Frenchman’s vision changes Seaside forever
(Created: Thursday, January 15, 2009 11:02 AM PST)
(Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series of stories about the history of Seaside)
Seaside’s unique Gilbert District along Broadway was created by just as unique of a man, Frenchman Alexandre Gilbert, Sr., who was Mayor of Seaside from 1912-16, and helped rebuild downtown after the devastating fire of 1912.
Gilbert was born in Lucon and became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. in August of 1877, relocating from San Francisco to Astoria in 1881 where he ran a wholesale and retail liquor business. In 1889, Gilbert served as commissioner for the State of Oregon at the Paris Exhibition and was in charge of the Oregon exhibits.
According to the Clatsop County Historical Society, Gilbert moved to Seaside in the early 1890s and built a large, Queen-Anne style house that sits at 341 Beach Dr. During the next few years he would continue buying property and developing the town.
“The work he did to develop property in Seaside was much admired, considered a benefit to all, a way of showing confidence in the future of the town,” wrote Lisa Penner (Cumtux, Vol. 22, No. 3).
According to records at the Seaside Museum and Historical Society, Gilbert bought up property downtown after the fire and loaned money to several businessmen to rebuild or repair as necessary. The Gilbert Insurance Company carried much of the coverage on the destroyed buildings, and as mayor and a businessman, Gilbert saw that the town recovered and people continued to prosper.
One of the buildings lost in the fire was the Catholic Church on Court Street, and because of money owed for the construction of the church buildings, the property that it had sat on was sold. Gilbert, in 1913, donated property to the church and “started a building-fund boom.” The church was erected and dedicated in 1914, where Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church stands today.
In the June 11, 1914, Seaside Signal reported “Building operations on the new $60,000 Gilbert building at the corner of 7th Street and Broadway, are being pushed to the highest capacity and this beautiful structure will be completed and ready for occupancy by the middle of July.”
Gilbert also donated to the city a strip of land along the beach that would later be used for Seaside’s Promenade, according the Gilbert’s great-granddaughter, Virginia McConkey-Hendrickson.
“He envisioned families strolling along the boardwalk with their children, and then sitting down on the grass to enjoy a picnic, much as he remembered them doing in France,” McConkey-Hendrickson said.
As a child visiting her great-grandfather at the Gilbert House in Seaside, McConkey-Hendrickson said his kisses on both cheeks were always special, prickly mustache and all.
“He really didn’t quite know how to relate to small children, so he made up for it by giving us something,” McConkey-Hendrickson said. “He jingled the silver dollars in his pocket, and when we were ready to go home, he would give us each a silver dollar. On the way home, I felt so rich.”
Some mystique does follow Gilbert, as great-granddaughter Kathleen McConkey-Kulland describes in Cumtux: “ A story that I cannot verify is that he owned a fancy bar and brothel in Astoria on Astor Street (the local Red Light district), which included a trapdoor in the floor through which drunken men were dropped into waiting boats, and when they sobered up, they were aboard a ship at sea and were part of the ship’s crew.”
McConkey-Kulland said because of Gilbert’s love of French escargot, he imported the snails from Europe and kept them in little hutches behind his house.
“The hutches had wire screens and he fed them lettuce until they were big enough to eat,” McConkey-Kulland said. “Some of the eggs fell through the screens on to the ground and from there they multiplied and moved off.”
Gilbert owned 600 lots called “Hermosa Park Development” which stretched from Avenue A to the Lewis and Clark Salt Cairn, and from the river to the waterfront. He also owned much of the land that is now Sunset Hills. When Gilbert died on April 26, 1935, Seaside businesses closed from 9 to 10 a.m. during funeral services to honor him. He is buried in the Gilbert tier at the Abbey View Mausoleum at the Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton.
Gilbert Inn Bed and Breakfast owner and operator Jeannie Vick said Gilbert had a getaway cabin in Seaside while he lived in Astoria, and later he and his wife, Emma, built the house that is the Gilbert Inn. The getaway cabin is still there, but hidden away inside the huge Inn.
As a child, Vick used to stay at the Gilbert Inn with her family who would make the trip to Seaside from Portland.
“My grandparents were good friends with Alex’s grandchildren,” Vick said. “It was just a beach house.”