Last week I had the distinct treat of visiting not only a Pietro Belluschi-designed house in the West Hills, but one that the late great architect lived in through his final days. The Burkes House is actually still occupied by Belluschi’s widow, Marjorie, who graciously allowed their grandson Jeff to take me on a tour. It was conceived in 1944 for a Dr. and Mrs. DC Burkes, but built in 1947 after wartime restrictions on building materials were lifted.
Like a lot of homes associated with the mid-20th century ‘Northwest Style’ (those by Belluschi, John Yeon, Van Evra Bailey and developer Robert Rummer), the orientation is not toward the home’s entrance, where we pulled into an old-school carport. Once you step inside, though, there is great attention paid to the spectacular view of downtown Portland as well as to the courtyard-like enclosed back yard.
The view itself would be enough to sell most anyone on this house, but soon even the panorama of buildings, hills, roads and changing clouds you can see from nearly floor to ceiling glass gives away to the house itself. There is such a feeling of connection between inside and outside at Belluschi’s Burke House. The wood ceiling, for example, extends continuously past the glass walls outside as an overhang, yet the material doesn’t change. So whether you’re looking towards the downtown view or the other way towards the back yard, it seems like there is merely a glass partition between two of the house’s spaces that just happen to be indoor and outdoor.
Born in Italy, Belluschi was, despite being a Modernist architect, trained in Old World building and craftsmanship. So while the house’s design has a tremendous lightness to it, in the way one appreciates about modern architecture, there is also a clear sense of this house coming from an architect with an acute sense of structure and materials.
As Jeff Belluschi (who is quite the amateur scholar regarding his grandfather’s career) reminded me, wood provided Pietro with a kind of epiphany. His Italian forebears built with heavy stone and masonry. Wood allowed Belluschi to favor a lightness that old buildings could never pull off, but he also knew enough to let the exquisitely warm and natural texture to come through.
Not only was it a wonderful treat to talk with Marge and Jeff about Pietro, but I also was able to visit the architect’s former office, which has been left largely untouched save for a flat-screen TV that Marge happy watches CNN on. His T-square hangs over Belluschi’s old and surprisingly little desk by the window. (Belluschi’s drafting table is now kept at the AIA/Portland Center for Architecture.) And while there aren’t any mementos to his extraordinary achievements as an architect in the rest of the house, here in his old office hangs Belluschi’s 1972 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (the medal represents a kind of hall-of-fame for the truly cream-of-the-crop all time great architects), as well as his 25-Year Award, also from the AIA, for the Equitable Building downtown – the world’s first modern office building with aluminum cladding.
One of my favorite features of the house is now gone: There used to be a koi goldfish pond outside in the back yard that Belluschi actually extended via an underground tunnel into the house itself. So fish could actually swim in and out of two ponds: one inside and one outside. But according to Marge, the fish still couldn’t avoid being snatched up by local raccoons, so they removed the pond.
Another, more practical element I love, though is still there: Throughout the house, folding out of the wall like a series of trap doors are numerous air vents that let you bring in natural ventilation without even opening the windows. This isn’t unique to Belluschi; I’ve seen it in John Yeon’s houses as well. But it’s symbolic of the many lovely little design touches in these midcentury Northwest Modern homes.
Thanks again to Jeff and Marjorie Belluschi for allowing me to see what is undoubtedly one of the absolute gems of local Portland architecture. It’s unfortunate that a private home won’t ever be seen by many people, even if it ends up being on some future home tour. But as far as I’m concerned, we have our own local version of Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (two name two other classics) right here.