Almost entirely self-taught as an architect, John Yeon completed his first house at age 27 for the lumber baron Aubrey Watzek. It became an instant classic and soon was published about widely and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art as a regional interpretation of the then-burgeoning movement of modernism.
Looking back at his career in 1981, Yeon noted, “Regional architecture does not happen simply, automatically, or unselfconsciously . . . it results from deliberate aesthetic resistance to ubiquitous popular fashions…” The Watzek House is the embodiment of these values, drawing on both historical styles and modernism, merging the two, yet resisting both.
In 1937, the International Style was all the rage with free-flowing space divided by partitions, what Yeon called “the house of cards syndrome.” By contrast, Yeon designed the Watzek House with discreet spaces, or what he described as “a sequence of revelations” in the form of “finite rooms and a sense of solid thickness.”
Yeon’s father was a successful lumberman (who, among other accomplishments, developed one of Portland’s earliest and most elegant high-rises and oversaw the construction of the Columbia River Gorge Highway) as was Aubrey Watzek. Yeon designed the house as a showcase of native woods, from Oregon oak to hemlock to high-country pine. But it also featured early “sustainable” features like thermodynamic ventilation and double-pane windows.
This photograph of the Watzek House became the key icon of the Northwest Regional Style. As Yeon bemusedly described it in 1981: “On a clear day shortly after the house was finished, an astute photographer chanced to drive by and stopped to take a single picture . . . I don’t recall how that photo reached the Museum of Modern Art, but when it did it was warmly welcomed as revealing a regional alternative in wood to the mostly white concrete International Style . . . But the young trees planted along the driveway approach soon grew up and obscured this view, and the rhythm produced by the shadow occurred only at certain seasons and in certain weathers. My reputation is based on a view which soon disappeared, and by a fortuitous shadow which I never anticipated. . . .”
Though Portland Monthly’s judges of the “10 Greatest Homes” did not in any way organize their selections around Yeon, he both touched and was touched by many of the architects behind our list. The Sutor House, for instance, was built across the street from the Watzek House and was designed by Yeon’s slightly older contemporary (and at the time, friend, though eventual rival), Pietro Belluschi. Though not published as widely as the Watzek, the Sutor House was, in the end, more influential on local architects for its elegant interpretation of the International Style in a far more easily borrowed-from form.
Belluschi’s interiors drew very much from the International Style but also his own roots in early Italian modernism. And he, too, found Northwest woods to be a ripe material for reinterpretation as in this delicately curving veneer wall paneling.
The Sutor House has been beautifully maintained by the same owner for over three decades with few changes. Though Belluschi went on to an illustrious, international career, this, one of his first houses, testifies to his rich interpretation of the Northwest. Like Yeon, Belluschi was also close friends with the Portland artist, Harry Wentz, whose simple beach cottage at Neahkahnie, which he co-designed with the architect Albert E. Doyle, is often considered to be the Rosetta Stone of the Northwest Regional Style. Both Yeon and Belluschi worked for Doyle whose greatest house is in the next slide.
Few architects had such a wide early influence on Portland as Albert E. Doyle. He designed everything from downtown’s white terra cotta landmarks like Meier & Frank to the Multnomah County Library to the first buildings of Reed College. He also designed many important homes, but not equal the grandeur, yet simple beauty, of the Cobb House.
As the heir to the Meier & Frank department store fortunes, M. Lloyd Frank spared no expense for what was in 1924 a country estate. For the job, he imported the New York architect Herman Brookman who hailed from the era of the master craftsman architects. Every detail of the resulting home is masterfully executed, from the brickwork and slate roof to carved interior panel walls.
The home overlooks acres of gardens with an axial view of Mount Hood. The estate is now the presidential administrative offices for Lewis & Clark College. Brookman stayed on in Portland, but his most visible work of architecture is the Temple Beth Israel. It was in Brookman’s office library that John Yeon said, as a teenage office boy, he received his architectural education.
Saul Zaik is part of Portland’s “second generation” of modernists, influenced by the likes of Belluschi and Yeon, but also marching to their own drummer. The home he designed for he and his family carries the interest in wood and a relationship to the landscape to a much more abstract level than any of his predecessors.
Not so much a house as a series of rooms connected by covered walkways, Zaik’s home seems to combine elements of Belluschi’s International Style-meets-Northwest with a bit of Yeon’s “sequence of revelations.”
The home Portland native David Rockwood designed for his parents in the 1980s is one of the more widely celebrated works of Portland residential architecture of the last 30 years. Published in European and Japanese journals, it is also featured in respected critic Kenneth Frampton’s book, American Masterworks of the Twentieth Century, along with such icons as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, Richard Neutra’s Lovell Beach House, and the first house Frank Gehry designed for himself.