FORMER PRO BASKETBALL player Dennis Awtrey lived in (and played for) Philadelphia, Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, Seattle, and Portland. But it took only a couple of visits to the Oregon Coast to persuade him and wife Peggy to move there—specifically, to the quiet beach town of Neahkahnie. As the couple searched for just the right house to accommodate Dennis’s retirement, their frequent entertaining, and Peggy’s paralegal telecommuting, they instead found a lot that Dennis still sighs over when he recalls seeing it for the first time: a tiny shelf on the plunging slopes of Neahkahnie Mountain.
The Awtreys’ lot can be found in the brushwork of many a painting of the mountain by Oregon artists. In the 1910s, when Portlanders could hop a train from downtown bound for the coast, Neahkahnie and Manzanita became a magnet for Stumptown’s emerging culturati. Portland Art Museum’s director, Annabelle Crocker, had a house, as did Multnomah County library director Mary Frances Isom (which library employees can still sign up to use). Portland’s then-most-important architect, A.E. Doyle, designed a studio/house for prominent artist/teacher Harry Wentz just steps away from the Awtreys’ lot. It became a key inspiration to a young Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon, who hatched the Northwest Regional style of architecture.
The Awtreys knew little of that history. But the site and simple grace of Manzanita and Neahkahnie inspired them both to build a bed-and-breakfast and to think carefully about who should design it. A glimpse of a Lopez Island house overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Sunset magazine fostered another dream: hiring its architect, James Cutler of the Bainbridge Island–based Cutler Anderson Architects. But given his résumé (Cutler is widely known as a codesigner of Bill Gates’s Medina, Washington, compound, plus other iconic homes in places as diverse as the Napa Valley, Majorca, and Australia), they dismissed the idea—until a friend encouraged them to try. One phone call and one transfer later, and Jim Cutler was on the line.
From famed houses to über-sustainable Seattle public library branches to the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building now under construction in downtown Portland (a major remodeling of an office high-rise he has led in collaboration with Sera Architects), Cutler’s designs aren’t driven by style; they’re all about site. The Awtreys’ land instantly captivated him, too, with its views of the gently curving beach to the south, the deep ocean horizon to the west, and local surfing hot spot Smuggler’s Cove to the north.
“That place is ferocious,” Cutler says of the wind and rain that can pummel the cliffs. But the steepness, he quickly concluded, allowed for a house completely protected from neighboring properties. “It had the potential for spectacular intimacy with the ocean,” he says.
The Awtreys wanted their B&B to offer plenty of openness when rooms were filled with visiting family or guests who wanted to socialize, but privacy for visitors who craved it. For Cutler, a key driver was transforming the brutal weather into “entertainment” by making a setting so safe and solid it wouldn’t even so much as creak in the wind. “You want a building that feels like it’s really dug in,” he says, “so you can feel warm and comfortable and actually enjoy the storms.”
Cutler’s solution is as rugged as it is simple: five stout concrete walls that divide the building into zones—two B&B units, the entertaining/dining rooms, and the more private complex of kitchen, den, and master suite. Every other feature of the house is articulated in little more than wood and glass, creating a transparency that allows views to the ocean from almost every room. A low-pitched metal roof slopes toward the sea, as Cutler describes it, “like a baseball hat pulled down to protect your face from the rain,” with the only break being one dormer, rising like another brim for the master suite’s ocean view.