BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a recent issue of Dwell magazine, I had the chance to write about and share the work of one of my favorite Portland architects, Saul Zaik, upon the renovation of one of his greatest designs, the circa-1956 Feldman House in southwest Portland's Garden Home neighborhood.
One of the last remaining architects of his generation, which came of age in the years immediately after World War II, Zaik may not have been as well known as some of his immediate predecessors like Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon. But like those architects, his work was an exceptional fusion of building and landscape, of natural light and materials.
The Feldman House renovation was overseen by local interior designer Jessica Helgerson and her eponymous firm, who helped clients Ty and Kelly Milford and their family update and reconfigure much of the house without ever losing its spirit. I'd like to share here some of the interview text that didn't make it into the story.
"The house had some really really lovely things about it and some really problematic things," Helgerson explained in our interview for the article. "The living room in particular was great. It’s got a glass window with an outside corner of glass and beautiful existing wood beams. And the detailing, especially on the earlier part of the house, was really nice: the way the panels worked over the doors. There was a sort of a set of rules about how the house fit together."
The new design brought significant change in some part of the house and used a light touch in others. "The dining and especially the living room were really nice and definitely worth preserving," Helgerson added. "The kitchen had been sort of oddly remodeled and had a sort of raised platform that sort of disconnected it from the rest of the house. There were two front doors, both to the same place. Then the master bedroom was also funny. And the family room was really long, this great big room with a post in the middle of it. It was hard to use. It’s a really really significant remodel. It’s a lot different than it was. But our goal was for it to look as if we hadn’t done a thing, to be authentic to the era of the house. What would Saul do? I felt like we were really respectful of the era of the house. I feel he would approve. We were so careful in the material selection and historic preservation and continuing existing details."
I also enjoyed talking with Zaik about the origins of his Feldman House.
"Phil [Feldman] was a friend of mine going back," he recalled. "He had this property, and a budget of around $35,000 to do a house. I think they were just married. Mary Ann and Phil were German Jews who somehow escaped in the 30s. They were very bright and successful and moved ahead." The house was a chance for the Feldmans to enjoy a real new beginning, in a landscape that was not unlike Germany but a west-coast American culture that offered opportunity and safety, as well as new ideas about light-filled architecture.
"I’ve always been very site oriented with anything I’ve ever done," Zaik explained. "Living here all my life, I value sunlight. I think that house had a lot of glass in it. It was about the second or third house that I worked on. There was a crew of us in Eugene, like Jim Martin, DeNorval Unthank and his partner. We were all just starting to do what we called contemporary houses. We were all World War II veterans and we were out to change the idea of architecture."
"We were experimenting with how you integrated indoor and outdoor spaces," Zaik added. "That was a big part of that original design. That whole living room was a mitered glass corner. That was oriented to that private outdoor space. Wood was a very reasonable, inexpensive product for us to use. The availability of clear hemlock and fir and cedar were readily available. And those early houses like the Feldman were hand built. The same crew formed the concrete and poured it, and framed and built the house, built everything. That ceiling system was special. It was P&G clear tongue in groove fir. In those years, we did all the structural work. That was part of our education. We didn’t feel the need for structural engineers."
After the Feldman House's completion, Zaik would go on to design a host of residential and commercial architecture, be it the unique Zidell House, suspended in the air from a massive ship's mast, or an expansion of Timberline Lodge.
But just as talented contemporaries like Yeon would become known for many architectural and landscape works but still always remembered most for the Watzek House, so too will projects like the Feldman remain a prideful emblem of what Zaik could do.
That is, what Zaik can do. Even in his 80s, Zaik still comes to work every day. We can all appreciate that kind of commitment and work ethic, but hopefully Zaik knows that his place in history is already quite secure.