Astoria, Ore., takes over 111-year-old mystery mansion

ASTORIA, Ore. — The city of Astoria has taken control of a 111-year-old mansion whose history traces the rise of a family prominent in the city’s maritime and banking enterprises and the family’s eventual decline.

The last occupant known to be alive, Mary Louise Flavel, hasn’t been heard from recently, say city officials. They don’t know whether she’s alive, although they say they can’t find evidence that she has died.

A week ago, after invoking a derelict building ordinance passed a year ago, city officials toured the house, the Daily Astorian reported.

They found it crammed from top to bottom with newspapers and magazines from the last century in layers three feet thick, among other items that included a 1950s-era woman’s swimsuit hanging in an all-pink bathroom, an IRS notice about unpaid taxes for 1979, and what appeared to be the remains of a dog in a refrigerator.

It was the community’s first hard information about a local landmark that has long been a source of mystery.

“I grew up in the neighborhood, and Harry was kind of like our Boo Radley from ‘To Kill A Mockingbird,’” said City Council member Karen Mellin. “We always wondered what was behind that door.”

“Harry” was Harry S. Flavel, last in a line of prominent Astorians whose history and escapades gained national attention when Calvin Trillin wrote an article about the family for the New Yorker in 1993.

The home was built in 1901 by Capt. George Flavel, son of the first bar pilot of the Columbia River. Bar pilots perform the risky work of guiding oceangoing vessels over the mouth of the Columbia River, long known as a graveyard for ships.

George Flavel’s son, Harry M. Flavel, inherited the mansion and took over his father’s position as president of the bank. Harry M. Flavel’s second wife was a school teacher named Florence Sherman. The couple had a son and a daughter, Harry Sherman Flavel and Mary Louise Flavel. Harry M. Flavel died in 1951.

Harry S. Flavel was sometimes known as “Hatchet Harry” for a fit of teenage rage in which he was said to have “chopped the banister to bits with a hatchet,” according to Astoria Fire and Rescue Lt. Bob Johnson. Johnson said his father was a doctor who sometimes made house calls to the Flavel home.

The brother and sister never wed or had children. They lived in the home with their mother, Florence, until they fled in 1990.

That was a result of an incident in 1983, when Harry Flavel was accused of attacking a man. He hit the man’s car with a dog chain, saying it was going too fast. The driver tracked Flavel to a dark walkway and demanded to know his name. Flavel stabbed him.

Police and the district attorney at the time, Steven Gerttula, stood on the front porch of the Flavel home while the Flavels talked to the city manager on the telephone. They never let police in. But a few days later, Harry S. Flavel surrendered to the police. He pleaded not guilty and was found guilty of assault but acquitted of attempted murder.

The assault charge could have carried a 20-year sentence. He was given probation and launched appeals, which were exhausted in 1990 — which would have meant jail time for a man in his 60s.

Mellin, the council member, said her mother lived across the street from the mansion and watched the family leave: “She saw them pile into the car — Mary, Harry and their 90-year-old mother, and a couple of dogs.”

In October 1990, Harry was arrested in Pennsylvania for stealing hotel towels but fled.

In 1991, a maintenance man told the FBI the Flavels had a temporary residence in Massachusetts, and Flavel was sent to jail in Astoria. He served more than a year, was released and disappeared.

Local historian John Goodenberger wrote that he returned to Massachusetts.

The mother died soon after his release from jail, after a two-year stint on life support. The siblings returned to Oregon, Goodenberger wrote, and no one knew it. Harry S. Flavel died in 2010.

As for Mary Louise Flavel, city officials say they’re at a loss.

Since the derelict building law went into effect, the city has issued several citations to her and her last known attorney, who told the city he no longer represents her and doesn’t know if she’s alive.

So, the city says, it will now wait for her or an attorney for her to make a claim on the building.

The house itself can be salvaged, city officials said after the tour. It needs a lot of work, but it’s structurally sound. Workers will cover the roof with tarp and the windows with boards. Vegetation outside that creates a fire hazard is being cleared.

The papers, publications and belongings crammed in the upper floors may have even helped preserve things by soaking up rainwater, said building inspector Jack Applegate.

The city will file a lien on the home and preserve the contents for whoever steps forward to take control of the home, even if that someone is Mary Louise Flavel.

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