MYS Oregon to Iberia

John Yeon and Pietro Belluschi’s sacred (and vulnerable) spaces

Buildings by Portland’s two greatest midcentury-modern architects – Belluschi's Central Lutheran Church and Yeon's wooded Jorgensen House – face uncertain futures.

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View of the sanctuary of the Pietro Belluschi-designed Central Lutheran Church, seen from the balcony. The church building is for sale. Photo: Brian Libby

Late last Friday afternoon inside Central Lutheran Church’s empty sanctuary, the Rev. Dr. Amanda Llewellyn was singing, joyfully, despite the circumstances.

Llewellyn, Central Lutheran’s pastor since 2013, is set to begin long-term disability leave for chronic migraine with aura, and the church building itself — designed by renowned Portland architect Pietro Belluschi — has been put up for sale, its future uncertain. But Llewellyn and I had been talking about the sanctuary’s magnificent acoustics: how its spacious volume and wood surfaces make the architecture itself a kind of musical instrument, resonating vocals powerfully. So she took time from cleaning out her desk in the adjacent church office to take me into the sanctuary and sing an old hymn, Of the Father’s Love Begotten, in order to demonstrate.

He the source, the ending He,

Of the things that are and have been,

And that future years shall see,

Evermore and evermore.

Central Lutheran is one of five stops on the Sacred Spaces of Pietro Belluschi Tour this Saturday, May 11, presented by Restore Oregon, and it’s the venue for a preceding lecture at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, May 9, by Anthony Belluschi (Pietro’s son and frequent collaborator). Because this building’s future is uncertain, visiting Central Lutheran now is an especially moving experience.

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Chances are another congregation will purchase the circa-1951 Central Lutheran, a landmark of Northwest Modern architecture, prolonging its life as an ecclesiastical space. Last Friday afternoon when I visited, a leadership group from a local Jewish synagogue without a permanent home was visiting Central Lutheran to consider purchasing it. The building could also be sold for some other use: perhaps a performance venue or a school. Yet given its prominent location in Irvington, just one block north of retail-lined Northeast Broadway, the building could be torn down to make way for something more profitable: an apartment complex or a strip mall. The tour and lecture are opportunities to see this Belluschi-designed church intact, while one still can.

Architectural Sublime

Belluschi, the Italian-born architect who settled in Portland beginning in the 1920s, is the city’s most celebrated building designer. His best-known local architectural works include 1931’s Portland Art Museum, on which the architect made his name (Frank Lloyd Wright was one of its admirers); 1947’s Commonwealth Building downtown, recognized as America’s first modern glass-and-steel office building; and several houses that, along with the work of fellow designer John Yeon, helped birth the Northwest Modern residential style.

Central Lutheran’s wall of stainedglass shines above the pews. Photo: Brian Libby

Because Belluschi served as dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s school of architecture from 1951 to ’65, the East Coast also features several of his buildings, including two New York City landmarks: 1959’s MetLife Building (originally the Pan-Am Building, co-designed with iconic German architect and Bauhaus School founder Walter Gropius), and 1969’s Juilliard School at Lincoln Center.

Designing churches was a particular passion for Belluschi, maybe even representing his best work. San Francisco’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, completed in 1971 (and co-designed with Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi), is a transcendent masterpiece, its distinctive saddle roof composed of eight segments of hyperbolic paraboloids. Here in the Portland area, both before and after his M.I.T. years, Belluschi designed a succession of smaller yet equally architecturally poetic churches, more modestly scaled yet distinctive in their evocative use of wood.

Growing up in Italy, Belluschi had been surrounded by masonry buildings. After coming to Oregon, he was powerfully inspired by the region’s plentiful timber, making Douglas fir and other woods his signature material. At the circa-1938 Sutor House, for example, as well as 1947’s Burkes House, there are eye-popping woven-wood ceilings: something I’ve never seen in any other residence. And at churches such as Central Lutheran and 1950’s Zion Lutheran Church in Goose Hollow (also part of Saturday’s tour), Belluschi’s wood sanctuaries achieve something like an architectural sublime.

Learning the Language

Pietro Belluschi’s Central Lutheran Church, whose woodwork helps create excellent acoustics, is distinctly modern yet also rooted in tradition. Photo: Brian Libby

That same Friday-afternoon visit when Rev. Dr. Llewellyn sang for me, I toured Central Lutheran Church with architect William Tripp, an esteemed longtime architect and architecture professor with a special connection to Pietro Belluschi: overseeing the renovation of this church in 2001. An elevator, seismic bracing, and new sanctuary light fixtures were added, as well as a ribbon of glass-and-wood vestibule doors, as discreetly and deferentially as possible. “I tried to learn Belluschi’s language so to speak, and then use it,” the architect explained as we walked the building.

Though unmistakably modern and devoid of ornament, Belluschi churches such as Central are rooted in tradition, laid out in a cross-shaped plan that writer Meredith Clausen describes in Sacred Space: The Religious Architecture of Pietro Belluschi as “a simple longitudinal nave, a broad narthex at one end, and a raised chancel with a semicircular apse at the other, and a simple open timberwork tower flanking the narthex.” The architecture is a balancing act between old and new, as seen in details like the exposed wood ceiling beams, curved at the top as a nod to Gothic arches.

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“A church is individual for each congregation, not just a shelter. You have to create an emotional feeling with materials, the funds available, and our own knowledge of today’s architecture,” Belluschi (as quoted in Clausen’s book) told the Central Lutheran Church congregation. “I do not want to be different; I want to be in the same tradition as the people who designed Gothic churches. The trouble is we are not in the Gothic age.” As Clausen notes, Belluschi “provided the Lutheran congregation with a building fully of its time yet consistent with the spirit of the past.”

Belluschi also departed from tradition at Central. The entrances (facing Northeast 21st Avenue and the parking lot on the other side), rather than on axis with the nave, are at right angles, defined to the west by a curving wooden gate reminiscent of Japanese architecture. Central Lutheran blends both Scandinavian and Asian influences, including its brick exterior, with a pattern of recessed crosses, which recall the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (who designed the magnificent Mt. Angel Abbey library, an hour’s drive south).

As we moved through Central Lutheran, Tripp used such words as rhythm, harmony, atmosphere, and language, as if describing a piece of music. The way the largely brick-clad exterior base of the building gives way to stained wood cladding to designate different functions inside, for example, or how the interior wood paneling is finely ribbed at eye level and then a wider groove on the upper walls: Everything Belluschi did was connected to everything else. The stained Douglas fir sanctuary also enables great acoustics. As Llewellyn noted to me just before singing the hymn, Central’s sanctuary is like a musical instrument unto itself, resonant like a cello or violin.

Even though these design moves were made for specific reasons, Belluschi’s architecture also carries his unmistakable fingerprint. This was the last major Portland project the architect saw completed before his departure for M.I.T. in 1951.

“When you’re designing a building, especially if it’s a house or a church, that’s a deeply intuitive, artistic act on the part of the designer,” Tripp said. “My belief is that when you’re designing something like that, you’re not making rational decisions all the time. It’s an artistic process. And I think the best work comes from a really deep place. But every design decision you make, you’re searching to see if that fits with this abstract idea about how you want people to feel in this space. One of the reasons I just really love this building is this kind of language that Belluschi used—of materials and structure and form—but materials especially.”

Much as we marvel at the building during the tour, eventually I have to ask Tripp how this moment of uncertainty generated by Central Lutheran’s sale feels. “For me, it’s incredibly sad,” the architect answers. But Tripp is not simply thinking of himself, or even necessarily of Belluschi. “This congregation has done just an amazing job of preserving the building and being good stewards,” he adds, “even as their congregation and their resources have been steadily shrinking. They have just really worked hard to maintain the building.”

Yeon’s Oasis

John Yeon’s 1939 Jorgensen House is in a forested urban oasis. Photo: Justin Jones/Jones Media Shop

By coincidence, the day before visiting Central Lutheran Church I happened to visit a Portland house for sale that was designed by Belluschi’s friend, colleague and quasi-rival, John Yeon. What Tripp said about houses and churches being intuitive, artistic design acts certainly proved true there.

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The Jorgensen House was built in 1939 for local photographer Victor Jorgensen and his wife, Betty, for just $7,800, equivalent to about $174,000 today: It’s one of Yeon’s modestly priced Plywood Houses with contactor Burt Smith. Nestled into a wooded site just off busy Scholls Ferry Road in Southwest Portland’s Raleigh Hills neighborhood, amongst the mature Douglas fir trees and ferns, it feels like you’re far away from the city. During my visit, a coyote wandered onto the property.

Two years before the Jorgensen, in 1937, Yeon had completed what remains the most acclaimed work of Northwest Modern architecture: the Aubrey Watzek House, which a year later was featured in a seminal 10th anniversary exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art called Art in Our Time. The Jorgensen confirmed Yeon’s brilliance, even though designed on a smaller budget, innovatively making use of plywood.

Yeon and Belluschi had come of age together, inspired by their trips to artist Harry Wentz’s circa-1916 cottage at Neahkahnie Mountain at the Oregon Coast near Manzanita, designed by Portland’s most celebrated early-20th century architect, A.E. Doyle (later Belluschi’s boss), which Randy Gragg describes in his book John Yeon: Architecture (accompanying the 2017 Portland Art Museum exhibit devoted to the designer) as “the Rosetta Stone of the Northwest regional style.”

Indoors and outdoors meet spectacularly in the Jorgensen House. Photo: Justin Jones/Jones Media Shop

Arriving at the Jorgensen’s driveway, one follows a 90-foot pergola to the entrance, decompressing and moving into the forested setting. Once inside and through the small foyer, the visitor arrives at the magnificent living room, where oak floors and the hemlock-clad walls and ceiling give way to a wall of glass, framing a cinematic view of the lush greenery outside. In Gragg’s book, Yeon describes the combined effect as “an asymmetrical cubic composition which is neither static nor restless, suggestive of movement but in repose.” Its composition, like Central’s, feels musical.

The Jorgensen House is also significant because Yeon himself lived there for decades, purchasing it from the client in 1945. (After the designer’s 1994 death, Yeon’s partner, Richard Louis Brown, continued to live there for another quarter-century.) Many of Yeon’s greatest achievements in both architecture and activism, including designs for 1947’s Portland Oregon Visitors Information Center and 1950’s Swan House, as well as his pioneering role in the Columbia Gorge’s National Scenic Area designation in 1986, were conceived while living at this house.

The Jorgensen House fits in beautifully with its wooded landscape. Photo: Justin Jones/Jones Media Shop

The coincidence of visiting such seminal works by Yeon and Belluschi on consecutive days made it clear how similar the two designs were, or at least the feeling of being inside their main spaces: the living room and the sanctuary. In each case, one is enveloped in a cocoon of wood, paired with distinctive glass views: through clear glass to the forest at the Jorgensen, and through a grid of multicolored stained glass windows at Central Lutheran.

The Jorgensen House, like the Belluschi-designed church, also faces an uncertain future by being on the market. It is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, nor does it have any other legal protections. Brokered by Marisa Swenson of Modern Homes Portland, a specialist in midcentury-modern residential realty, the house is likely to find a sympathetic buyer, as was the case when Brown sold the Jorgensen a few years ago. Yet because this design is so remarkably intact, including even its kitchen and bathrooms, one can’t help but contemplate what the next owner might do here.

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Lights Out

The stained glass wall at Northeast Portland’s Pietro Belluschi-designed Central Lutheran Church glows in dim light. Photo: Brian Libby

Late during my visit to Central Lutheran Church, while taking pictures in its breathtaking sanctuary after saying goodbye to Tripp, the lights suddenly turned off. What initially seemed disappointing turned out to provide an epiphany.

Until now, I’d focused on the sanctuary’s wood surfaces, wide-open volume and Gothic-inspired ceiling beams. Now, in near-darkness, my attention turned to the glowing stained glass wall along the west-facing upper façade. Though it was a rainy, gray afternoon without any bright skies, sunset was still two-plus hours away, allowing the stained glass to fill with light, giving the sanctuary a subtle yet captivating blue tint. When I posted a photo of the stained glass to Instagram, a local painter, David Trowbridge, wrote aptly, “I feel a sense of musicality about that wall. It’s like a visualization of a musical composition.”

Maybe that’s why it was so appropriate to end the visit with Rev. Dr. Amanda Llewellyn, both the hymn she sang for me and a brief conversation as she walked me to the parking lot. She spoke not just of Belluschi’s design but the culture that had been cultivated at Central Lutheran, specifically its unequivocal welcoming of LGBT parishioners, still relatively uncommon in present-day America.

As Belluschi knew from being an immigrant, and Yeon knew as a homosexual, and as they both knew as architects introducing modern design to still deeply tradition-bound 1930s Portland, it takes extra courage to be an outsider, tasked with championing and defending new ways of thinking. Yet with that challenge comes an opportunity: to bring forth grace and beauty — to make music from wood and glass.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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One Response

  1. Well done Brian. These buildings are precious and speak volumes about our architectural heritage. And, the man himself was a force in innovation and the evolution of modern architecture.

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