For an upcoming issue in 2011, Portland Monthly magazine and its editor, former Oregonian architecture critic Randy Gragg, are planning to compose a list of the top 10 houses of the 20th century in Portland.
Selections for the list will be decided by a jury comprised of Classic Houses of Portland author William Hawkins, architect Rick Potestio, Architectural Heritage Center director Cathy Galbraith, and yours truly. But before that, the public is invited to make suggestions and arguments.
When I heard about the list, the first house that came to mind was the Watzek House, designed by the great John Yeon.
In 1935, Portland lumber magnate Aubrey Watzek looked to build a house for himself and his mother, with his friend Yeon getting the job. But Watzek initially did not like the modern, non-traditional design. Instead of trying to change his mind, Yeon suggested Watzek contact Pietro Belluschi, who was then directing the AE Doyle architectural firm, the city's most accomplished at that time. But Belluschi’s design didn't impress Watzek either, so he returned to Yeon's original proposal.
Which was a good thing, because even if the design wasn't initially to the lumber baron's taste, the house would turn out an influential masterpiece of early American modernism. And all this from an architect who was just 26 years old when he finished the construction drawings in early 1937.
As Leland Roth writes in the book American Architecture, Yeon "decided to create a thoroughly modern residence, but one designed in response to the local climate rather than adhering to abstract international formulas, and he decided to exploit wood as a building material rather than steel or concrete," which had been de rigeur in most all other iterations of early 20th century modernism, a la Frank Lloyd Wright or the Bauhaus.
"The result," Roth continues, "was a clustering of rooms around a central court," drawing from Asian and early ranch styles, "with low pitched roofs carried on wood supports protecting the large expanses of glass from winter rains. The house was featured in several exhibitions and publications produced by the Museum of Modern Art."
After the Watzek, John Yeon only pursued architecture in fits and starts, producing a few other houses and the Portland Oregon Visitors Center that still stands in Waterfront Park. But he largely turned to regional planning and landscape preservation, while Yeon's contemporary, Pietro Belluschi, aggressively pursued his career and went on to become a far bigger name in international architectural history.
Belluschi ought to have a few houses up for consideration on the list as well, not just because he is Portland's most acclaimed architect in history but because a couple of the houses are magnificent. Two years ago I had the good fortune to visit the circa-1948 Burkes House, where Belluschi's own family lived for many years.
As Meredith Clausen writes of the Burkes in her book, Pietro Belluschi, the project "was long in gestation. The clients just before the war had decided to sell their old colonial house and build a new one; aware of the fame of the recently completed De Graaff house by the celebrated Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra in the hills south west of Portland, they decided that theirs too should be modern. The house was designed like his others to take advantage of the view while preserving privacy. facing outwards to the expansive view of the city on one side, it opened out to a secluded garden notched out of the hillside on the other. The living and dining areas were combined into one long continuous space paralelling the view, with a kitchen area set off to one side by a large brick masonry core."
"The sense of an open expansive space was enhanced by continuous cork floors throughout," Clausen adds, "and by the lush boards of the fir ceiling which continued uninterrupted through the glazing of the walls to form protective porticoes for terraces on both city and garden sides. Exteriors were of unpainted cedar, witrh smooth, flush surfaces only lightly stained and oiled. The roofline was virtually flat, with a deep fascia and wide overhangs. Mrs Burkes had much to do with this. a woman of independent mind and sophisticated in the arts, she had brought in photographs and tear sheets indicating what she wanted. It was she, according to Belluschi, who, aware of the International Style and the acclaim the Neutra house was receiving, insisted on the flat roof."
In the handful of years before and after World War II, architects based in Southern California like Richard Neutra, A. Quincy Jones and Rudolf Schindler gained wide notoriety for their modern, glassy, open-planned homes, particularly the "Case Study" houses. This vernacular, while clearly a sister of the Northwest modernism Belluschi and Yeon practiced, was less dependent on wood and instead usually favored steel and masonry. Yet both Neutra and Jones designed homes in Portland, too, and some are worth consideration for this list, particularly Neutra's Jan De Graaff House from 1940.
Neutra's Jan De Graaff House (images courtesy Triangle Modernist Houses)
"The owners were avid admirers of contemporary architecture, and they sought out Neutra, who enjoyed an international reputation," Hawkins writes. "He would design for them Portland's first residence in the style, which would house the impressive De Graaff collection of modern art and furnishings. The design that Neutra presented," in association with local architect Van Evera Bailey, has all the International style characteristics. Its flat roof, smooth walls, and continuous banks of windows are completely shorn of ornament. Detail is simplified to the extreme to obtain the tight-skinned, box-like appearance that was a quality of the style. The exterior emphasizes long horizontal bands of windows and similar expanses of vertical tongue-and-groove siding. House design had become an abstract art, relying on floating planes of varying irregularity to achieve the assymetrical balance."
Unfortunately, though, this masterful house was in the ensuing years remodeled so extensively that it has become all but unrecognizable from the original. This house hasn't been demolished, but it's no longer Neutra's design.
Pittock Mansion (photo by Squid Viscious via Flickr)
Of course the modernism exhibited in these houses from the first half of the 20th Century is just one of many styles and idioms expressed in residential architecture. Here in Portland, like any major city, there are Victorian houses, craftsmans, Queen Annes, colonial revival, bungalows, Tudors, and much more. If we're talking about classic houses of the past, in Portland that of course starts with the Pittock Mansion.
The 22-room house, now open to the public, was designed by architect Edward Foulkes and completed in 1914. The mansion sits on 46 acres with a view of five Cascade peaks. The design includes fine plasterwork, cut and polished marbles, cast bronze, and superbly crafted hardwoods and paneling. Its progressive features included a central vacuum system, intercoms, and indirect lighting hidden in alcoves above the walls.
"It typifies the success of the nineteenth-century American entrepreneurial spirit, which, with talent and enormous energy, was able to express itself in the construction of a mighty residence," writes William Hawkins in Classic Houses of Portland: 1850-1950.
"Foulkes, a San Francisco architect, planned two symmetrical angled wins toward the views, the intersections market by twin engaged turrets with conical roofs... A massive, red-tiled, hipped roof with prominent attic dormers sits above the central volume of the house. The axially placed central fireplaces and chimneys peak at the ridge. The house is constructed of dressed Bellingham sandstone, adorned with scrolled and modillioned cornices, a Greek meander entablature, pedimented garden doorways, and balustrated balconies."
Another house Hawkins writes about, and one that received a degree of notoriety in recent years when its owners protested a condo next door that would have dwarfed it, is the Gustav Feeiwald House in Irvington. It is now the Lion & Rose Bed and Breakfast
"At first glance, the house could be of the Queene Anne style, particularly with its corner polygonal three-story turret and wrap-around covered porch. However, if roofs are the determining factor, the house would be of a more Craftsman style....The Freiwald House has the more square proportions, the wider windows, and the curved eave of the Craftsman period, despite the addition of Colonial Revival detailing at porch columns, corner pilasters, and pediments."
The Freiwald House was built in 1906 as a private residence for Gustav E. Freiwald, a 42-year-old German beer brewer who operated breweries and taverns in towns along the Columbia River from Hood River to Astoria. A year earlier, he had hired Emil Schacht, a well-known German-born Portland architect, to design a grand house for him in Irvington. Schacht had already designed a number of brewery buildings and other commercial structures for Freiwald, but the client rejected the house design and hired HH Menges to redesign the house. It is believed that Menges took Schacht's design and added the Queen Anne exterior elements: an octagonal turret, a wide wrap-around porch with Ionic columns, and a large dormer with an arched window and balcony.
One mustn't forget seminal Portland architect AE Doyle when discussing 20th Century houses, even if Doyle is better known for larger-scale projects like Central Library, the Benson Hotel, and the recently demolished Riverdale School. Among Doyle's best may have been the Edward Harmon House from 1908, still standing at NW 26th and Lovejoy.
Doyle, Hawkins writes, "had just established his practice in the city - the beginning of a long and distinguished career - when he designed the house with the solid, wide proportions then in vogue. The segmental-arched and transomed windows, the solid porch columns, and the shed dormer were Craftsman elements, as is the wrap-around hip at the gable ends - an inventive, almost Japanese form...Combined with these details are the Classical brick quoins at the corners of the house, the flat modillions at the eaves, and the non-fluted Doric columns that support the covered entry pergola."
Most every house I've written about so far, be it contemporary or historically styled, was built in the first half of the 20th century. So what about the second half?
One house that immediately comes to mind actually might not be eligible, for two reasons: it's in Vancouver, Washington and its architect, Rick Potestio, is part of the jury picking Portland Monthly's list. That said, the Burch House from 1999, which won Potestio the top local AIA award, is exceptional.
“This house to date is still the most sophisticated and completely executed project I’ve done,” Potestio told me in an interview last year for Portland Modern. “It was truly an inspired client who as a businessman was very specific about budget and what he wanted. He wanted it to be evocative of an Asian aesthetic and to be able to bring people from around the world to see it was a work of art.”
Potestio said he conceived the house to play with the Venetian notion of a plaza on the water. But on the side it becomes more of a sculptural fragmented piece in order to frame different views. “This is a 50x80 subdivision lot located on the banks of the Columbia River and surrounded by park space as well as very mediocre tract houses,” he explained, “so the question was how to grab hold of something physically in this landscape when we couldn’t actually touch it. How can we get it to relate only to the sky, the water, and the trees? So we designed it from the inside out, manipulating the view to see trees and sky. That’s what explains the cutouts and the recesses.”
Most of all, the house is designed to capture views of the Columbia River, and to make it feel even closer than it appears. “We used proportion and modulation of space to create optical illusions,” he adds. “When you’re approaching the house through a very narrow space to an entry court at the center of the house, you see this wall of blue at the other end. The layering of screens and other grids of windows create the optical illusion of flattening out the space. By the time you get out to the deck, you’re so encompassed in the space, you don’t want to leave.”
One other candidate from the latter 20th century I also think is worth considering for the houses list: architect Saul Zaik's Zidell House.
In 1970, shipyard magnate Arnold Zidell asked Zaik to design a house on a ship's mast. "I said 'That sounds like a lot of fun,'" Zaik told The Oregonian's Jeff Kuechle in a 2009 story about the house. "I get odd requests all the time - I never have an easy job."
Zidell had salvaged a mast 36 inches in diameter and nearly 100 feet long from a decommissioned ship and wanted to use it to support a circular rotating house high above Portland's West Hills. Such rotating houses had already been built in Southern California and Connecticut. Zaik, after consulting with a structural engineer, he concluded it would be imprudent to make the house rotate like some of those predecessors. But the octagonal two-story home offered sweeping views and a ground floor 47 feet in the air.
"Steelworkers from Zidell's shipyard descended on the site, off Fairmount Drive in the West Hills, drove a foundation deep into bedrock and set to work bolting on the cantilevered trusses that would support the house," Kuechle wrote. Zaik said he chose cedar shingles because "it's 40 feet in the air - you don't want to have to paint it every few years."
"It's just one of those places," says current owner Lance Crosier. "It's perfect - even on miserable days, it's bright and sunny. You can see the whole city. I can watch the fireworks on the river, I can see Vancouver Lake and Camas; if I stand on my tiptoes, I can see halfway to Alabama."
Portland Monthly's issue with the top 10 local houses of the 20th Century will be published this spring, and our jury will be convening in January. Before we get together and start making our list, what other houses might we consider? What are the best 20th Century houses in Portland to your eyes?