigrant Suzette Franzetti subdivided 140 acres of land surrounding the chalet-style resort that she and her late husband had operated since 1912. She chose Henry, then a local carpenter and cabinetmaker, to construct the first cabins on the parcels. They proved to be quite popular and resulted in more commissions elsewhere. Cabin building proved to be a family affair. With thirteen children in the family, there were many hands to help out with the work. Henry’s wife, Molly, and the girls hand peeled the logs. The sons cleared the land, cut trees into logs, and shaved cedar into shingles. As there was no electricity on the mountain at that time, they used no power tools. The strongest of the sons used 16 lb. sledgehammers to break giant boulders into flat-faced rocks for chimneys and massive fireplaces. Sons Fred and, especially, John went on to build cabins of their own. John passed away last April at age 99. The Oregonian’s full-page tribute called him the “last of the master craftsmen who shaped the Oregon Rustic Style.”

The Steiner cabins may also be considered precursors to the “green” buildings touted today. As previously mentioned, no electricity was used in their construction. Also, all the logs used in the homes came from trees (usually Douglas fir) felled on the site itself. Each was left to age on-site for approximately one year. Logs left to age usually develop a significant split from the center, radiating outward. In constructing the house, the Steiners would take each log and stack it with the split side down so that no rainwater would collect in the split.

Many of the houses’ more whimsical qualities come from the need to efficiently utilize every bit of natural material on the site. There were no hardware stores on the mountain then, so each latch, handle, and other hardware had to be hand carved from wood from the site. Of particular interest are the many doorknobs constructed from “root burls.” This produced a very efficient and beautiful fixture, completely in keeping with the wooded mountain setting. Every bit of wood was utilized. The Steiners even found uses for wood that was bent and/or misshapen. Where other builders would discard such anomalies, the Steiners went out of their way to highlight the beauty of unusual shapes. Most Steiner cabins with stairways utilized naturally bent or curved logs for a stair rail.

While most “Steiners” were built on Mt. Hood, several were also built in other parts of Oregon. There is a small cluster on the Sandy River in Troutdale. There are suspected Steiners in Tigard and Roseburg, and a heavily remodeled Steiner on the Coast. The most famous Steiner not on the mountain, however, is “Fogelbo” in the Garden Home area of southwest Portland. It was constructed between 1938 and 1940 for Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Olson, a Swedish-American couple. Steiner was chosen as the builder because of his Old World craftsmanship and his northern European-inspired rustic designs, not terribly unlike something that would have been found in rural Sweden. The Swedish connection has remained with the house. Today, it is occupied by Ross Fogelquist who, before his retirement, was the Swedish Vice Consul in Portland. Mr. Fogelquist has furnished the house with many antiques collected (and made) by his Swedish ancestors. The rustic log design of the house serves as the perfect backdrop for the display of Swedish memorabilia.

A good way to view a sampling of the Steiner cabins is to go on the annual Steiner Cabin Tour, put on each August by the Mt. Hood Cultural Center and Museum. Next year’s tour is scheduled for August 13, 2013. The tour is self-guided and each home will be open for viewing. Next year’s offerings will include Steiner cabins in the towns of Rhododendron, Zig-Zag, and Brightwood.

The first thing that you might notice when going through a Steiner cabin is the high degree of historic fabric still contained in each dwelling.

Sometimes, historic house tours can be more showcases for modern remodeling efforts than historic education. Not so on the Steiner tour. The degree of pride that homeowners have in their original Steiners is palpable. Those that have had remodeling done (usually in kitchens and bathrooms) have done so with the ultimate in care and respect for the original design and craftsmanship.

Jack Bookwalter is a freelance writer and architectural historian living in Portland, OR.

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