BY GARY HIGGINBOTHAM
Not all midcentury ranch houses display great design. Yes, there are advantages to single-story living – you don’t pay as much for heat; it’s better for age-in-place and universal design; and it makes for easy access and maintenance. But for many homeowners, the words “ranch” and “ugly” seem synonymous—unless you’re talking about a Rummer.
Houses built by the Oregon builder Robert Rummer are known for their understated elegance, luxurious natural light, vaulted ceilings and exceptional craftsmanship. At any given time, half a dozen Rummers, as they are affectionately called, are up for sale in the Portland area – an indication of the impact left by one innovative designer’s life.
Robert Rummer had a secure position in insurance in 1959 when he had just finished building his family’s dream home. Yet when friends passed on pictures of Joe Eichler’s unusual, modernist homes in the San Francisco bay area, Rummer was inspired.
Eichler’s designs looked nothing like the average ranch home of the 1950s. An Eichler home used enormous posts and beams to hold up the structure, thereby allowing entire walls of windows. This, along with vaulted ceilings, made for incredible amounts of natural light. Radiant floor heat, minimalist design and low-pitch or flat roofs rounded out the Eichler approach.
Rummer saw an opportunity to bring this futuristic home approach to the Pacific Northwest. From 1959-1975, his company would build more than 750 mid-century modern-style homes in Portland, at the coast and sprinkled throughout the Willamette Valley.
How can you spot a Rummer home? Well, the single-story layout is a dead giveaway. Beyond the Eichler elements listed above, also look for generous use of glass, a central atrium, and vaulted ceilings. In a Rummer kitchen, 30-inch Formica counters sit below “flying-coffin” cabinets, with shelves that pull out when the cabinet door is opened. The living room of a Rummer home usually faces a rear garden and is often adorned with a concrete block or brick fireplace. Step-down Roman tile showers are also common in Rummer homes, as are mahogany slab interior doors.
Rummer homes and the larger mid-century modern sensibilities they express are increasingly popular among design aficionados. The versatility of minimalist modern design is one reason for this; a Rummer home can as comfortably withstand a desert landscape as it can the dripping firs of Portland. And its simple, elegant lines complement many different décor styles, allowing the tastes of the homeowner to shine through.
For many property owners, however, the ultimate reason to choose a Rummer home is its inherent long-term value. The structural skeleton of a Rummer design required top-notch labor and materials; only grade-A timber could support such airy layouts. This exceptional construction allows Rummer homes to outlive their ranch counterparts – and makes for better sales figures. According to realtor Jim Demarco as quoted in The Oregonian, a typical Rummer demands $20,000 to $30,000 more than a similarly sized ranch in the same area.
Appreciation for Rummer’s style has lead several local neighborhood associations to explore national historic preservation. Oak Hills, a mid-century neighborhood in Washington County, contains 29 Rummer homes and is in the process of earning National Historic District status with the National Register of Historic Places. Oak Hills residents are pursuing this designation in part to prevent damaging projects, such as the widening of Bethany Boulevard.
To qualify for the National Register, properties must demonstrate integrity to the historic period in question. Individuals work with their state’s office, as established by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. In Oregon, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) decides which properties and districts should be submitted to the National Park Service for consideration in the National Register of Historic Places.
Another neighborhood, Bohmann Park in the Garden Home area, is not as far along in the preservation process as Oak Hills but could definitely earn Historic District status. Bohmann Park is the largest development of solely Rummer homes anywhere. However, neighbors in Bohmann Park are still building consensus around seeking historic preservation.
Whether or not Bohmann Park and Oak Hills end up on the National Register of Historic Places, one thing’s certain: Robert Rummer’s influence isn’t going away any time soon. If you’d like to explore local Rummers, keep up with the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, which offers tours of Rummer homes periodically.
Gary Higginbotham is the Marketing Manager for Houseplans.co, the online home of Alan Mascord Design Associates.