Finding Inspiration in Our Own Back Yard – Discovering John Yeon

Recently we visited an exhibit at the Portland Art Musuem called “Quest For Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon”. John Yeon is credited with being one the the founders of the Northwest Regional Style of Modernism. It was a very interesting show, and while we had heard of him we really learned a lot from the exhibit.  We also learned we live in proximity to two of his very famous houses.

Almost daily we drive up Fairview Blvd from our house and we pass John Yeon’s Swan House. It’s up a long driveway and you can’t really see the house from the street. It’s very private and integrated into the landscape.

As we round the turn at the top of Skyline Blvd just to our left is The Watzek House .
It was designed for the lumber baron and civic patron Aubrey Watzek when John Yeon was just 26 years old. It was deemed by House Beautiful magazines 1946 issue as “one of the great houses of America”. The design was featured in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit in New York City in 1939 and had a big influence on architecture nationwide. In 1974 it became only the second house in America – after Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Yesterday as we were driving by on our regular daily route, we saw a sign outside that looked as if there was tour open to the public. We pulled in the long driveway and entered the courtyard to see some caterers and group of people wearing name badges. It looked like a private event. Luckily, I saw a friend in the group and asked her what it was and learned it was a group of U of O alums. She introduced my husband and me to the U of O Art and Architecture person in change and she said we could join them. So what a lucky day for us! We got to go on the tour for free.

Immediately as we entered we learned about some of the unique features such as: double-pane windows that were designed to open so you could clean the insides, hidden cabinets, passive window ventilation systems and how he designed all of the door knobs. There were rugs he made, window treatments he made, ceramic pots he had made, and even the dining room ceiling he had painted on fabric cloth.

In the utilitarian spaces like the kitchen and maid’s quarters, the windows were completely different. They had double hung windows. Our 1923 house has these same windows, also in the kitchen and the laundry room. They are completely different than all of the other windows in the house and we had often wondered why, and now we know. Money wasn’t spent in the utilitarian areas of the home. Nice to learn this was an intentional design decision of the time.

We learned how Yeon filled the yard with native plants and how his intention was to make the house a part of the landscape and not an imposition upon it. He certainly achieved that, as there was a gentle flow between the house and yard.

In the dining room the windows were created to be like panels of Chinese screens he liked and rather than being filled with all modern furniture, there were many antiques. The juxtaposition worked beautifully. I am glad as I want to keep some of the antiques we have and integrate them into our new Rummer house.

It was very valuable for us to see this house, as in our new house we aspire to have the house and landscape work in complete harmony with one another.

John Yeao went on to build what were called the Plywood Houses. They were notable for their innovations in design, economy, and use of materials. He was doing this in the late 1930’s long before Joseph Eichler or Robert Rummer were building their very affordable houses in the 1950’s. It seems that there should be some sort of acknowledgement to John Yeon when you read about Eichler or Rummer. I know Eichler mentions he was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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I took these photos of the exterior spaces of the house. I especially like the water feature. It provided a calming at the entrance of the house. You immediately felt like the cares of the world were gone when you entered the space, with it’s privacy and plantings. It’s something to aspire too.

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