Inside Van Evera Bailey’s Mid-Century Hilltop Masterpieces

Inside Van Evera Bailey’s Mid-Century Hilltop Masterpieces

Last Saturday, Restore Oregon hosted a tour of six homes in Lake Oswego and SW Portland, all designed by noted Portland architect Van Evera Bailey (1903-1980).

Brian Libby of Portland Architecture argues, “if Northwest midcentury-modern houses are arguably the most significant and unique contribution that Portland has contributed to world architecture, then Bailey not only deserves his place alongside Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon, but a larger recognition beyond Oregon’s borders.”

Van Evera Bailey
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All six homes were interesting to see up close, but two homes in particular stood out on the tour—the Bruno Residence (1939) on Ridecrest Drive in Lake Oswego and the Shaw Residence (1957) on SW Hessler Drive in Portland.

Bailey’s clients purchased dramatic hilltop lots and he made the most of the settings. The homes appear to be humble from the street. But open the front door and move through the compressed entries into the expansive living rooms, and any concept of humble is long gone.

hessler drive

The raw wood ceilings are at once soaring and grounding. An architect can’t improve on the natural forest, but he can showcase the raw material in flattering ways, as Bailey has done.

One’s home is one’s sanctuary, and Bailey definitely plays to this ideal. He incorporates Prairie style lines and he places his building on the lot carefully, so it belongs to the landscape.

I couldn’t help thinking about the architect’s state of mind as the nation endured, then emerged from WWII and the Great Depression. Bailey’s homes are for optimists, people able to see the big picture (literally). He worked in California early in his career, and he learned the trade from a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. He wears his influences well.

Bruno Residence

Here’s a look at some of Bailey’s homes that have recently sold.

Prisoners of An Artificial Reality Want Hostages, Americans Want Something Else

When I make time for broadcast news, I am appalled. The product is increasingly unwatchable at a time when the need for insightful and brave analysis is at a premium.

I feel like a lot of people are shrugging their shoulders these days, and asking what the hell is wrong, and what can we do to fix it?

I had an interesting exchange about one thing that is wrong on Twitter today with writer, speaker and social media strategist Tara Hunt. She rightly noted how narcissism is a problem in brand communications.

Clearly, one big brand with a toxic level of narcissism running through its icy veins is the Republican Party. David Frum, writing for The Daily Beast neatly identifies “self-reinforcing media” as one reason why.

Politicians sooner or later arrive at the point where they believe what they say. They have become prisoners of their own artificial reality, with no easy access to the larger truths outside.

Swap the word “politicians” for “brands” and you get the same results. That’s why it’s key to have people with an outside perspective in positions of power both inside and outside your organization. Of course, culturally we don’t want to reward the truth-to-power speaker, do we? We want to banish him and belittle him. But that is wrong. Instead, we need to celebrate and elevate the truth carriers in our midst.

My hero of all artisan heroes, Frank Lloyd Wright, faced banishment and several personal and professional hardships in his day. But do you know what Wright’s personal motto was? Truth against the world. His contentiousness is right there on the surface. Along with his righteousness.

Wright was a difficult man, a complex man. He was also a genius who remade architecture, and he did some of his best work in his 80s. In fact, Wright was 76 when he landed the Guggenheim Museum commission, a project which occupied his next 16 years. Wright died a short time before the museum’s opening in 1959.

Wright was a man of faith and conviction, and you have to be to fight the rising tide of shit. There’s no question we are drowning in bullshit today. The noise is deafening. And our ability to concentrate is weakened. But it’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Let’s turn to Yeats and his astute poetic observations in 1919, as Europe emerged from WWI.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The worst are full of passionate intensity. Interesting how a century does nothing to dent the fundamental nature of things — fundamentalists are terribly offensive blowhards who lack the substance their own ideas. It’s enough to make “the best lack all conviction.”

The thing is, the best don’t give up easily. Wright did not give up. Ever. He had an abiding faith, in nature, truth and beauty. I think President Obama has this same abiding faith. I have been disappointed by some of his more conciliatory and conservative moves, yet I am continually amazed at his resolve. Obama is more than a good man, he is a good leader. U.S. Citizens may not realize, and may never realize, just how fortunate we are to have a man of his intelligence, grace and patience in the White House today.

Seeing Things Through A Seattle Scope

Since moving to Oregon in August 2008, I have had the extreme good fortune to spend my birthday celebrations with friends and family, mostly in pursuit of wine and food.

This year, Darby and I motored to Seattle early on the 4th. After a morning business meeting and a light lunch on Capitol Hill, we checked in to Hotel Vintage Park (one of three Kimpton properties in the city), before walking over to Seattle Art Museum during First Thursday proceedings. Soon thereafter, the Newmans swooped in to pick us up for the much anticipated birthday dinner in Ballard.

By the way, it is a real honor to travel to another great American city and enjoy a birthday dinner for eight.

When we got to The Walrus and the Carpenter, a tiny room for Seattle’s most popular oyster bar, we were told the wait would be two hours. Normally, that means one hour. On this night the hostess was a woman of her word. It took two hours and fifteen minutes to get seated. Thankfully, an accommodating bar up the historic Ballard street hosted us while we waited to dine on local edibles from the sea.

Writing about Seattle as a Portland resident is kind of like writing about your beautiful “Prom Queen” sister. You either come off as adoring, or bitter.

A year ago, at another fine dining establishment in San Francisco, Darby and I had a great time with three NorCal friends. Our friend Andy spoke about how “abundance mentality” is prevalent in California, while “scarcity mentality” tends to preside in Oregon. The conversation has stayed with me ever since.

Seattle clearly weighs in as an abundance heavyweight. It is an opulent city on seven hills. Part Minneapolis high design, another part San Francisco funky. I have heard mention of the “Seattle freeze,” but I do not encounter cold shoulders there. I find the people friendly and willing to engage in frank discussion, which of course, I appreciate immensely.

I suspect the very things that make Seattle attractive to me, are the things many Portlanders and Oregonians reject outright. As one good friend here told me last week, “Oregonians don’t want (that kind of) progress.” Right. And this is what makes Portland, Portland and Oregon, Oregon. Unlike Seattle and San Francisco, Portland is tucked away, 60 miles upriver from the coast and the world beyond. The city is also nestled in a valley and protected by a wall of western hills and Forest Park green space. To say Portlanders have a fortress mentality may be a bit extreme, but it is also true to some degree.

Of course, Portlanders and Oregonians do have something to protect. Few would argue otherwise. My interest here, in this geo-cultural exploration of three West Coast cites, is mostly about alignment and how we might reposition ourselves as a community. The “G” word, Growth, is seen as an impolite intrusion in Oregon — a reduction of green space and an increase in traffic, pollution and noise. Yet, growth simply is. There’s no way to stop it, and even with an urban growth boundary, there’s no way to maintain a psychic gate around this precious place. The question is how might Oregonians better align themselves with this planetary force?

Urban planners, economists, engineers and politicians have some good answers, but no one group of thinkers or doers has all the answers. The problem however is well documented. The median income for a Seattle family – $91,300 – is nearly half as much more than the family income in Portland of $63,400. To me, that’s a startling difference for two cites 167 miles apart from each other. Also, one in 20 Seattle homes is valued at more than $1 million. In Portland, the ratio is 1 in 100.

If we are to believe the management guru and best-selling author, Steven Covey, “abundance mentality” is something we can choose to consciously manage for personal gain. It stands to reason then, that the people of a city or state might also invite abundance into their lives for the betterment of the community. Too bad there’s no on-off switch to go from scarcity to abundance in a flash. Like most good things, it’s a process that takes commitment, a plan of action and time.

Oregon City Can Do Better Than A New Mall. Right?

Oregon City Can Do Better Than A New Mall. Right?

We moved from NE Portland to West Linn at the end of May and ever since we have been busy learning the area. I like to call it the South Shore, although I may be alone in that. Anyway, one of the things that stands out is the fact that West Linn and Oregon City, just across the river, both benefit from historic roots. In fact, it’s what keeps these towns from being suburbs, in the classic “municipalities made possible by Eisenhower-era freeways” sense.

Oregon City, of course, is the oldest city in Oregon. It’s where the Oregon Trail reached its end, and the place where white settlers filed their land claims in the new American territory. Today, more than 60 buildings in downtown Oregon City are eligible for the National Historic Register. But it’s clear that Oregon City needs help, as in economic development and urban renewal. It’s times like these that it would pay to be a multimillionaire, because the opportunities to usher in a new era of responsible growth and revitalization are immense.

There’s also significant pressure to make Oregon City a town of malls and planned communities, a move which strips some of the grit and character from the place. In my quest to understand the players and the details of the South Shore drama, I’ve been reading up on the Mayor, the City Commissioners, and plans for two massive projects–Clackamas Cove, a mixed use development on 109 acres, and The Rivers, a proposed 650,000-square-foot mall that would be built on a former landfill.

Oregon City Mayor, Doug Neely, is for the developments, but Commissioner James Nicita isn’t so sure. Nicita, a lawyer with an urban planning degree, wants to let taxpayers decide, and the developers aren’t happy about possible citizen roadblocks.

Steve Mayes of The Oregonian has been following the story. In June, Mayes reported that CenterCal, the company developing The Rivers, broke off negotiations with the city, citing a “deep division” among city commissioners, in particular two newly elected commissioners, James Nicita and Rocky Smith Jr., who both campaigned against the project.

According to Mayes, the project has been dogged by political clashes between those who see a mall as a way to turn an eyesore into a destination retail center and those who question the need for a $17.6 million subsidy. Now, negotiations between the land owner, Park Place Development, and CenterCal are at a standstill. City Manager David Frasher said, “You don’t have a project if the developer doesn’t have the land.”

Personally, I don’t think the Portland area needs another mall. You can find one a short drive in any direction from Oregon City.

Plus, a modern cookie-cutter mall is far from the only solution that will grow jobs and the tax base. What would be truly exciting is to see the organic growth of historic revitalization projects in the core of Oregon City’s downtown. That way, Oregon City remains a unique and vital place to work, live and visit. Naturally, this is the more complicated solution, one that depends on the actions of hundreds of individual investors, versus the swift moves of one or two adept developers.

I have my own ideas about what might work in Oregon City, and what I’d love to see happen there. After visiting Walla Walla last April, I can see how the urban tasting rooms model that makes Walla Walla such a desirable and walkable wine destination, might also work in Oregon City.

Why would the state’s wine industry make that kind of commitment to Oregon City, which isn’t known for producing wine? Access to the large wine-drinking population of Portland and its visitors, and cheap rents for historic properties, are two reasons why.

Majesty of Trees Ingrained In Seattle Company’s Work

Meyer Wells in Seattle builds modern furniture from reclaimed urban trees. The Seattle Times and The New York Times have both profiled the company in recent months.

Although custom furniture builders are abundant in the region, Meyer Wells staked out a distinct territory: the big slab, furniture that bring the raw power of the environment indoors .

The company harvests local urban trees doomed by development, disease or storm damage, and turn them into custom furniture, each piece a distinct botanical narrative.

Meyer Wells has been profitable from the start and revenue has grown annually. There are now nine employees, and high-visibility clients like Starbucks and the University of Washington.

The company also diversified its holding with Green Tree Mill, which provides builders with sustainable wood products.

“I think our idealism is meeting with the demand to make buildings greener,” John Wells says.

Real Estate Bust Leaves Arcitects Holding Their Nuts

“Buildings, too, are children of Earth and Sun.” -Frank Lloyd Wright

I work in an industry–marketing communications–that has taken a beating during the recession. But people who build brands for a living are not alone in these tough times. In fact, this Los Angeles Times article paints a dour picture for another design-centric profession.

Architects, the exalted artists who design structures that will stand for generations, are feeling a lot less glamorous these days.

When people look back, there will be few signature buildings on the country’s metropolitan skylines to point to that were built in the years around 2010, said Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects.

The AIA’s measurement of commercial real estate work that architects have on their boards is at a low ebb, a 40% decline since late 2008. “You need to go back to the Great Depression to see something of this magnitude,” Baker said.

Employment at the nation’s architecture firms has dropped 25% since 2008, Baker said.

No one wants to see idle talent on the sidelines. Personally, I think we need to find new ways of working together to keep our collective balls rolling in the right direction. Maybe out of work architects can band together to do public works. Naturally, someone needs to pay for this valuable work and there’s no question there’s a real need for the work.

During the Depression, the federal government put a lot of talented engineers and others to work on infrastructure needs. The Obama administration is doing this again, but on a much smaller scale. Yet the need isn’t reduced today, just our will to use tax dollars to make it happen is reduced. That’s why a combination of private sector solutions is, once again, necessary to address our public needs.

I think The Nature Conservancy’s model for saving habitat is instructive here. The Nature Conservancy buys sensitive habitat outright and protects it in perpetuity. It’s a simple and highly effective way to get the job done. So, “a Nature Conservancy for architecture” would endeavor to identify significant project opportunities and then raise the money to get the public-minded projects designed and built–all of which would require a great deal of work from lots of skilled people.

It’s also true that these type of efforts will need the support of writers, designers, filmmakers and the like, for someone needs to communicate the value of all these public-minded projects before, during and after the construction phase.

A Brave Man Speaks His Highly Unflattering Truth

SEATTLE—Out-spoken and fearless urban planning expert, social critic, author and journalist James Howard Kunstler is a man on a mission. He wants to shake the American people awake with his special brand of righteous anger, and tonight he’s on stage in a grand ballroom at the Westin to do just that.

Kunstler is here to deliver the opening keynote at Living Future 2010, “the unconference for deep green professionals” put on by Cascadia Region Green Building Council, a chapter of the U.S.G.B.C. (and my wife’s employer). Kunstler is an interesting choice to open the unconference, for he is a rabble-rouser of epic proportions.

He says, “People call me a ‘doomer,’ but I call myself an actualist.” One of the things he’s being “actual” about is suburbia, which he says is “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.” Kunstler says, “We’ve invested our identity in this. Suburbia is part of the American dream.”

Kunster claims the suburban dream is over, despite our lingering dreams. He claims builders and others are waiting for the bottom, so they can resume building, but “no combination of alternative fuels will allow us to run suburbia.”

Americans are conditioned to want something for nothing, he says. Kunstler reminds the liberal audience that President Obama said, “We won’t apologize for the American way of life.” Building on that, Kunstler says he is sorely disappointed by the nation’s elite cadre of environmentalists who are more concerned about producing electric cars than they are about living in walkable communities. His word for it: techo-grandiosity.

“We are not a serious society, not at all,” he practically spits form the podium. He tells a story about speaking at the Googleplex in Mt. View, CA. “The whole place is like a kindergarten. It seems the whole idea in business today is to be as infantile as possible.” Worse yet, Kunstler says the Googleites don’t know the difference between energy and technology, which is his way of saying technology isn’t going to solve all our problems.

Lack of political will is another sore point. He says we’re spending stimulus money to fix highways, when “we have a train system that would embarrass the Bulgarians.” Sadly, “we can’t afford to be clowns.”

During the question and answer session, a psychologist in the audience asks Kunstler if he doesn’t have a more hopeful image he can share, one that will make an already paranoid people feel less paranoid. In true Kunstler fashion, he says, “we can’t fix everything with therapy.”

When the talk is done, people applaud, but not as vigorously as they might. It seems the air’s been sucked out of this vast ballroom.

One attendee tells me he found Kunstler’s talk depressing. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Kunstler paints a broad canvas where all sorts of American ugliness are put plainly in view. Yet, most people working on solutions—like creating green buildings—are busy addressing one small part of the problem, not the entirety of the matter, and they want to feel good about their contributions. But Kunstler doesn’t care about making people feel good. His thing is to sound the alarm and make it ring loudly in our ears.

[UPDATE] Here are two other takes on Kunstler’s Living Future speech, one from Sustainable Industries and another from Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.

Portland Developer Looking To Green Buildings For Future Profits

Portland Developer Looking To Green Buildings For Future Profits

The Oregonian is running a feature on Gerding Edlen Development Co., one of Oregon’s biggest real estate companies, and its CEO, Mark Edlen.

Between 2002 and 2009, Gerding Edlen built 3,200 condos valued at $1.6 billion. Naturally, that didn’t work out too well for anyone. The article goes into all the juicy details of investor losses and bank repos, but that’s not the part I’m interested in. This is:

With the condo boom over, Edlen is trying to reposition the company to be the national leader in green building makeovers.

The green economy is in.

Gerding Edlen’s strategy is to buy completed or partly finished buildings at bargain prices, retrofit them with state-of-the-art energy-efficient technology and then either sell the buildings or hold them and lease them out.

Edlen is convinced sustainable building has finally arrived as a viable business strategy, thanks in part to the Obama administration’s view of the green economy as one of the country’s primary economic engines.

“You’ve got to get your hands dirty and do deep retrofits,” Edlen said. “It’s about insulation, new windows or reglazing existing windows, it’s about new water-use strategies.”

The Oregonian article is followed by several negative comments from readers—sadly, that’s often par for the course in a public forum. Yet, I think Gerding Edlen deserves some praise for keeping their head above water during the deluge. And their new course is the right thing to do, for their business, the people who buy or rent from them and for conservation of our natural resources.

In related news, The Economist recently asked, “Is Oregon’s metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?”

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Joel Kotkin, a Los Angeles-based demographer and author, thinks that places like Portland, San Francisco and Boston have become “elite cities”, attractive to the young and single, especially those with trust funds, but beyond the reach of middle-class families who want a house with a lawn. Indeed Portland, for all its history of Western grit, is remarkably white, young and childless. Most Americans will therefore continue to migrate to the more affordable “cities of aspiration” such as Houston, Atlanta or Phoenix, thinks Mr Kotkin. As they do so, they may turn decentralised sprawl into quilts of energetic suburbs with a community feeling.

That is not to belittle Portland’s vision. It is a sophisticated and forward-looking place. Which other city can boast that its main attraction is a bustling independent book store (Powell’s) and that medical students can go from one part of their campus to another by gondola, taking their bikes with them? Other cities will see much to emulate…Adam Davis of Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, a Portland polling firm, says that Oregonians like to consider themselves leaders but also exceptions. They are likely to remain both.

It’s safe to say Gerding Edlen’s desire to retrofit old buildings to exacting green standards is a leadership position and an exceptional path, not frequently taken by real estate developers.

As for Kotkin’s claim that Portland is an elite city, I don’t see it that way, although I know what he means. Houston would be a much easier choice for a young family to make. Portland is, in fact, an expensive place to live and the wages here have not kept pace with the rise in cost of living, particularly real estate valuations.

Anyone who is on the ground in Oregon today knows the economy is weak, but I think the future portends good things. Many people are retrofitting not just buildings, but their entire way of thinking and doing business, and as this process unfolds we’re going to see business and civic interests align in impressive and unprecedented ways.

One of Portland’s Primary Principles: We’re Not California

One of Portland’s Primary Principles: We’re Not California

One of the charming aspects of life in the Portland Metro is this not little thing called the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). It’s a line beyond which, “the city” can’t go.

According to Eric Mortenson of The Oregonian, Portland’s elected regional government known as Metro–which serves more than 1.5 million residents in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties–believes the Portland area can grow by one million more residents over the next 20 years, without pushing the UGB beyond its current dimensions.

Michael Jordan, Metro’s chief operating officer, said Tuesday at the Metro Council meeting that the region can buffer prime farmland and preserve key natural areas while providing land for the projected newcomers and for the additional jobs they will need.

Jordan laid out his recommendations backed by a 3-inch stack of studies, charts and maps compiled by planners during the past two years.

Among the findings: There are 15,000 acres of vacant, buildable land within the current urban growth boundary, or UGB, for Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. That’s about 35 times the size of downtown Portland, according to Metro.

Naturally, there is opposition to this vision of Portland’s future. Mike Wells, spokesman for the Oregon Chapter of NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association, says, “We respectfully disagree with some of the underlying assumptions” of the Metro report. “We embrace the goal of compact development and making wise use of infrastructure, but we challenge some of the assumptions as just not realistic.”

What I Would Do With A Million Dollars

What I Would Do With A Million Dollars

Luzon Building, downtown Tacoma

If you’re a real estate investor with a penchant for saving important old buildings, the city of Tacoma needs you. According to Tacoma News Tribune, The Luzon Building at 13th & Pacific in downtown Tacoma is one of two remaining West Coast buildings designed by famed Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and John Root.

The unoccupied structure is being offered for sale for $400,000. Yes, it needs repairs.

Burnham and Root were pioneering designers of some of Chicago’s first high-rises. After Root’s death, Burnham designed such monumental structures as Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and several buildings at the Chicago World’s Fair.