Last of the mid-century-modern greats
The most significant architecture in Portland is arguably not a museum, government fortress, or office tower, but the collection of houses designed by a few great local architects in the mid-20th century.
In what became known as the Northwest Modern style, they adapted the streamlined forms of Modernist architecture that was making waves internationally to local conditions. With wood framing, pitched roofs with wide overhangs, and lots of glass, these houses were a meeting of past and future.
The most famous of these Northwest Modern masterworks is the Watzek House by John Yeon, which, after its 1937 completion, was exhibited by New York's Museum of Modern Art. So too did Pietro Belluschi, the city's most beloved architect, design several of these modest gems, such as 1938's Sutor House and 1947's Burkes House.
Yet neither Yeon nor Belluschi were house-prolific. They had other fish to fry. By the 1950s, a group of University of Oregon graduates and World War II veterans, known as the 14th Street Gang (for the small Victorian house they shared there), began turning heads, especially one architect: Saul Zaik.
Today, more than 60 years after opening his firm, Zaik's houses still stand out for their simple, unpretentious beauty. My favorite is the Feldman House from 1956, in Southwest Portland near the Beaverton border, with its low-pitched gable roof, exposed wood ceiling and cedar siding. Zaik's own house, completed in 1959, is also a delight, with a bridge connecting public and private pavilions.
Zaik was decades ahead of his time with the prefabricated 1-A House, which after its 1965 completion, received an award from Better Homes and Gardens. Given the nostalgia that exists online for eye-catching over-the-top 1960s houses, the Zidell House (which Zaik designed for Arnold Zidell), perched on a tall, thin ship's mast, is still surprising to encounter on Marquam Hill.
Then there's the mark Zaik left on two of Oregon's best-known landmarks. For Timberline Lodge, he designed a 1968 addition that seamlessly blends in with the original. At Salishan resort on the coast at Gleneden Beach, Zaik designed the resort's first condominiums in 1964, complimenting the iconic original buildings by John Storrs.
Most beautiful of all, however, was Saul Zaik's irrepressible spirit. The guy still came to work every day into his 90s. This naturally gifted architect even had the humility and passion to remodel my friend's Northeast Portland basement just two years ago, when Zaik's legacy was long since secure and his retirement already well deserved.
That's how much Saul Zaik loved being an architect.
He could talk about architecture for hours, and you never knew when the phone might ring. Zaik didn't take himself too seriously — he was quick to smile — yet there was a touch of sadness there also. He considered himself, in his own words, "the forgotten man" of Portland architecture. He had outlived his peers, and Zaik reckoned that only Belluschi and Yeon would be remembered.
But don't worry, Saul, because you're going down in history too: as the last of Portland's mid-20th century architectural greats.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com
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