BY BRADLEY MAULE
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series by writer-photographer Bradley Maule on buildings that have held the distinction of being the tallest in Portland.
In the years following 1905's Lewis & Clark Centennial Expo, Portland was a veritable boomtown, and the downtown skyline rose in step with the population. The circa-1907 Wells Fargo building's reign as the tallest in town lasted but a few short years, when the name Yeon left its first notable imprint on Portland architecture, on the corner of SW 5th & Alder.
The 15-story Yeon Building, completed a century ago in 1911, came not from the same famous desk as the Watzek House and the Visitors Information Center by John Yeon, but his father, John Baptiste Yeon. The elder Yeon made a fortune in the lumber industry and wanted to give back to his adopted city, something he expected "should help Portland by appearing as well as possible," wrote The Oregonian on August 21, 1910.
Yeon hired San Francisco's Reid & Reid architects, who had already designed The Oregonian's original (pre-Belluschi) offices and who would a year later design the Jackson Tower (née the Oregon Journal Building), to maximize both the terra cotta craze and the city's 200-foot height limit. The Reid brothers crafted an exterior of bright white to stand out even more than the cream colored terra cotta popular elsewhere, including Wells Fargo.
With a three-story colonnade featuring ionic columns to accentuate the height, the building was topped with a cornice which has since been removed, leaving the armament form seen today. At the behest of Yeon himself, the cornice extended around all four sides of the building (as opposed to only the two which faced the street, as was common), and like the Jackson Tower, had built-in electrical wiring for evening accent lighting. The University of Oregon Libraries' digital collection has a number of Yeon Building photos prior to the cornice's removal here.
Higher still than the cornice, a rooftop flagpole extended the building's pinnacle another 60 feet. It's been flag-less for years, but Urban Renaissance Group's Portland office, who manages the building for New York's Jonathan Rose Companies, says there are plans to reinstall a flag as part of the building's current renovations being overseen by Portland's SERA Architects. The renovations include a green retrofit and a re-imagining of the first floor retail space. This space will be occupied come February by Vancouver-based First Independent Bank, who sold the building to Rose Companies after foreclosing on its previous owner, negotiating the retail space as part of the sale.
Decades before John Yeon left his indelible mark on the style regarded as Northwest Regional, his father's regard for the Northwest region was exemplified perhaps no better than by his financial contribution to and supervision of the historic Columbia River Highway's construction. John B Yeon State Park, 30 miles east of Portland in the Gorge, has several hiking trails directly across the river from Beacon Rock. The younger Yeon, among his landscape preservation achievements, purchased a 75-acre riverfront property directly across from Multnomah Falls, and created a landscape of lawns, meadows, wetlands and trails called The Shire (officially now The Shire: John Yeon Preserve for Landscape Studies under the U of O). Fittingly, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge house their offices in the Yeon Building.
The one hundred year old Yeon Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Its ongoing renovation and green retrofit will go even farther toward its preservation.
Brad Maule is a photographer living in Southeast Portland. His web site is PortlandUrbanResource.com.