BY BRIAN LIBBY
A couple weeks ago I gave a talk at the Multnomah Athletic Club about the Northwest Regional style of modern architecture: the homes designed by local architects like John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi beginning in the 1930s, and afterward a host of successors (Saul Zaik, John Storrs, William Fletcher, Van Evera Bailey) in the 1940s and '50s, which combined the elegant simplicity of Bauhaus and International Style modernism with the influence of local barns and farmhouses as well as Japanese architecture.
In that lecture, I knew I had to talk about how both Yeon and Belluschi could trace the epiphany of this modern-traditional hybrid to their mutual mentor and Belluschi's employer, architect A.E. Doyle, and the Wentz cottage near coastal Manzanita that Doyle designed for painter Harry Wentz. But in the course of my research, I was reminded that there is a longer lineage that they are part of: one that stretches from America's most famous architecture firm of the late 19th century all the way to a couple of present-day firms in Portland.
The story begins with the construction of the Portland Hotel, which ultimately was completed in 1890 from a design by local firm Whidden and Lewis. But that project really began eight years earlier when the hotel's benefactor, Henry Villard of the Northern Pacific Railroad, hired the New York City firm McKim, Mead and White to produce a design in 1882. By that time, the firm was already becoming known for a host of Beaux Arts-style buildings like the New York Life Insurance Company Building and would go on to design landmarks such as Manhattan's original Pennsylvania Station (the demolition of which would birth the modern preservation movement in the United States), the Brooklyn Museum, the main campus of Columbia University, the Boston Public Library, the Rhode Island State House, and a renovation of the West and East Wings of the White House in Washington, DC.
After the blueprints for the Portland Hotel were completed in 1882, William Marcy Whidden was the architect sent by McKim, Mead and White to supervise construction. But the Portland Hotel project was stalled in 1884, when Villard was forced to resign as president of the Northern Pacific and there were no more funds for the hotel. About five years later, when the half-completed hotel had become a kind of ruin in the middle of the city, a new ownership group approached McKim, Mead and White about rejoining the project. The architects declined, but recommended Whidden, who in 1888 had established his own firm in Portland, known eventually as Whidden and Lewis after Whidden's former Massachusetts Institute of Technology classmate, Ion Lewis, accepted an invitation to join him here. The Portland Hotel was completed from a Whidden and Lewis redesign in 1890 and stood until 1951, when it was demolished to make room for a parking structure serving the Meier & Frank department store across the street. Of course in 1984 a modern landmark of Portland, Pioneer Courthouse Square, was completed on the same site, perhaps as penance for the tragic Portland Hotel demolition.
Whidden and Lewis went on to design a number of significant Portland buildings, most notably City Hall (1895), as well as the Gilbert Building (1893), the Hamilton Building (1893), and a number of beautiful houses. But it was an intern of theirs, the aforementioned A.E. Doyle, who really became the city's most important architect of the 20th century, or at least the most significant Portland architect before Belluschi. Doyle, as many know, designed a host of local landmarks from Central Library (1913) and the Benson Hotel (1912) to Civic Stadium (1926, now Providence Park) and the Meier & Frank building (1909). Then there's the previously mentioned Wentz studio (1916), with its streamlined form, wood construction and overhanging eaves, which acts as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the Northwest Regional style of houses.
Just as A.E. Doyle got his start interning with Whidden and Lewis, so too did Pietro Belluschi get his start in A.E. Doyle's firm. Belluschi had come to the United States in 1923 to study at Cornell University, but wound up staying in the United States at the suggestion of friends and family back in Italy after Mussolini's fascist government took power in Italy. (In the MAC talk, I said I wondered how many American architects studying in Europe these days are similarly thinking twice about returning to the United States.) After briefly working as a mining engineer in Idaho, Belluschi found his way to Portland and a job with Doyle. He quickly rose up the ranks, so much so that when Doyle died five years later, the firm made him a partner, and Belluschi eventually took control of the practice, making it his own eponymous firm.
Belluschi, of course, went on to become Portland's most acclaimed and internationally-renowned architect, winning the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal (a lifetime achievement award) and the National Medal of Arts and becoming known for a host of significant projects. In Portland there is the Portland Art Museum (1932), for example, on which Belluschi essentially first made his name, and the Equitable Building (1946), the world's first post-World War II curtain-walled office building, which earned him tremendous recognition. Outside of Portland, Belluschi became known for Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln center and as co-designer of the Pan Am Building in New York as well as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco (1971) with Italian engineer Pier-Luigi Nervi.
Who are Belluschi's successors in Portland? There is not one clear architect who worked under Belluschi in Portland who went on to become a major player, but when the architect left our city to become dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's architecture school in 1951 (the alma mater, incidentally, of William Whidden), he sold his practice to the Chicago and New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. And that Portland branch of SOM wound up having a major role in the city's architecture, responsible for landmarks like Memorial Coliseum (1960, later renamed Veterans Memorial Coliseum), the Standard Insurance Center, and the US Bancorp Tower (1983, for which Belluschi, now back in Portland, acted as a consultant to SOM), not to mention Autzen Stadium in Eugene.
If there is one local firm operating today with a direct connection to SOM's Portland office, which closed in the the late 1980s a few years after Big Pink's completion, it may be GBD Architects, which has contributed a number of significant projects to the central city, such as the Brewery Blocks (2005-07), the Vestas headquarters (2011), and the OHSU Center for Health & Healing (2006) and in the 2000s became a national leader in the design of some of the nation's first LEED-rated buildings.
The two founding partners of GBD Architects, as it's now known, were Fred Rudat and Burr Boutwell. They were both senior partners at SOM before forming Rudat, Boutwell and Partners in 1969.
Yet there is an alternate line of succession for Belluschi that also must be considered. Belluschi was a mentor to Robert Frasca, a founding partner of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca. Frasca had studied under Belluschi at MIT, and came to Portland at Belluschi's suggestion. In 1966, the existing firm of Wolf & Zimmer became Zimmer Gunsul Frasca. And arguably no other firm has left a bigger fingerprint on Portland in the past 50 years than ZGF, which has been responsible for projects like the Oregon Convention Center (1990), the Multnomah County Justice Center (1983), and numerous expansions of Portland International Airport. What I also like about tying Penn Station to ZGF's PDX airport expansions is how glass is the first thing I think of in both cases. Penn Station's design is almost like that of a Victorian greenhouse with its glass panels between heavy iron frames, and PDX is all about that glass canopy extending over the entry to the parking garage.
The SOM connections create still more branches in the family tree, because firms like FFA Architecture & Interiors also have had architects on staff, including some remaining today, with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on their resume. One is George Crandall, who came to FFA as a principal when SOM closed its doors in the late 1980s. While at SOM Portland, he was a lead designer of the US Bancorp Tower (also known as Big Pink). Crandall was at FFA for about a decade before he and a colleague at the firm, Don Arandula, formed their local planning firm, appropriately titled Crandall Arambula. Another architect, Phil Rude, worked as a project manager for SOM Portland from 1964 until the office's closing on a host of noteworthy projects like the original downtown Hilton Hotel and the Georgia Pacific Building (now know as the Standard Insurance Center) before ultimately coming to FFA in 1995 and remaining with the firm until his death in 2016. And remaining with FFA today is architect Lynn Hilbert, who acts as the firm's quality assurance manager and specifications writer.
Then there is Yost Grube Hall, whose partners—Roger Yost, Richard Campbell, Nells Hall and Joachim Grube—all spent time at SOM. Hall spent time in SOM's Boston and San Francisco offices before transferring to SOM Portland. And YGH also worked with Pietro Belluschi on his last seven churches following the legendary architect's return from the Massachusetts Institute of Techology. This firm has also had a major impact not only in Portland but a number of African countries (including embassies and consulates for the US government) and around the world.
Although perhaps GBD and YGH can claim the most direct line in this family tree given that their SOM alumni founded their firm (unlike FFA's alumni) and were part of a direct employment relationship rather than just mentorship (in Frasca's case), ZGF's designs of big project like the airport make me think of that connection back to Whidden and Lewis and to New York's McKim, Mead and White even more. PDX has frequently been named the nation's best airport, and I love the idea that it shares architectural DNA with Penn Station, which is probably the most beloved American transit hub ever constructed.
Who will be the successors of ZGF, FFA and GBD? Of course it's impossible to really say. When Frasca passed away a few weeks ago, my ensuing interview with ZGF's Jan Willemse and Gene Sandoval touched on the fact that most of Frasca's disciples have chosen to stay at ZGF rather than to go out and start their own firms or work for other firms. I honestly know less about whom might have left GBD to form their own firms, but unless I'm forgetting someone, I'm not sure any GBD or ZGF alumni have gone on to design major projects here. But the line of succession is bound to continue. And it really does even within those two firms as their narratives continue. ZGF is one of the nation's top firms and its latest project is a major expansion of the Nike campus, but the firm also has projects happening all over the nation and the world. GBD has already left an incredible imprint on the Pearl District with at least eight buildings I can think of in that area alone, and that presence is not likely to dissipate anytime soon.
Of course this is not the only architectural family tree in Portland worth talking about. A parallel one would be the connection between architect Thomas Hacker and his firm, Hacker Architects, with Brad Cloepfil, the most acclaimed architect of the present generation. Cloepfil studied under Hacker at the University of Oregon, as did local architects like Rick Potestio and Liz Williams. And Hacker was both a student and an employee of the great Louis Kahn. Then there's how Cloepfil and his firm, Allied Works, have seen former employees like Thomas Robinson of Lever Architecture and Ben Waechter of Waechter Architecture go on to form highly acclaimed firms of their own.
It's not to say that if you're a local architect without a connection to GBD, ZGF, Hacker or Allied Works then your portfolio is somehow insignificant. In all walks of life and all types of art and culture there are both inheritors of a tradition and those who begin as outsiders and go on to make their name by themselves. Ultimately we need both. But particularly in a city like ours, which despite its current buzz has often been neglected by mainstream media, it's interesting to think of how some of the city's most important architecture firms enjoy ties to major firms outside of Portland responsible for landmarks that endure in the public imagination. It's not so simple as to trace a line from Penn Station to PDX, and yet it's fun, at least for me, to know that such a line exists.