BY BRIAN LIBBY
When a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in Arizona the architect designed for his son was threatened with demolition last year, it might have had a familiar ring to Oregonians. Twelve years ago, the only Wright-designed building in Oregon was moved from its original location along the Willamette River in Charbonneau 21 miles south to the Oregon Garden outside Silverton.
Originally designed for Conrad and Evelyn Gordon in 1957 and completed in 1963, the Gordon House had stayed in the family’s ownership for most of that history. But in 2001, new owners, reportedly ignorant of Wright’s historical significance, sought to demolish the home to build anew.
Although the Gordon House was well adapted to its site, the tall living room’s floor-to-ceiling glass framing offering views of the river to the north and Mt. Hood to the east, since being dismantled and carefully moved the house has somewhat quietly thrived. But the restoration is not complete.
As a fundraiser for the Gordon House, next Friday (April 12) in Portland, Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy president Larry Woodin will deliver a lecture called “Wright This Way: Saving the David and Gladys Wright House,” highlighting his organization’s role in that preservation fight as well as the Gordon House (5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at SmithCFI, 620 NE 19th Avenue, $25).
Recently Woodin and Gordon House director discussed by email the continuing Wright legacy in Oregon and beyond.
Portland Architecture: How close to fully restored would you say the Gordon House is today?
Murphy: “This year is the start of our second decade of restoration for long term preservation and sustainability. We opened the house in 2002 at about 85% restored and have chipped away at the remaining 15% since then. We have made it slowly but surely to about 95% complete now. We are working on fundraising for the remaining important capital projects that are outlined on our website and include the important MJ Murdock match, which doubles every preservation donation dollar.”
What are the goals for continuing stewardship of the Gordon House in the years ahead? What are the fundraising goals and how would that money be spent?
Murphy: The Gordon House Conservancy under the oversight of the City of Silverton and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy work in cooperation to maintain the mission of education, interpretation, and preservation for the public. The cooperative agreement is under a Preservation Easement that ensures sustainable stewardship.
The capital restoration goal is currently projected to be $300,000 total with breakdowns that embrace the specific projects. The projects include the famous red concrete floors, interior and exterior wall surfacing, exterior and interior Western red cedar wood conservation, west balcony and roof structural strengthening, kitchen workspace restoration including skylight and light canisters, and landscape design restoration.
Besides its pedigree as a Frank Lloyd Wright design, what can the Gordon House teach us about quality single-family home design? How different is it from a typical subdivision builder home?
Murphy: The house is a model for sustainable passive energy control and should be the beginning of every home design and redesign with efficient use of natural resources in mind. Radiant floor heat and cooling, building siting and use of deciduous trees with deep eaves for all year exposure, and Wright’s famous floating concrete floor and concrete central core are all exemplified at the Gordon House. Its spatial design concepts with the open circular floor plan, central family living area, functional spaces, real and virtual indoor/outdoor rooms, built-in furniture and storage, and hallways that earn their keep with storage units and extended vistas.
Are there any lessons learned from the episode 12 years ago when the Gordon House had to be moved because its owners wanted to tear it down?
Woodin: Moving a building is ALWAYS a last choice! Convincing the person who wants to tear down an important building to discuss options is critical; we could have gotten an exception to the local zoning if the Smiths had been willing to talk. They took a very combative attitude and only agreed to the move due to the tax deduction they would receive. It was often challenging to persuade them, though the expense to move and rebuild the Gordon House was persuasive evidence—to find another option.
Given that Larry's lecture is about the Wright home threatened recently in Arizona, how does that preservation emergency compare and contrast with the Gordon House saga?
Woodin: It is similar in that the owner was combative. In this case we were able to get profound amounts of international media attention due to the unique nature of the building. (This owner too thought we should move the house - to Taliesin West, no less!) The publicity helped galvanize the community. However, it also persuaded the owner he could ask a high price. It took seven months for us to find a donor to purchase the property. He intends to donate the property to a non-profit so it can be made available to the public. The more strategies preservationists learn about by studying diverse examples (regardless of where they took place), the more nimble and creative they can be locally.