BY BRIAN LIBBY
For the past few years, Restore Oregon's annual Mid-Century Modern Tour has been devoted to the work of one architect each year. In the past, major names of the Northwest Modern regional style like Pietro Belluschi, Van Evera Bailey and William Fletcher have been featured, and this year the trend continues with a quintet of homes designed by the great John Storrs (including the Myrtle Drive residence, pictured above).
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1920, Storrs was an Eagle Scout who became an all-American swimmer at Dartmouth University before commanding a small sub-chaser attack ship in the US Navy during World War II. Receiving a master's degree in architecture at Yale University after the war, he initially practiced architecture for a few years in Fairfield, Connecticut but, after hearing a lecture by Belluschi was inspired to move to Portland in 1954. His first major commission was for the Portland Garden Club, which remains, and he would go on to design some 80 houses in addition to noteworthy projects including the World Forestry Center and the Oregon College of Art & Craft in Portland as well as much of Salishan Lodge on the Oregon coast near Lincoln City.
Although Belluschi and John Yeon may be the most revered architects of Northwest Modern houses (single-family homes get the majority of attention when referring to this kind of regionalism), the architecture of John Storrs—who is part of a second generation that also included names like Saul Zaik, Donald Blair and the aforementioned Fletcher—may be what feels the most quintessentially Oregon to me more than the work of any other local architect. That very well may be a personal bias, because my childhood in Oregon was often spent at places like Salishan and Sokol Blosser's original tasting room in rural Yamhill County (with my wine-enthusiast parents). But I also think it comes from the fact that Storrs buildings, be they his approximately 80 houses or the aforementioned public spaces, feel both rustic and grand in a way that seems to capture the essence of this place, or at least as I knew it growing up the 1970s.
Last Friday I happened to attend a lecture by Anthony Belluschi about his father's career, which at one point noted the woven-wood ceilings that are highlights of certain Pietro Belluschi-designed houses like the Sutor and the Burkes. I love those woven-wood ceilings dearly and marvel every time I see one in person, but John Storrs would never have designed something that precious. Both architects came to Oregon from elsewhere: Belluschi from Italy and Storrs from Connecticut. And in both architects you see a real reverence and love for wood as a material. But for Belluschi that wood seemed to become refined, whereas Storrs was perhaps more about the exposed huge ceiling beam and the orchestration of a perfect view from inside. Even if it's not literally accurate, in my mind I can feel the coarse, un-sanded surface of the wood in a Storrs building, as if its modernism is infused or merged with the DNA of a cabin: not quite as rustic, but certainly simple. Even though Storrs designs felt grander than, say, an old Oregon farmhouse or barn, and though his work seemed comparable to other West Coast modernists, his work in particular reminds me that the Northwest Modern style draws not just from Japanese or Scandinavian architecture but also our local vernacular.
"I think for Storrs’ Northwest Regional style houses, it came down to the quality of the materials more so than anything else," agrees Val Ballestrem of the Architectural Heritage Center, who will this Friday evening will be co-presenting with architect Paul McKean a lecture on Storrs. "His houses from the 1950s and early 1960s are not what I would call high style, but were well built with quality materials and fairly simple designs." Yet they exhibit a kind of grandness in their form, be it in the pitch of the sloping, overhanging roof or in the patina and texture of the timber.
In its press release for the tour, Restore Oregon provided a list of design elements common to Storrs. The first is a main living space that opens to large exterior views. "The view is generally through a bank of ganged windows, as opposed to the pre-mid-century approach of placing windows evenly throughout a wall," the text goes. "The former approach creates a sense of the wall removed and a stronger connection to the outdoors.'"
This also dovetails with something the architect's son, chef and Noble Rot owner Leather Storrs told me. "He’d always say, 'Build corners you can back into,'" the younger Storrs recalls, "and 'design the room from the bed, with lower windowsills so you can look out while you’re lying down."
Restore Oregon's list goes on to list design elements like a central fireplace, glass corners without supporting frames (which I believe is also a design trait of Frank Lloyd Wright), an entry breezeway (often made of glass) connecting the public living wing and the private bedroom wing, low-slung gabled eaves and sloping roofs, wood used expressively as a ceiling surface, unpainted or unstained natural wood, and private courtyards.
One can't talk about John Storrs without discussing his big, boisterous personality. "People were initially intimidated by him," says architect Paul McKean. "I spent an afternoon with his wife, and she said, 'If you’re not sure if you ever met John or not, you didn’t. There’s no way to meet him and not remember him.' He was a big guy, very boisterous. He had a very cutting sense of humor. He was a big personality but also a really good collaborator, and it shows in the relationships he had with people like [developer] John Gray, [landscape architect] Barbara Fealy, [wood sculptor] LeRoy Setzol, and builders. He had great relationships with his sort of circle."
Even his best and most respected collaborators found working with Storrs difficult sometimes, or vice versa. "My dad and Barbara [Fealy], they had a real pissing match," Leather Storrs remembers, referring to collaborative Storrs-Feeley projects like the Oregon College of Art & Craft. "They both undid the other’s work when one was out of town. My father, people felt very strongly about him in both directions."
Yet it would be a mistake to focus too long on Storrs as larger-than-life personality, when it was his vision as an architect that endures. And as his son points out, even if Storrs had an ego, he understood that it was the landscape and the materials that should do the talking.
"I think his genius was unlocking the relationship of a building to its setting and maximizing that: trying to be a steward of the environment rather than obliterate it," Leather Storrs says. "He’s not trying to tame the land. He’s trying to talk to it. That was at odds with my father’s personality: ego and 'look at me.' Yet he understood that he would be celebrated if he celebrated that." Leather Storrs says his father came to understand that Oregon was not a place where wealth was celebrated ostentatiously. "He used to say if you wanted to find the richest guy in the room look for the oldest sport coat. There’s always been a certain amount of quietness and not showing off wealth. A lot of people who moved here decided they were going to not trumpet. It was an affluence that didn’t register. It’s a Portland thing. It’s not marble and gilt. It’s built-ins that juxtaposes the rock and the wood."
"For me, his houses aren’t showy," the younger Storrs continues. "They don’t necessarily have curb appeal. But there is a kind of innate rightness to them: a comfort you feel. I think his genius was the willingness and the bravery to let the natural stuff talk, and not impose himself. Let the materials do the talking. I don’t want to say that’s humble because my dad was anything but. But it takes some guts not to put your stamp on it. That I think resonated with some people. They got it. And that’s something about Oregon. You can be a native or a transplant, but you either get it or you don’t."
One highlight of McKean's lecture on Friday will be a unique Storrs project from 1959 in collaboration with structural engineer James G. Pierson, an outlier compared to the other homes, lodgings or public buildings comprising the rest of his portfolio: the Forest Products Pavilion at the Oregon Centennial Exposition, marking the state's 100th birthday. It was really more of an elaborate covered outdoor area than a building, but oh my! What a cool structure.
"Storrs was given the task of designing a building at once striking and useful and, in the process, adapted the mathematical concept of the hyperbolic-paraboloid to his purpose," a West Coast Lumbermen's Association brochure from the exposition reads. "The result is an imaginative structure of sweeping lines and dramatic upward thrust, built almost entirely with lumber and wood products. It is emblematic of wood's ability to keep pace with modern design and to imaginatively couple beauty with utility."
Unfortunately, the Forest Products Pavilion collapsed during the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, just three years after its completion. Perhaps if the project was structurally viable, it was a bit of a stretch. After all, the unspoken narrative of the FPP was that the wood industry was struggling to compete with increasingly heroic architectural forms being made in the mid-20th century with concrete and steel, such as Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Here in Portland, the wood industry initially opposed Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's decision to design a steel-framed Memorial Coliseum [now Veterans Memorial Coliseum]. Even so, I find myself smitten with the Forest Products Pavilion and I can't help but wish it could someday be rebuilt.
"It’s a super interesting: how does Northwest modernism meet what’s elsewhere happening in the world, these sort of organic structural buildings? But that’s what the pavilion is," McKean says. "It’s Northwest Douglas fir meeting that kind of engineering. Storrs's other work isn’t really like that. It’s post and beam construction."
That Storrs would (with Pierson's help) try new things and stretch himself, like his boisterous yet sometimes difficult personality, indicate to me that Storrs was and had the temperament of an artist. Architecture as a profession and discipline has always been interesting to me because it seems to straddle right-brain and left-brain thinking. It requires creativity as well as practical problem-solving and people skills. But no one is all one or the other so much as occupying a place in the spectrum. "My dad’s architecture was definitely ambitious," Leather Storrs says. "There is a kind of a built-in fragility to his stuff, which is tricky in terms of architecture. I think a lot of the designs remain timeless, but from a construction point of view that wasn't always the case."
Whether it's because of that artistic temperament or due to other circumstances, Storrs wasn't quite as prolific in his later years. For a few years, he and his family moved to England for his wife's career, and Storrs, perhaps finding practicing architecture in a new country a bit of an obstacle course, wound up attending culinary school.
"It wasn’t that he didn’t want to do architecture," Leather Storrs says. "Part of it had to do my mother’s career. I think he would have liked to have done more work." But the times may have also been changing, both for Storrs and his customers. "Maybe people were wanting architects who actually listened to their clients. My father’s brilliance was also tempered by alcoholism and a nasty streak. All that stuff conspired. He didn’t want to listen to some housewife tell him she needed a breakfast nook." After initially working on the John's Landing development, for example, Storrs also parted ways with developer John Gray, who had been his client at Salishan."My dad had so many ideas about the way that space would be used, and John Gray was over it: 'Give me a building. I don’t need your manifest.'"
"My dad, he would not like to work in this climate," Leather Storrs adds. "He liked being able to change things instantly. CAD and all of the permitting and all of the restrictions on building took a lot of the joy and creativity out of architecture. My dad was the sort of person who would stand in a space and the building would wash over him. He would need somebody to put appropriate engineering underneath his ideas. But if you believed in my dad’s vision and you were willing to let him do it, magical things would happen."