1. Watzek House

John Yeon, 1937 // NW Skyline Boulevard

 

UNASSUMINGLY CLAD in clear fir tongue-and-groove siding, Portland’s most internationally exhibited and published house might easily be mistaken for a humble barn. But whether you zoom in on details like the beautifully stacked fieldstone foundation and the crisply minimal eave line or enjoy a full tour of the interiors, paneled in a symphony of finely crafted Oregon noble fir, western hemlock, and Oregon oak, a close look at the Watzek House leaves little doubt why Portland Monthly’s jury took mere minutes to put it at the top of their list.

Though John Yeon gained most of his architectural education in brief stints at the offices of Portland masters Herman Brookman and Albert E. Doyle, he emerged at the age of 26 a near-Mozartian wunderkind. His first built design, for the lumber baron Aubrey Watzek, became the defining early work of our only true architectural movement, the Northwest Regional style of modernism. Yet it also stood far apart from all the period’s fads. As European and American architects of the time were abandoning interior walls and mouldings for the cool, clean lines and open plans of the International style, Yeon fearlessly turned the Watzek House into a “sequence of revelations”—each hallway and room imbued with deeply sophisticated and often playful interpretations of Venetian, English, and even Asian styles. Yet, in this case, fusion is in the details: the pages of construction drawings articulating the house’s every joint numbered more than 600.

Watzek Interior
Image: Jack Liu

The Museum of Modern Art exhibited the Watzek House twice, the curators admiring how “the quiet sweep of simple forms harmoniously complements the fine Western landscape.” The home appeared in numerous American and European journals. Fearing new owners might mar his greatest work with clumsy remodels, Yeon bought the house himself in the ’70s. After his death in 1994, the house was donated to the University of Oregon, which formed the John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies the following year. The house is in the final stages of federal approval as a National Historic Landmark—the first Portland residence to achieve such status. After designing a dozen more houses and what is now called the “Rose Building” in Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park, Yeon devoted his career to museum exhibit design, historic preservation, and activism to protect the Oregon coast and the Columbia River Gorge.