Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission

Architect & Preservationist John Yeon
Creating a Lasting Impression

By Randy Gragg © 2000

     It is a rare day at Ecola State Park that someone doesn't point a camera southward. With Chapman Point in the foreground and Haystack Rock in the distance, this is the most photographed vista along Oregon's 362-mile coast.

     Chances are the millions of pictures taken would look much different -- or might not have been taken at all -- were it not for John Yeon.

     In 1927, when plans emerged to build a dance hall atop Chapman Point, Yeon -- just 17 at the time -- borrowed $4,500 against his life-insurance policy and bought the land. It has remained untouched and highly photogenic ever since.

     When Yeon died March 13, 1994 at age 83, Oregon lost one of its most committed and effective preservationists as well as one of its true visionaries.

     The publicity-shy genius son of a pioneering family who became first-generation Oregon millionaires, Yeon mostly lived below radar.

     But during his long life, he became a nationally significant architect whose famed Watzek House sparked the Northwest regional style movement. He amassed a top-notch, if idiosyncratic, Asian art collection. And he was a civic activist who saved significant historic buildings and helped establish parks and preserves.

     Yet beneath these looming accomplishments was a man of dramatic contrasts.

     Yeon was an iconoclastic architect who often oversaw every detail of the palatial houses he designed, right down to the tables and chairs. But he also designed some of the nation's first ultracheap homes made of plywood.

     Yeon was so frugal, he hand-washed his socks because he believed machines wore them out faster. But he vacationed with the elite of the New York art world, even once posing in the nude for famed fashion photographer George Platt Lynes.

     With painter Carl Morris and architect Pietro Belluschi -- both of whom have died in the past year -- Yeon was the last of Portland's first-generation modernists. All were pioneers in the 20th century's fundamental rethinking of art and architecture. And each gained a national reputation rare in such a distant regional outpost.

     Of the three, Yeon was the state's only native. Easily the most complex, arguably the most brilliant and surprisingly the least known, he is a classic Oregon story for the fact he is so difficult to categorize. The Activist

     Yeon's unusual relationship to the natural landscape was bred early. His father, John B. Yeon, was a lumber millionaire who also oversaw the building of the original Columbia Gorge Highway, one of the most beautifully crafted scenic roads in the country.

     In 1931, at age 21, Yeon was appointed by Gov. Julius Meier to Oregon's first State Park Commission. Three years later, he was made chairman of a National Resources Board, set up to preserve the Columbia River Gorge.

     The resulting report that Yeon authored was a visionary plan for building a highway, advocating wide "buffer zones" free of strip development, conservation of topsoil and gentle curves instead of straightaways.

     Though only some of the recommendations were adopted, the report may have been one of the first environmental impact statements. It also reads like a mission statement for the rest of Yeon's life, advocating sensitive use of the land with the main concern being the pleasure of seeing it.

     "John was a park person," according Nancy Russell, founder of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "Clean air and water, to him, were public-health issues. He wanted to maintain the gorge to look good."

     A man whose shyness more than once left him speechless before an audience, Yeon nevertheless was a force to contend with one on one.

     "John was tough, persuasive and stubborn," recalls Brian G. Booth, chairman of the Oregon State Parks Commission. "He knew his history, and his name gave him clout."

     Yeon waged most of his battles behind the scenes, frequently flying to Washington, D.C., to lobby politicians and bureaucrats directly.

     "John was an aesthetic genius," says Russell. "He had such a clear vision of what was truly beautiful. He was so sure of himself no matter what political pressures were being brought to bear."

     Russell points out that Interstate 84, as originally planned, was to be a straight shot, cutting through the contours of the undulating river shore. In fact, she says, it was under construction in 1964 when Yeon flew to Washington, D.C., and persuaded the head of the U.S. Bureau of Roads that the freeway should follow more closely the land's natural contours.

     "You can actually see some of the original road from Crown Point," says Russell. "(Now) it's the parking lot for Benson Park."

     In addition to his political lobbying, Yeon sometimes took a more direct role in preserving the land, as with his purchase of Chapman Point. Similarly, when Yeon discovered plans in 1965 for a factory on the Columbia River's Washington shore, directly across from Multnomah Falls, he purchased the mile-long stretch.

     "I was, I suppose, what would now be called an environmental activist, though not of the beautifully bearded sort," Yeon said in a 1984 lecture, wryly distinguishing himself from the contemporary cliche of Oregon tree-huggers.

     Indeed, as Yeon was so ardently working to preserve the landscape, he also was building on it some of the most notable houses in Oregon history.

The Architect

     Yeon's most renowned work of architecture also was the first he ever completed. At age 26, he designed the Aubrey Watzek House in Portland's West Hills with virtually no formal training, having only done occasional stints as an office boy and draftsman in architectural offices.

     Yet, the house was replete with inventions that Thomas Jefferson might have envied: the first double-glazed windows used in Portland, hidden cabinets for sound and movie equipment and Venetian blinds that slid, pocket-door style, into the walls.

     Perhaps for the first time in the history of architecture, Yeon divided a window's two functions -- ventilation and view -- providing air through louvres so the vision of the outdoors would be uncluttered by screens.

     But far more than just being inventive, the house is a procession of spatial, visual and tactile experiences. From the plain-looking front door, to the Japanese-inspired garden, to a series of intimately proportioned rooms paneled in wax-finished noble fir, Yeon plays a game of hide and seek leading to the grand finale: a living room with 14-foot ceilings and an entire wall of windows framing a spectacular view of Mount Hood.

     New York's Museum of Modern Art prominently exhibited photographs of the Watzek House in its prestigious 10th- and 15th-anniversary exhibits alongside such American icons as Frank Lloyd Wright's "Falling Water." And American and European architectural magazines published the house widely.

     Indeed, the famed photo of the house, its gabled roof echoing the peak of Mount Hood, was the icon that sparked the Eastern architectural establishment's interest in Yeon and his contemporary, Pietro Belluschi. Seen as a native expression of the burgeoning modernist movement, their work came to be labeled the Northwest regional style.

     The Watzek House required 75 pages of plans for its details -- more than most commercial buildings of the time. The design so impressed the builder, Burt Smith, that he commissioned Yeon to design four speculative houses in Southwest and North Portland.

     In these, Yeon showed a more thrifty side to his brilliance. Refining his window and ventilation designs and using newly invented exterior plywood, these houses were built for about $5,000 each.

     During the construction, Yeon also had a fence erected around the site, giving carpenters only six feet of room to work in order to preserve the natural flora.

     "My attitude toward building in the landscape," Yeon said in a 1984 lecture on his work, "was and is that of a landscape painter imaging what would look well in his landscape painting."

The Aesthete

     In addition to his work as an architect and preservationist, Yeon was an avid appreciator of art. Yet, despite exhibiting his architecture in the Museum of Modern Art and his close friendships with the museum's founder, Alfred Barr, Yeon's own passions touched on virtually every historical period except modern art.

     Instead, Yeon sought expressions of modernism's ideals from the past, particularly in Asian art. To Yeon, no finer examples of modernism's dictums -- "form following function" and "structure as ornament" -- could be found than in 12th-century sake bottles, Ming Dynasty furniture and 15th-century painted screens, which he avidly collected.

     After 1950, Yeon's only architectural designs were of five museum galleries in Portland, Kansas City and San Francisco, three of which were for Asian art.

     And, last year, in what would be his last project, Yeon curated and designed the Asian section of the Portland Art Museum's show "Portland Collects," 19 years after he designed the interior of the museum's Asian Gallery.

     In subtle ways, the exhibit was an insight into how Yeon's mind worked. Wildly hopping countries, traditions, materials and eras with no pretense toward scholarship, the show nonetheless held together like a symphony performance.

     As much as it reflected Yeon's taste, it portrayed a supreme belief in his own eye to find a common denominator of elegance beyond history and conventional taste. And it was a self-confidence that extended beyond art and architecture to the natural landscape, which he believed sometimes could be improved.

     Yeon's lifelong dream for his Chapman Point land, for instance, was to preserve the actual point and carefully develop a few homes or a small hotel to the south.

     As with all his projects, the goal was to integrate the architecture with the land. He carefully planted grass to stabilize the sand and trees to both frame the view of Haystack Rock and camouflage future buildings from the view of surrounding hills.

     Future development of land is being negotiated by the estate. Over the years, Yeon painstakingly worked his Columbia River Gorge property -- which he nicknamed "The Shire" -- into what landscape architect Huntington likens to an 18th-century garden.

     "You'd never know it was manipulated," says Huntington. "Lawns swirl around rocks, and he selectively cut trees to create some truly breathtaking views of the gorge and Multnomah Falls."

     In his final years, Yeon carefully documented his design of the Shire and made provisions to preserve it through a charitable trust.

     In essence, the land will become a park in its most refined and nuanced form -- a fitting memorial for man who left his mark on Oregon by being careful about the marks he made. "John had Oregon in his bones," says Huntington. "He cared about every blade of grass."