BY BRIAN LIBBY
The directions guided us to an industrial parking lot on State Route 14 in Washington, maybe 10 miles east of the last city we’d passed, Washougal, before entering the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. Moments after we arrived, a shuttle van appeared to take us the rest of the way, into The Shire with its breathtaking views of Multnomah Falls across the river.
At first the van drove us through a thin, winding dirt path, but then all of a sudden, as happens at the end of a drive to the coast, the view jumped out like a movie screen suddenly illuminating a darkened theater. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out a series of four-letter words, all meant to convey the idea of, “Wow!” But as the landscape came more fully into view, with its gently rolling lawns, carefully sculpted groves of trees, and a front-row seat on the Columbia River, the exclamations gave way to a quieter sense of tranquility, something worthy of contemplation more than interjection.
This was one sublime natural setting, and all within 40 minutes' drive of central-city Portland.
Part nature preserve and part designed garden landscape, The Shire is the brainchild of and part of the legacy of John Yeon. He was the son of a wealthy timber baron who retired at middle age to volunteer and wound up overseeing construction of the Columbia River Highway. A self-taught architect, Yeon went on to design the Watzek House in Portland, completed in 1937 when he was just 27. It would come to define and kick off the Northwest modern regional style and was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art alongside the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and other legends of the time; the Watzek is now a National Historic Landmark.
But the younger Yeon was as much a conservationist as a designer. The same year as the Watzek’s completion, he authored the state’s first environmental impact statement. Randy Gragg explains in a Portland Monthly feature: “In the early 1930s, he borrowed $15,000 on a life insurance policy to buy Chapman Point, north of Cannon Beach, to stop a dance hall from marring what today is one of the most photographed vistas on the coast: the view of Haystack Rock from Ecola State Park. He successfully battled the powerful state highway engineer R. H. “Sam” Baldock to stop huge chunks of Neahkahnie Mountain from being blown away for a new road. And the governor appointed him chair of both the State Park Commission (where he helped lay the groundwork for the Oregon’s park system) and the Columbia Gorge Committee, a federal-level planning effort to envision an economic development and conservation plan for the region in anticipation of the Bonneville Dam.”
When Interstate 205 and its Glenn Jackson Bridge over the Columbia were being planned in the late 1970s (they opened in 1982), Yeon could see the threat of development encroaching on the Gorge—especially on the Washington side, which treated the Columbia more as an industrial highway than a scenic vista. The architect wanted the Gorge to become a national park, and to enlist partners to help make a case to leaders at the state and federal levels, Yeon invited them first to The Shire.
It would be here that many a Friends of the Columbia Gorge fundraising dinner would be held. As we now know, the Gorge became a National Scenic Area and not the National Park it deserves to be, but that still brought the crucial protection from development. In a sense, The Shire helped save the Columbia Gorge.
Yeon had purchased this 75-acre partially wooded riverside tract in 1966 for $50,000. Over the next 23 years or so, until his stroke in 1989, he continued to work on the property. The overriding idea was to create a series of small viewpoints for looking out at Multnomah Falls, with the designer borrowing from English garden design and how it leads visitors to a series of constructed viewpoins, or “follies”. But here, rather than plantings and flowers, the garden is the landscape itself, with its native trees, meadows and riverbank.
“In Yeon’s orchestration of every experience on the property, he plays the falls like a leitmotif in a symphony,” writes Randy Gragg in Portland Monthly.
The main central area at The Shire is a grassy clearing that gently slopes down to the water, its curving lagoon implying a kind of amphitheater for absorbing the panoramic view of water, mountains and trees. (This is also where a scene from the movie Twilight was filmed.) But there are a series of trails that lead to additional viewpoints, including one small clearing further back from the water that views the falls through a grove of trees on either side, almost like peering into a lighted room through a bedroom door that’s ajar just a few inches.
After Yeon's death in 1994, both The Shire and the Watzek House were donated to the University of Oregon. Our visit to The Shire was part of a fundraising dinner presented by the university along with Portland Monthly. (Gragg, the magazine's editor, has long been, through his time as The Oregonian’s architecture critic during the 1990s and 2000s and now with Portland Monthly, an important keeper of Yeon’s flame). Over the July 14-15 weekend, there were also public tours of the property.
It seems likely that The Shire’s availability going forward will be similar to that of the Watzek House: accessible to those willing to wait for a few days of opportunity each summertime, but not accessible full-bore like public parks on a daily basis; to do so would be to threaten these parcels with over-use. Just as the Watzek House, with its delicate architecture, is not a place for scores of thousands to traipse through on their way to Walleyworld, The Shire is not a place to park your RV or cast out your fishing line.
Yet the best thing about the University of Oregon having stewardship of these gems, besides the fact that they’re seemingly safe for the future, is that they are at base a public asset now, available to those who seek these places out.
And seek, I beseech thee. Whether it’s basking on the great lawn, the Columbia lapping audibly at its side and the feel of an incredibly soft grass at our feet (a particular varietal Yeon sought for that feeling—an indication of his eye for detail and for curating a visceral experience), or traipsing through the extended paths and meadows, this is a little gem of a riverside tract that, better than any writer can, expresses the natural treasure the Columbia Gorge continues to be with the help of Yeon and the rest of the people who helped preserve it.
By the time dusk arrived and it was time to leave The Shire, I was no longer firing off crude interjections of awe, just sighing at my good fortune - to live here, and to have seen this.