Watzek House (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
In the field of historic preservation, there are two principal national designations that can be bestowed on a building. There is membership in the National Register of Historic Places, which includes some 80,000 properties in the United States and designates sites worthy of preservation. And then there is the exclusive National Historic Landmark designation, for properties which "possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States." Only 2,500 of these exist in the nation.
In Oregon, there are 16 National Landmark sites, but only six buildings (only one of which is in city limits): Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, the Crater Lake Superintendent's Residence at Crater Lake National Park, Deady and Villard Halls at the University of Oregon, the Kam Wah Chung Company buiding in John Day, and Timberline Lodge at Mt. Hood.
Now we can count John Yeon's masterpiece of residential architecture, the Aubrey Watzek House, among Oregon's most treasured and protected works of architecture.
The Watzek was completed in 1937 for lumber baron Aubrey Watzek, when Yeon, a self-taught architect, was only 26 years old. Although it is modest in size, it fuses international modernism, which was just emerging as an architectural movement, with design traditions of Oregon such as a pitched roof (better to keep the rain out), overhanging eaves, and wood construction. Elegantly simple yet quietly unconventional with an entry procession through a courtyard, the Watzek also borrows from Japanese and Scandinavian design traditions.
The Watzek house was featured in New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1939 as one of 12 outstanding houses, including those designed by Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. It also directly influenced a generation of Oregon and Northwest architects, giving birth to a regional brand of modernism that would become more closely associated with Portland architect Pietro Belluschi but started with Yeon. The Watzek House was also technologically innovative, including integrated double pane windows (virtually unheard of for the 1930s) and passive cooling techniques such as operable vents built into the walls. Yeon also sited the house to line perfectly - both in its physical form and in view corridors, with Mt. Hood in the distance.
For most of its history, the Watzek has been off-limits to visitors. Tucked into a grove of trees on Skyline Boulevard in Portland's West Hills, it's not the kind of gargantuan property that can bee seen for miles away. Instead, it is like a chamber-music piece: not shouting loudly so much as showing off exquisite precision and beauty.
But this summer, two years after its last owner, Richard Louis Brown, vacated the property and donated it to the University of Oregon, it will be open to tours on four dates this summer: June 24, July 28, August 26 and September 23. Each of those dates includes three time slots, at 10:00, 1:00 and 3:00, but the June 24 and July 28 tours (at $15 per person) are completely sold out. All but one of the remaining slots have less than four tickets remaining. Ultimately, I'd like to see the house open much more often and throughout the year - not just for a few special occasions. It's not that we want tourist traffic trampling through this delicate home at all hours, but more than a small handful should be able to see this treasure. The University of Oregon has demonstrated it's a good, protective custodian of the Watzek House, as it should be. Yet in time, the school should be generous about opening this National Landmark's doors.
Perhaps this speaks to the timelessness and enduring appeal of the Watzek and the apex of Oregon architecture. We are not a culture that's given to designing and building massive, loud, landmark works of starchitecture. There is no titanium-paneled blob by Frank Gehry here, no angular techtonics by Rem Koolhaas. But Yeon's design, even after 74 years, exemplifies this region's focus on craft, on natural materials, on diffuse but expansive natural light, on connecting to the beautiful lanscape outside, and on modest structures that rise above the sum of their parts.