Shire blue hydrangeas

Yeon pioneered the use of native plants in Northwest garden design. But in the free-form mix of natural and human-made landscape at the Shire, he planted whimsical blue hydrangeas

BY HIS 60s, Yeon had grown frustrated with the often lurching stops, starts, and turns of architectural clients and the committee work of government. He gradually turned full time to art collecting, museum exhibition design, and behind-the-scenes advocacy. In one of Portland’s earliest efforts at historic preservation, he enlisted powerful New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a successful campaign to save the carved, marble First National Bank (now Bank of the West at 401 SW Fifth Ave) from being torn down for a parking lot. Yeon lobbied the designers of what’s now Governor Tom McCall Waterfront Park to abandon plans for a scattered array of playgrounds and barbecue pits in favor of a more formal design that, in his words, would be a bold “unifying element” against the chaotic backdrop of the city. Albeit unsuccessfully, he even argued for the demolition of one of his own buildings, the 1948 Portland Visitors Information Center (now the Rose Festival Foundation headquarters), for fear its conversion into a restaurant would be “the nose of the camel under the tent” for more commercial development of Waterfront Park.

Similarly, he quietly advocated for the Gorge, most visibly in his constant pressing for better freeway design. The same kind of straight-line, blast-away-the-landscape engineering Yeon had battled at Neahkahnie grew to be a national standard that, as Highway 30 grew into I-84, Yeon fought again, personally lobbying federal transportation authorities to add the river-hugging curves we know today.

But in 1966, Yeon he combined his inventive design aesthetic and his love for the Gorge in 75 acres of land across from Multnomah Falls he bought for $50,000. With a hired bulldozer operator and no client or committee to compromise his vision, he reshaped the mile-long expanse of the shore into the Shire.

In some places, Yeon restored creek beds and wetlands. But “naturalism” was less his aim than a curated experience of pleasing views. He cleared vast expanses of blackberries, replacing them with grasses to form sweeping meadows. The site’s human-made relics—the pilings of an old railroad spur and the remnants of a 19th-century pear orchard—he turned into destinations connected by sharply mowed trails through the tall grass, like the follies in an English picturesque garden.

“A Bill for an Act to Preserve the Columbia River Gorge”
Yeon, in a 1933 notebook

But it was for Multnomah Falls that Yeon devoted the most attention. There was, of course, the dramatic amphitheater directly facing the cascade, a kind of great lawn. In Yeon’s orchestration of every experience on the property, he plays the falls like a leitmotif in a symphony, in captured views throughout—in one case through a long series of keyhole cuts pruned in the trees.

Kenneth Helphand, a University of Oregon Knight professor of landscape architecture, likens the experience to great European landscape viewpoints known as belvederes. But in Yeon’s masterly effort to highlight the “the sublime” in the Gorge, Helphand argues that the Shire stands well with 1970s American land art works like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or Walter deMaria’s Lightening Field—despite predating them by several years. “If Smithson had made it,” Helphand says, “we’d be talking about the Shire as a great work of environmental art.”

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Shire viewpoint

One of the Shire’s many mowed paths leads the stroller to a dead end and, upon turning around, to a captured view of Multnomah Falls through a series of carefully pruned keyhole cuts.

AS THE I-205 bridge took shape in 1980 and Washington’s Skamania County began rezoning land on the Columbia’s north shore—in one case, right next door to the Shire—Yeon became more vexed. Since 1935, he had envisioned a federal act to preserve the Gorge but had always imagined oversight to fall under the National Park Service. A group called the Columbia River Gorge Coalition, led by a former Friends of the Earth national parks expert named Chuck Williams, had begun pushing for park service oversight. But Yeon had little confidence in grassroots efforts, and his own long-employed techniques of persuasion—personally lobbying the powerful—were also yielding few results. (He famously lost his temper at Governor Vic Atiyeh for his “do-nothing position.”) Russell, he hoped, would be a cooler, calmer, more effective advocate. And so she proved to be. The summer following her fateful dinner at the Shire, she organized her own picnic there, inviting two dozen women, most of them Portland Garden Club members, many married to powerful doctors, bankers, and members of the media, and all well-connected socially and politically. Russell’s sister, Betsy Smith, who attended the picnic, still recalls the scene: the Laura Ashley skirts and Bermuda shorts, the swims to a nearby island, the potluck of chicken sandwiches, fruit salads, deviled eggs, and fresh strawberry pies served on card tables covered in checkered cloths.

“It’s such a romantic place,” Smith laughs, “like stepping out of an Edwardian novel.”

“The career of John Yeon … was like a pyrotechnic display … against a night sky.” —Wallace Kay Huntington, Historian

Yet beneath the Old Portland sense of refinement was the muscle that made the picnic, as Russell later recalled, “a milestone” in her early efforts. Soon that group added to its numbers and clout, growing into the Committee to Save the Columbia River Gorge and then the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. But as forceful and well-connected as she could be, Russell was ultimately a political pragmatist. With two states, six counties, and more than a dozen communities ruling their own roosts in the Gorge, park service oversight, she believed, was a political impossibility. Thus, the Friends came to help engineer the 1986 act, placing the federal “scenic area” signs at the entrances to the Gorge, making the US Forest Service the manager of the 127 square miles in between but leaving the policy-making to the Columbia River Gorge Commission—all local.

To Yeon, though, anything short of park service oversight was an effort “to save the Gorge by wishful thinking and hot air,” he wrote in a wrenching letter to Russell critiquing the Friends’ approach. “The danger is not only that nothing can be done that way, but that the public will perceive that … the danger has been averted.”

“My silence has been sensible,” he said of his unwillingness to support the Friends, “because I am not persuasive and have no constituency.”

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AFTER 26 YEARS, the Gorge scenic area act, like any complicated legislation, has engendered mixed results, leaving the Gorge spotted by more development than advocates had hoped but more pristine than it could have ever been without protection.

Yeon’s disappointment may be best summed up by one of his final efforts to safeguard the Gorge’s beauty. In 1989, five years before his death, he joined the citizens’ advisory committee overseeing a new master plan for Multnomah Falls. A young Mike Abbaté, then the US Forest Service’s landscape architect in charge of the project (now Portland Parks and Recreation’s director), recalls how, over 18 months of meetings, Yeon strenuously pushed to remove numerous concessions around the falls and the lodge (designed by an early Yeon employer, A. E. Doyle). Then, even with the final master plan camouflaging the snack bar and store into a barely noticeable addition carved into the hillside, well out of the most prominent sight lines of the lodge and falls, Yeon still resigned in protest.

“When I go there today and see the coffee cart,” Abbaté says, laughing, “I think of John and how it would bug him that it’s there.”

During his summer-evening recruitment of Russell, Yeon made certain no such compromises stood in the view. Indeed, after he first scheduled their dinner, Russell recalled how Yeon abruptly rescheduled it at the last minute—twice. Mystified and a little annoyed, she and her husband actually were surprised when a date finally stuck. But as their evening of conversation and persuasion unfolded and the sun set, she finally understood the delays as Yeon delivered what would become the evening’s most powerful argument: a full moon rising in the eastern cleft of the Gorge. In a perfect summation of the man and his vision, Yeon had been waiting for the perfect weather.