BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last month, The Oregonian's Janet Eastman reported on Oregon's only Alcoa Care-free Home, one of 24 houses built around the United States in the 1950s (this one completed in 1957) by what was then called the Aluminum Company of America to showcase how the material could be used in all kinds of residential applications from structural framing down to the nails.
Like the much better-known Case Study Houses that were completed beginning in 1948, which were sponsored Arts & Architecture magazine and US Steel, or even Eichler and Rummer homes built by the hundreds in California and Oregon over the ensuing decades, these Alcoa houses epitomize some of the leading-edge thinking of the day about how to create open, column-free interior space as well as to combine indoor and outdoor living.
As Eastman's story noted, legendary Portland architect Pietro Belluschi, himself a master of single-family houses, consulted the company on its homes, which were ultimately designed by Washington, DC architect Charles Goodman (who also designed the city's original National Airport). Besides Belluschi being a leader in post-World War II residential design, he had also embraced the possibilities of aluminum, particularly with 1947's Equitable Building, the first in the world with an aluminum curtain wall.
When I was offered the chance to visit Portland's Alcoa Care-free Home last week (along with architectural tour-guide and historian Eric Wheeler), it was a no-brainer to make the trek to Raleigh Hills.
(Side note: I normally don't write about homes that are currently for sale, as this one is. I don't want the blog to act as real-estate marketing. But the honest fact is that its being for sale is what allowed us to come inside and see it. And I was too fond of the house not to share the story of the visit.)
Approaching the house, the first thing one notices is its purple ribbed aluminum siding, as well as the decorative woven aluminum grilles covering its floor-to-ceiling plate glass. Although its form is not unlike that of a ranch or midcentury modern house, the color and ornament almost made the house feel postmodern, even though it came from the heyday of Chuck Berry rather than that of Michael Jackson.
Indeed, the house's signature material is everywhere, from window and screen-door frames to skylights to shower enclosures. Yet when I was walking around the home, aluminum wasn't always what I was thinking about. Vaulted cypress ceilings give the home a distinctively Northwest feel. And as with some of those better-known examples of unique midcentury-modern residential design from Eichler or Richard Neutra (of Case Study fame) or Belluschi, it was all about openness, flexibility and the opportunity to bring natural light deep into the interior.
In that regard, one modification to the house made a lot of sense. Goodman's original design was essentially U-shaped, but the right side of the U was devoted to a carport and a workshop. One of the home's owners converted the workshop into an additional bedroom and converted the courtyard, which was already fully covered by the roof (with large skylights), into an indoor-outdoor space by enclosing it with a glass wall and sliding-glass door. The flooring here is still the original outdoor tile, and there is no furniture; just a hot tub. But I enjoyed this creation of a truly hybrid indoor-outdoor architectural space. The combination of the newly created bedroom from the workshop and making the courtyard capable of being fully interior also took the square footage from 1900 to over 2800.
Ultimately Alcoa's Care-free home series cost more than the company expected, particularly as aluminum rose from its low prices in the initial years after the war, and thus these homes were not sufficiently competitive with wood-framed houses to continue being built beyond the 1950s. Yet it's worth noting that with next year bringing the Portland Care-free home's 70th birthday, it seems to be in excellent shape physically. Some of the aluminum detailing looks thick and clunky by today's standards, but there's no reason one couldn't change some of that and still retain what's great about the house.
And besides, overall the Alcoa Care-free home it feels as relevant to contemporary living as ever because it's so open. There were moments on our visit when I could look through two or three rooms at once, though the glass. And there just didn't seem to be any portion of the square footage that didn't receive a lot of light.
When I was growing up in the '70s, Alcoa used to run TV commercials to the jingle, "Alcoa can't wait!" Ultimately the country could wait for aluminum houses - especially in a region like the Pacific Northwest with trees by the hundreds of thousands. Even so, it's a reminder of the sense of experimentation and future thinking culture of design and building