BY BRIAN LIBBY
"Unassumingly clad in clear fir tongue-and-groove siding, Portland’s most internationally exhibited and published house might easily be mistaken for a humble barn," writes Randy Gragg of the Watzek House, the top selection in Portland Monthly magazine's recently released "10 Greatest Houses" list. "But whether you zoom in on details like the beautifully stacked fieldstone foundation and the crisply minimal eave line or enjoy a full tour of the interiors, paneled in a symphony of finely crafted Oregon noble fir, western hemlock, and Oregon oak, a close look at the Watzek House leaves little doubt why [the] jury took mere minutes to put it at the top of their list."
Several weeks ago I had the honor of joining four other judges in comprising this list, of the best architecture amongst Portland's single-family residences. Joining me were architect Rick Potestio, Architectural Heritage Center executive director Cathy Galbraith, architect-historian William J. Hawkins III, historic preservation expert Jack Bookwalter, and Mr. Gragg himself.
Although during jury deliberations I don't remember settling on any rankings for the 10 houses, as they've been presented in the magazine, it was indeed clear that the Watzek House was our top choice. The jury was a combination: lovers of historic architecture, and those passionate about modern and contemporary design. The Watzek was where we all came together.
As Randy notes in his accompanying article, the Museum of Modern Art has twice exhibited Yeon's house, noting how "the quiet sweep of simple forms harmoniously complements the fine Western landscape."
Yeon "emerged at the age of 26 a near-Mozartian wunderkind," Gragg writes. "His first built design, for the lumber baron Aubrey Watzek, became the defining early work of our only true architectural movement, the Northwest Regional style of modernism. Yet it also stood far apart from all the period’s fads. As European and American architects of the time were abandoning interior walls and mouldings for the cool, clean lines and open plans of the International style, Yeon fearlessly turned the Watzek House into a “sequence of revelations”—each hallway and room imbued with deeply sophisticated and often playful interpretations of Venetian, English, and even Asian styles."
Yeon has had differing views about the fate of his buidings over the years. He actually once said his Portland Oregon Visitors Center along the waterfront should be torn down. But he felt strongly enough about the Watzek that he actually bought the house in the 1970s in order to prevent it from future alterations. After his death in 1994, the house was donated to the University of Oregon.
On April 30 and May 1, Portland Monthly is hosting a tour of the Watzek House. I've never before come across a Watzek tour, so this is a rare opportunity: a kind of über Street of Eames tour.
Although the jury was surprisingly in sync given our different points of view and expertise, we did disagree about whether a demolished house should be included in the list. Some were concerned we would be sending too dour a message, or opening Pandora's box to a host of long-gone houses that could then be considered. Luckily, one such demolished residence, the circa 1882 Knapp House, was included in the #2 slot.
Designed by Justus Krumbein, this was just one of many Victorian houses constructed in the late 19th Century as Portland experienced a wave of growth. It featured a cone-topped tower reaching more than three stories high, and a trio of chimneys that actually wrapped around the houses's windows. Have you ever, in your life, seen a chimney with a window?
Unfortunately, the so-called "Greatest Generation" that won World War II was also horrifically adept at tearing down historic architecture, and often without even buildings to erect in their places. In the 1950s, the Archdiocese of Portland bought the Knapp House and tore it down in order to build a parking lot. It's a folly reminiscent of First Christian Church's tearing down the Rosefriend Apartments in 2008 to build underground parking and a mostly-empty apartment tower on the eve of the Great Recession.
It was practically a given that Pietro Belluschi would find his way onto the list. Not only is he Portland's architectural patron saint, but Belluschi's portfolio included a host of beautiful midcentury houses. The jury didn't immediately find unanimity on which Belluschi house to include. It could have been the Burkes House, his prototype Life Magazine house, or numerous others. But we chose the Sutor House from 1938, which actually is situated on NW Skyline Boulevard just across the street from the Watzek. The two houses were even built concurrently, with Belluschi's Sutor finishing just months after Yeon's.
Juror William Hawkins called the Sutor a house that "launched a thousand ships" for Belluschi and the movement that followed. It features a more open plan than the Watzek, and more fully achieves a Japanese-like minimalism. It came on the heels of Belluschi's Portland Art Museum in 1932 and preceded his iconic Equitable building downtown, helping to launch his career to new heights.
The Sutor House was, as Gragg writes, "far more influential than the more idiosyncratic Watzek," and "established an iconic, but simpler, less expensive standard for other architects to follow in the blossoming of Northwest Regional style."
William Temple House (image courtesy PejorativeJinx)
The #4 residence on the list, the William Temple House (originally called the Mackenzie House) was built in 1892 by the great firm Whidden & Lewis, which also designed Portland City Hall. This house was designed for the co-founder of Oregon Health & Science University, Dr. Kenneth A. J. Mackenzie, and comes in the Richardsonian Romanesque style: medieval stone arches, a cone-topped turret, and lots of wrought iron. Inside there is sumptuous oak paneling, tile mosaics, tin-embossed ceilings, and even a gaslight designed with a bat and serpent: the Scottish symbol for medicine triumphing over witchcraft.
#5 is another iconic old home now open to the public: the Pittock Mansion. There was actually a jury discussion about leaving the Pittock off the list, a kind of contrarian decision given there is no other more well-known old home in the city. Yet it would have been wrong to omit the circa-1914 house designed by San Francisco architect Edward T. Foulkes for Henry Pittock, publisher of The Oregonian and a paper-mill magnate.
"Nearing the end of his life," Gragg writes, "Pittock spared no expense." The house, he adds, "leaves its most lasting impressions in two features: a curving, floating baroque staircase that channels both the elegance of Michelangelo and the melodrama of Scarlett O'Hara' and Pittock's personal bathroom, situated in a windowed turret offering one of the city's most commanding views." Throne room indeed!
We'll look at entries 6 through 10 of Portland Monthly's top houses list (including the M. Lloyd Frank estate, the Cobb House, the Zaik House, the Maegley House, and the Rockwood House) in the next post.