BY FRED LEESON
Given tall trees surrounding it, a motorist driving past can easily miss seeing the three-story Queen Anne-style mansion on North Willamette Boulevard near the University of Portland.
The former home of Portland pioneer John Mock, however, is worth more than a passing glance – not only for its quaint Victorian exuberance but also for a hidden role it may have played in creation of the modernistic Northwest Regional style that drew national attention to Portland a couple generations later.
But let’s not get ahead of the story. John Mock walked the Oregon Trail in 1852 at age 13 with his parents, who took out a donation land claim of 317 acres that comprise much of what is known today as the University Park neighborhood, the University of Portland, Mock’s Crest and Mock’s Bottom. The younger Mock went on to earn his fortune in mining, transportation, farming and real estate.
Despite his economic success, Mock must not have been a presumptuous sort. Until 1889 when fire destroyed it, he had spent 15 years living in the second of two hand-hewn log cabins on his North Portland property. He decided to move upscale – but not outrageously so – in 1891, with his three-story, six-bedroom, 3,900-square foot home.
It is not known who designed the house. It is believed to have been constructed by Julius Koschnitzky, a carpenter and contractor who lived nearby. The cost was reported at the time to be $8,000 to $10,000, no doubt spendy at the time but still far less than mansions being erected on the West Side by wealthy businessmen. A notable element of the original design was a conical-roofed turret projecting from the southeast corner. For reasons not known – perhaps rain damage – the turret was removed not many years after Mock’s death in 1916, old photographs suggest.
The house remained in Mock family ownership into the 1960s. Today the current owner, who seeks no public attention, is working with Bo Sullivan, principal of Arcalus Period Design, on plans for a detailed restoration that is expected to take several years to complete.
The good news is that the historic fabric of the house has not been atrociously damaged during its 120-year life. The kitchen and plumbing were modernized at some point, and a drawing room on the main floor was not-so-artfully carved into a bathroom and an office. The layout of the second floor is substantially unchanged and the third-floor attic was never finished. Many of the window and door casings, two elaborate fireplaces and elegant woodwork in the main entry remain unchanged.
Sullivan said the house originally had 18 art-glass windows produced by the notable Povey Brothers firm of Portland. Six remain. Sullivan said the others will be reproduced as the restoration unfolds if photographs or other documents can be found that offer hints as to the original designs. Whether the turret will return has yet to be decided, Sullivan said. Cost and earthquake bracing will be key factors in that decision.
One of Mock’s three daughters, Mary Elizabeth, married a prominent lumberman named John Baptiste Yeon, who built the Yeon Building in downtown Portland and was a key supervisor in construction of the dramatic Columbia River Highway project nearly a century ago. And their son was the late John Benjamin Yeon, an architectural designer who was among the leading proponents of the Northwest Regional Modernism movement. With its rather cubist geometries, absence of architectural ornament and purity of design, the Northwest style was about as far from the Victorian aesthetic as one could get.
It is said that John Yeon, who spent a lot of time at his grandparents’ Victorian mansion, learned his love of the Oregon landscape from the extensive grounds of the Mock estate in North Portland. Modernists such as Yeon and Pietro Belluschi took advantage of improvements in glass technology to combine indoor and outdoor spaces, and they wanted their woodsy modern creations to ride gently on the terrain rather than stand monumentally atop and apart from the earth like the Victorians. It is said by some that Yeon’s role in the Northwest Modernism movement was motivated by his disdain for the aesthetic of his grandparents’ house where he had spent so much time as a child.
We can leave that issue for Yeon historians to decide. It is enough now to congratulate and encourage the owner of the Mock house in the proposed restoration efforts, and to appreciate the interesting family connection in the history of American architecture.
Fred Leeson is president of the Bosco-Milligan Foundation and its Architectural Heritage Center.