BY BRIAN LIBBY
When talk turns to the regional Northwest modern style made popular in the mid-20th century, Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon are nearly always the first names that come up. But as last Saturday's Restore Oregon-sponsored tour demonstrated, architect Van Evera Bailey is a name that should not be forgotten.
Bailey's journey as an architect was both an evolution through stylistic periods and one that incorporated ideas from further afield.
Born in Portland in 1903, Bailey's early work in the 1920s was, like that of many architects of that time period who would ultimately go modern (such as Richard Sundeleaf), was heavily influenced by the English arts and crafts style, which can still be seen in neighborhoods throughout Portland and its suburbs. One house on the tour, the circa-1929 Rogers Residence in Lake Oswego, served as an example.
But in the 1930s, after following his mentor, William Gray Purcell (a protégé, like Frank Lloyd Wright, of the legendary Chicago pre-modernist Louis Sullivan), to Southern California, Bailey became influenced by Los Angeles area's transplanted European modernist architects, such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
By the time he returned to Portland in 1937, his style was transformed. One of the houses I visited on Saturday, the Bruno Residence (1939) in Lake Oswego, was evident of a version of modernism practiced at the time, called streamline moderne, which took its influence from cruse ships. After passing through a relatively modest entrance, something common to many architects of the time (including Wright), one looks out through large plate-glass windows at outdoor decks with railings that could be mistaken for the Love Boat and its kind, giving Bailey's design a touch of whimsy. The architect here also makes ample use of glass blocks, which brings in light while maintaining privacy.
Two houses on the tour from 1940 and 41, respectively, and both located in the West Hills, showed Bailey refining his simple forms and the journey from modest entrance to glass-ensconced living areas taking advantage of view. The Clifton Residence was not entirely original, as it has been built onto numerous times, and the Sinclair Residence was stripped bare for a whole-house renovation. But in both cases one could see the Bailey signature, particularly his sense of whimsy, as seen in a winding wood staircase at the Sinclair.
A pair of tour houses completed in 1957, the Lillig Residence in Lake Oswego and the Shaw Residence in Portland's West Hills, showed Bailey at his fully realized zenith, emblematic of the Northwest style with large overhangs, wood ceilings and living areas with floor-to-ceiling glass.
When I first arrived at the Lillig, I'll admit I was underwhelmed. From the street it looked like one of the thousands of midcentury ranch houses that are sprinkled throughout the region. But then I began to consider how the house sits amidst a rich landscape of mature trees and plants. It felt like a home nestled in a garden or forest.
And then the house began to open up as I moved inside, with vaulted wood ceilings and a wraparound corner fireplace. As I moved downstairs to the lower level and came around to the front from outside, the Lillig further revealed itself as a handsome example of Northwest modernism, its overhanging roofline defining the house's form. This still wasn't a masterpiece along the lines of Belluschi's Burkes and Suitor residences or Yeon's Watzek house, but the talent was easy to see.
And then there was the Shaw Residence, my favorite house on the tour and now one of my favorite midcentury-modern houses in Portland.
It too kept a relatively low profile from the street, but as soon as I entered the home, its magnificent butterfly roof was a defining feature, pitched in the middle in a way that, like the Watzek, perfectly mimicked the slopes of Mt. Hood visible in the distance.
As the wood ceiling rose and fell, it looked like a kind of sculpture, almost like a bird of prey's wings. There was also a remodeled kitchen which gained space by taking over the attached utility room off the garage yet without compromising the integrity of the original architecture. Still, the living area and its view beneath the vaulted roof was the star of the tour.
Honestly my photos don't do it justice - it's hard to shoot directly into sunlight - but standing inside the Shaw Residence gave me a similar sense of wonder to what I've felt while experiencing the best of Belluschi and Yeon.
In his book Classic Houses of Portland: 1850-1950, William Hawkins writes of Bailey's "restless sense of invention." Bailey indeed was an architect who continuously absorbed the ideas of the talent architects with whom he came into contact, but he also was able to make the synthesis of those borrowed ideas his own.
He also was a structural innovator, helping to develop a stilt system that enabled several West Hills homes on hilly lots heretofore considered unbuildable but that now are part of the collective architectural identity of Portland.
What's more, if Northwest midcentury-modern houses are arguably the most significant and unique contribution that Portland has contributed to world architecture, then Bailey not only deserves his place alongside Belluschi and Yeon, but a larger recognition beyond Oregon's borders.