|Statement of Significance Summary Paragraph
The Visitors Information Center in Portland, Oregon, is eligible statewide for the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion C, Architecture, as an example of the work of recognized master architect John Yeon. The period of significance is 1948, the date the building was constructed. Yeon, one of Oregon’s most famous architects, is known as a pioneer of the Northwest Regional style of architecture. His Information Center is his only non-residential building still in existence, and was included as one of only 43 buildings in the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious 1953 “Built in U.S.A.: Post-War Architecture” exhibit, along with works by Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Philip Johnson, and Richard Neutra. Yeon’s deep love for the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest inspired his multi-disciplinary style of design, where the outside views were carefully framed in an orchestrated series of experiences. The Visitors Information Center shows Yeon’s innovative design approach in its response to its uniquely urban site conditions, in its wall systems and materials, and in its landscaping. The building, which exhibits aspects of both International Style and Northwest Regional Style architecture, is widely considered to be one of John Yeon’s finest works.
Narrative Statement of Significance
The Visitors Information Center is architecturally significant, under Criterion C, as a work of a master architect. It represents one end of the range of John Yeon’s work as the only International Style building he designed, albeit with influences from the related Northwest Regional Style of architecture. The design is highly abstract and functional, yet reflects a warmth and a strong connection to its site, reflecting the early postwar context of the International Style in the United States. The building is also Yeon’s only public structure, and the only building he designed for a truly urban site. The Visitors Information Center’s International-Style credentials can be seen in its flat roofs, its adherence to a strict modularity, and in its use of glass for entire walls rather than for discrete openings. Its most significant Modernist characteristic is its “inside-out” design, in which the exterior form and appearance are expressions of the functional interior spaces of the building. Regional style characteristics, however, are also seen in Yeon’s self-developed wall systems for the building, which are notable for several reasons. First, the walls are finished in exterior plywood, a very new (and regionally developed) building material at this time, and second, the walls include ventilators, where a fixed window is used in combination with a louver for air circulation. Yeon may have been the originator of the ventilator idea, which was adopted by many architects working in the modern idiom within the region. The Visitors Information Center is a deceptively simple building illustrating Yeon’s skillful and innovative approach to design even at a difficult, urban site.
The Visitors Information Center originally included a highly innovative landscaping design. Though a few of the original elements are extant, most have been lost. It is worth mentioning, however, that the landscaping design for the building likely would have been eligible for nomination on its own merits as a significant work of a master Landscape Architect, at very least at a statewide level.
Early Influences and Family History
John Yeon is often cited as Oregon’s most influential native architect. He grew up in Portland, exposed to the wood products industry, architectural design, and the natural landscape in Oregon from his earliest years. His father, John Baptiste Yeon, was a French-Canadian entrepreneur and his mother, Mary Elizabeth Mock, came from a privileged Portland family. John B. Yeon was born in 1865 and immigrated to the Oregon Coast from Canada in 1885 where he found work in a lumber mill. By saving his money, the elder Yeon was able to start his own logging company and went on to become quite successful. By the time the young John Yeon was born in 1910, his father had relocated inland to Portland where he invested in real estate and development.
In addition to his business interests, John B. Yeon also had a strong commitment to community service, the environment, and good architectural design. John B. Yeon served as Multnomah County’s first Roadmaster and was highly influential in the Columbia River Highway project, which he agreed to do for a personal profit of only $1 per year. As part of the massive project, spanning from 1913 to 1922, John B. Yeon oversaw the construction of the Vista House at Crown Point State Park in the Columbia Gorge, now one of Oregon’s most famous landmarks and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. His son John Yeon would later recall that the famous Vista House was not easy to obtain funding for because politicians deemed such a building to have “no purpose,” though it was conceived to be both a scenic viewpoint and essentially Oregon’s first roadside rest area. John B. Yeon worked hard to ensure that the path of the highway blended into the natural environment of the valley, formed in an ancient glacial flood. The elder Yeon is commemorated by a namesake State Park located off the Columbia River Historic Highway near Multnomah Falls. His son shared his father’s passion for the area, and became a leader in the effort to create the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area in the early 1980s.
The elder John Yeon’s interest in architecture extended to the urban environment as well. The Yeon Building is located at 522 SW Fifth Avenue in downtown Portland, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. The building was contracted to be the headquarters of the John B. Yeon Company, and it capitalized on the demand for downtown office space in the growing city. Again the aesthetic of Yeon’s father is apparent. Rather than use a local architect, John B. Yeon sought out the services of a renowned San Francisco firm, Reid and Reid, best known for its work on the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. Completed in 1911, the Yeon Building was fifteen stories tall, making it the tallest building in the state at that time. The Yeon Building was then considered by many to be Oregon’s first “sky scraper” and a triumph in architectural design for the city of Portland.
John Baptiste Yeon’s interest in the natural environment, architecture, and his experience in the lumber and development industries had a profound influence on his son’s developing aesthetic. As a child John Yeon traveled with his father on business, with trips to the Columbia Gorge during the building of the Columbia River Highway or to the Oregon Coast. These forays into the Oregon wilderness gave Yeon an intimate appreciation for the natural beauty and ecology of the Pacific Northwest. His father’s experience in the lumber and development industry also gave him an intimate knowledge of wood products and building design, which he would later draw upon to develop the innovative products and designs that he incorporated into his architecture.
The Northwest Regional Style of architecture, of which he is widely cited as an originator, is most characterized by its relationship to the natural environment of the Pacific Northwest and the use of wood. Thus an appreciation for Yeon’s childhood is essential to understanding just how profound his impact on the Northwest Regional Style truly was. John Yeon developed knowledge of indigenous building materials and their applications within the context of the rugged Pacific Northwest, thus resulting in his unique design sensibility.
The Architectural Development and Career of John Yeon
John Yeon had a broad and largely self-taught artistic talent, exploring the relationship between the built and the natural landscapes not only through architecture, but also art history and preservation, landscape architecture, interior design, and art.
Yeon’s early education included a year at the Moran School, a private preparatory school in Washington State, where he recalled building miniature theaters complete with set changes. Subsequently, he attended the Allen Preparatory School in Portland for three years, and then spent a year at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana. Yeon began illustrating articles for the school literary magazine while attending Culver, and also while there was given the chance to go to Europe for the first time. In 1928, when he was 17 or 18, he toured Scandinavia, England, Germany, and France. He was most impressed by Stockholm and had, by that time, developed a passion for architecture.
For some years during Yeon’s teens, he had been interested in his father’s Mocks Crest development in Portland, watching the houses in design and later in construction. Also during his teen years, he began working as a summer office boy in prominent Portland architectural offices; first for A.E. Doyle and later for Herman Brookman. At Doyle’s office, John Yeon met Harry Wentz, who was a friend and contemporary of Doyle’s. Yeon began attending Harry Wentz's composition class at the Portland Art Museum and also took life drawing at night. Wentz befriended the younger man, and they often took trips together to paint wildflowers in the Columbia River Gorge. Pietro Belluschi, who was also working in Doyle’s office, was similarly impressed with Harry Wentz and with Wentz’s studio cottage on the side of Mt. Neahkanie on the Oregon coast. The studio, designed by Doyle in 1916, provided inspiration to Belluschi and Yeon, and represented for both architects the idea of holistically integrating the entire composition of house and site.
Returning from his Culver trip to Europe, John Yeon was accepted at Stanford, but his studies there were to end with the news that his father had died in 1929. He spent some time in New York City, working for the architectural office of DeYoung, Moscowitz, and Rosenberg and taking sporadic evening classes at Columbia University. In 1930, he traveled again to Europe, this time with his mother, two brothers, and his sister. They went to the Exposition in Stockholm, where the new International Style of architecture was emerging, led in Sweden by the modernist architect Erik Gunnar Asplund. Yeon returned to Oregon at about the time Oregon elected Julius Meier as governor. John Yeon’s father had been a friend of Meier’s, and the two men had worked together on the Columbia River Highway project for almost a decade. Although only twenty-one, John Yeon became immediately involved in a land conservation effort. There were plans to build a dance hall atop Chapman Point, at Ecola State Park on the coast of Oregon, and Yeon instead borrowed against a life insurance policy and purchased the land, preventing its development. That same year, Meier appointed John Yeon to the state’s first Park Commission.
Yeon’s first opportunity to blend his experiences and design aesthetic was a modest commission to build a garden for his mother’s Portland home. Built in 1933, the garden utilized Roman brick walls and grillwork set into a circular design that predates Frank Lloyd Wright’s “circular” architecture. Considered to be “the beginning of contemporary landscape design” in Oregon, it was widely published and had a broad influence on garden design across America. Much of this early landscape design has been lost.
In 1935, Yeon executed a number of unsolicited designs for a ski lodge/hotel on Mt. Hood. His site choice was shaped by his own experiences skiing and mountaineering on Mt. Hood. “My hotel…was designed specifically for that ridge and designed so that the snow would blow off of it and land in the canyon,” Yeon explained. Timberline Lodge was ultimately built as a WPA project during the Great Depression, a far larger project than Yeon had advocated. Yeon believed that the site chosen was a mistake, being in a hollow where winter snow drifts regularly extend far up the sides of the building. Yeon was only 25 at the time of his Timberline Lodge studies, but his characteristic sensitivity to siting concerns was already evident.
It was not until 1937 that Yeon received his first professional commission, one which would propel him to international fame and contribute to the creation of a new architectural movement. While serving as a State Parks Commissioner Yeon had the opportunity to meet fellow Commissioner Aubrey Watzek, who was in the process of soliciting proposals to build his new house. Yeon initially referred Watzek to his former employer AE Doyle and Associates, where Yeon’s colleague, Pietro Belluschi, had assumed control. Although not a licensed architect, Yeon had already proposed the home’s ultimate location in Portland’s West Hills and then took the initiative to design and model a house for consideration without being asked. After rejecting other designs, including one by Belluschi, Watzek eventually selected Yeon’s proposal. John Yeon moved into the offices of AE Doyle and Associates on January 1st 1937, and completed the Watzek house that year. Yeon was responsible for the entire project including the concept, placement, landscape design (with native plants) and the interior design – including much of the furniture. The building makes use of a variety of natural wood products, emphasizes natural light, and shows strong Scandinavian and Asian design influences. An “ingenious concept of the floor plan was an enclosed courtyard and pool and both a north-south axis that terminated at a dining room window looking into virgin woodland and a west-east axis that terminated with Mt. Hood centered on the living room window.” The building immediately attracted the attention of the architectural profession; however, Yeon’s position as an unlicensed architect and informal employee working at AE Doyle and Associates led to confusion over credit for the design. Belluschi originally cited the Watzek House as an AE Doyle & Associates project without naming Yeon as its independent designer. Eventually, sole credit for the Watzek House was awarded to John Yeon. The Watzek house was immediately recognized as a hallmark of a new style of architectural design, and was internationally published. John McAndrew, the head of the architecture department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, was sufficiently impressed with the design to include it in the 1938 Art In Our Time exhibit, next to Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water.” Yeon’s unique and innovative design was one of the first to be called the Northwest Regional style. The house is listed on the National Register under Criterion C, for architecture.
Following the completion of the Watzek house, the general contractor, Burt Smith, asked Yeon to design a group of nine small houses to be constructed and then offered for sale. “The resulting structures, built in 1938-39, show Yeon at his most creative, and perhaps for the first time, a ‘systems approach’ was used in the design of a single family house.” Yeon utilized an economical modular design for these houses, with plywood panels on two- or four-foot centers between exterior wooden mullions. The effect has been compared to Japanese screens, perhaps an influence from Yeon’s ongoing studies of Western and Oriental art. In almost all of his following single-residence commissions, Yeon included pergolas and, in the words of Bosker and Lencek, “external passages that brought the ethereal naturescapes of Japanese screens to life.” One of these modular houses is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as “John Yeon Speculative House,” under Criterion C.
Yeon’s floor plans exhibit his characteristic light touch with the enclosure of space, using several solid or enclosed blocks placed around a visually open central area. The central glass enclosure punctuated by enclosed blocks of rooms appears in most of his work, and Yeon explained the ideas behind this central space in a 1954 magazine interview. “If the air were solidified and the walls stripped away, the solid would have a shape that is pleasing to me… an asymmetrical cubic composition which is neither static nor restless, suggestive of movement, but in repose.” These spatial compositions at the heart of each floor plan were carefully created to take advantage of the view opportunities for each specific site.
Between 1946 and 1953, Yeon’s work had graced the cover of national architectural publications four times. However, by the mid-1950’s, Yeon had moved away from residential architecture and became involved in designing galleries. He produced designs for the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, and the Portland Art Museum. He also devoted increasing amounts of time to conservation efforts and to ecological restoration in the Columbia Gorge, at the coast, and in Portland.
Despite never having been licensed as a professional architect, Yeon in 1955 became the second winner of the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial Prize for Architecture by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, joining an elite group that has since come to include Gordon Bunshaft, Renzo Piano, Jean Novel, and Frank Gehry. In 1977, the University of Oregon awarded Yeon the Distinguished Service Award for his contributions to the cultural development of Oregon society. In 1978, he was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects. Yeon’s achievements in architecture and conservation survived his death in 1994 at the age of 83 and continue to shape future generations of architects. Yeon beneficiary and long time friend Richard Louis Brown arranged a substantial gift of properties to the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts. These properties include Yeon’s landscape architecture preserve in the Columbia Gorge called “The Shire” and his famed Watzek House. The University of Oregon has used the endowment from the Yeon estate to establish the John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies, the John Yeon Lecture Series featuring prominent guest architects, and the John Yeon Graduate Research Fellowship.
The International Style and the Northwest Regional Style
The term “International Style” originally was applied to a 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of art and architecture by the curators, Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip C. Johnson. Hitchcock and Johnson provided a definition of this emerging style, based on three characteristics: “emphasis upon volume- space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces as opposed to the suggestion of mass and solidity; regularity as opposed to symmetry or other kinds of obvious balance; and lastly, dependence upon the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine proportions, as opposed to applied ornament.” European and American “International Style” buildings were reflecting advances in architectural engineering, with the use of larger beams and columns to free the walls of buildings from their traditional structural constraints, thus allowing for the use of large panes of glass. The development of the International Style of Architecture followed these principles in both Europe and in the U.S., but regional variants began to appear as early as the late 1930’s.
At this time, the Northwest Regional Style began to be recognized by the architectural establishment of America’s East Coast through a small but impressive number of uniquely modern houses making headlines in Oregon and Washington. Like all regional movements, one of the defining characteristics of the Northwest Regional Style was the use of the area’s abundant local resources, timber in this case, as a building material. In the Pacific Northwest, structural supports were often timber, rather than the more machined and industrial concrete and steel systems used in Europe and on the East Coast. In deference to the majestic scenery of the Pacific Northwest, the designs of the buildings themselves were shaped by bringing the “outside in” with large glass windows and walls oriented toward views of mountains, forests, rivers, valleys, etc. and by paying particular attention to zones that mediated between exterior and interior. The use of unfinished and unpainted (or using colors taken from the hues of the natural landscape) wood-frame construction, siding, and roofing, asymmetrical facades, low silhouettes, and open floor plans to take advantage of natural light marked the Northwest Regional Style as a manifestation of not only regionally prevalent materials, but the beauty of the regional environment as well. The Northwest Regional Style is most often associated with residential projects.
Yeon is frequently cited along with Italian-born architect, Pietro Belluschi, as one of the primary inventors of the Northwest Regional Style. Belluschi, formally educated as an engineer, had immigrated to Portland and begun to establish himself as an architect through projects like the Portland Art Museum (1932). Though both Yeon and Belluschi were influential in the spread of the Northwest Regional style, Belluschi’s work did not exhibit the full development of the Northwest Regional style until after the success of Yeon’s Watzek House. The controversy over the credit for the Watzek House design created a competitive relationship between Belluschi and Yeon. While Yeon lived a fairly reclusive lifestyle and would only see about eighteen of his building designs completed in his life, Belluschi pursued an illustrious career, designing high-profile commercial projects, churches, and residences, and serving as the Dean of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1951-1965. As a result, Belluschi is more frequently cited in reference to the Northwest Regional Style. Some of Belluschi’s most famous residential buildings like the Sutor House (1938) and Platt House (1941) share similarities to Yeon’s Watzek House and Speculative Houses.
Ralph T. Coe, director of the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas wrote of Yeon in 1977 that “this designer’s role in the history of twentieth-century American architecture has been somewhat obscured by the very quiet format in which he prefers to practice, as well as by the fact that some of his most important work was done quite a number of years ago.” According to Yeon’s friend and colleague Joseph Esherick, who practiced architecture in the San Francisco area, John Yeon was disliked by some of the more established Portland architects at the time, due not only to his immense talent (and lack of formal credentials) but also because he was reclusive by nature, preferring to remain outside of the local social circles. Despite Yeon’s detractors and the limited number of commissions he received, it was arguably Yeon’s freedom from existing paradigms that allowed his imagination to manifest itself in exiting new designs like the Watzek House and Speculative House series, which came to define the Northwest Regional Style. Coe also observed, in 1977, that the Visitors Information Center “in spite of the insults which have been done to it through misunderstandings of its original architectural integrity, is as appropriate a building to look at today- (providing it is properly restored) as it was when built and included in the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Built in U.S.A.: Post-War Architecture’ exhibition.”
The Portland Visitors Information Center
During WWII, John Yeon’s architectural career in Oregon had been briefly interrupted while he served in North Africa. His carefully crafted and holistic style continued after his return from the war in a number of residential designs. Up until the late 1940’s, Yeon’s work had been limited to residences, but Yeon was approached with two non-residential building commissions at about the same period of time in 1947. One of these projects, for the Portland Garden Club, was never built. Yeon’s only public building, and the only commission designed for an urban setting, was to be a Visitors Information Center for the City of Portland.
The Portland Chamber of Commerce had, for some years prior to 1947, desired a new “guest information” center where visitors might find information promoting Portland and the surrounding region. In 1945, under Chamber president Frank McCaslin, a visitor’s service committee was formed. A special fund of $75,000 was raised at that time in order to prepare for what was expected to be a post-war boom in tourism. The Chamber of Commerce asked Yeon to design a log structure, in order to highlight Oregon’s robust timber industry. However, the design Yeon presented to the Chamber of Commerce was a spare, exquisitely considered modernist structure “as close to pure abstraction as a functioning building can get.” The building design was finalized by early August 1947, not without some struggle. In deference to the mighty timber industry, though, a cutting from a 16-foot Sitka spruce was mounted outside the building at the southwest corner.
The location chosen for the new tourist center was on the Portland waterfront downtown, on a tough site next to a two-block-long building and immediately off Harbor Drive, the freeway along the west side of the Willamette River. (See photo, figure 14). The site did have the advantage of being very visible, especially to those travelling by car. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the building in early January 1948, the new Chamber of Commerce president Hillman Lueddemann noted that the site would be extremely convenient, as one of the main entryways to the City when the approaches to the Steel Bridge and the planned extensions of Harbor Drive were completed. Both the State Highway Department and the City of Portland donated land for the project.
Because Yeon was not a registered architect, he needed a professional to stamp the drawings. The architectural office of Wick, Hilgers, and Scott of Portland was asked to serve as architects of record on the project. Yeon may have known Clarence (“Casey”) Wick from the office of DeYoung, Moscowitz and Rosenberg in New York, where Wick and Yeon both worked for a brief time in 1930. Wick’s partnership with Hilgers and Scott was formed in 1941, though Scott later left the firm in 1945. There is no evidence that Yeon’s design was a collaboration with the firm, however.
The building cost less than the original estimate, due to donations of labor and materials. The contractor, L. H. Hoffman of Portland, donated his services free of charge. The overall final cost was pegged at $65,000.00.
The 1948 design of the building used many of the same principles Yeon had been developing in his residential work, with a modular wall system incorporating glass, louvered ventilation panels and painted plywood panels. The plan is not simply a group of several enclosed blocks placed around a visually open central area, but forms a pinwheel composition. Three of these blocks- housing staff offices, exhibits and rest rooms- are drawn into one large group around a central lobby. The fourth block, for garden equipment, anchors the north end of the outdoor walled garden. For Yeon, the use of such an arrangement gave the building a sense of movement and an active engagement to the site.
Yeon framed the views out from the Visitors Center main space, allowing to the south a tight view midblock (but blocking most of the freeway itself) towards what was then a grassy berm extending up to the Hawthorne Bridge approach. To the west was another focused glimpse; this time of the more urban streetscape towards downtown Portland. Because of the comparatively overwhelming size of the building to the north, the old Public Market structure, Yeon created a walled garden and reflecting pond at this end, where one could look out into a calm, green environment. Finally, where most buildings along the Willamette River at this time did not open up to the waterfront, Yeon’s east façade offers a multitude of views of the water and of Mt. Hood beyond the Harbor Drive highway, framed by a lushly planted pergola. The Information Center “would bring the Japanese screen motif to downtown Portland. In spaces defined by the columned pergola, Yeon framed a series of views- a panorama of screens from urban life- onto the Willamette River.” It is interesting to note that Yeon’s commitment to his principles of integrated site design was perhaps tested by the location offered for the Visitors Information Center, and was shaped by International-Style principles of abstraction and utilitarianism. The structure is conceived from the inside out, so that the exterior shape reflects the interior structure and layout. Still, Yeon’s design was firmly tied to and shaped by the specifics of the site and its environment, an approach that was perhaps more American than European in the development of the Modernist movement.
Yeon’s original design for the landscaping of the Visitors Information Center would be of sufficient importance to nominate under its own merits, if the scheme had been retained. The landscaping supported his principles of integrated site design, and was described in glowing terms by Architectural Forum magazine. “Hardy native trees and shrubs will surround the building and its parking area. The long pergola will support a magnificent display of climbing roses- the official state flower. Protected on all sides- by the pergola, the building, and a hedge of bamboo trees which will be set along the fence- the interior court around the pool will blossom forth with exotic species of flowers.” However, this scheme was never fully carried out. “In 1948 at the time of its construction,” noted Wallace Kay Huntington, “the retail nurseries in the Northwest carried few, if any, native plants and Yeon’s choice of vine maple, madrone, salal and Oregon grape was an innovative planting scheme- the first public use of such materials in Oregon.” Soon after its completion, the building was re-landscaped by volunteers from the Men’s Garden Club, who believed roses to be more appropriate than Yeon’s native plantings. The courtyard itself, excepting one tree and the original lily pond, was later paved over.
Yeon’s design for the Visitors Information Center reveals the strong influence of the International Style- indeed, stronger than in any of his other built work. The Visitors Center is of wood-frame construction, with a flat roof. The wall framing studs are expressed on the exterior, on a strict three-foot module. The field between the vertical studs is trimmed out with smaller wood slats, and is infilled with glazing, exterior-grade plywood, fixed screened wood louvers, or a combination of these three. Color was used to delineate the architectural elements: a dark blue color (referred to as Yeon blue by its prevalence in his work) on the panels, wood trim in a pale grey-green, a blue-black on the exposed ends of the studs, and wine-red on the doors. No other ornament, aside from the delineation of structure, is used either outside or inside the building. Although the wall systems and the color scheme itself (derived from “natural” sources) are in many ways “Northwest Regional” in style, the use of the very strict grid in the building’s layout is an attribute of the International Style, as is the meticulous employment of color to show structural function. The flat roof, another characteristic of the International Style, was not used in any of Yeon’s other built designs. While his active and engaged response to the specific site is not necessarily an attribute of the early European Modern movement, it is evident in the work of other American architects working the Modern style in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. For instance, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “organic” expression of unity bet