Celebrating 50 years: Gordon House restoration moves forward

May 2014 Posted in Arts, Culture & History
The Gordon House will be hosting Mother's Day tea, with music, stories and a guided tour.

The Gordon House will be hosting Mother’s Day tea, with music, stories and a guided tour.

By Brenna Wiegand

A home that improves upon the landscape? This is what Frank Lloyd Wright determined to do in the creation of his “Usonian” line of homes.

The only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oregon was rescued from demolition in 2001 and relocated from Aurora to an oak savannah at the foot of  The Oregon Garden. One of the reasons it was chosen over other settings was its remarkable resemblance to the terrain upon which the Wright-designed home was built for Ed and Evelyn Gordon 50 years ago.

Wright developed his concept of “organic architecture” as a young man, feeling that human housing should not conflict with the earth and terrain.

“Even his early ‘prairie’ house designs had horizontal earth-hugging lines,” said Molly Murphy, Gordon House general director. “He was a landscape architect before he was an architect and always an artist. His interest in nature was lifelong.”

The Gordon House is once more lovely and lively, a proven tourist attraction and unique venue for concerts, lectures, art exhibits, tours, classes and such niceties as Mothers’ Day fetes. But it could be so much more, Murphy said. While a great deal has been accomplished over the past dozen years, much of the restoration has had to wait.

As the Gordon House turns 50, strides are being made in this direction, thanks to generous benefactors who have sacrificed in order to bring it back to its original glory.

M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust matched $60,000 with contributions from individual donors, grants and fundraisers, bringing the restoration-restricted funds to $125,000 – nearly half the estimated $300,000 needed to complete the entire project, Murphy said. Daily Gordon House tour and use income funds other maintenance and repair projects.

“It’s a very good start,” said Murphy, confident a strong contingent of volunteer labor will stretch the dollars significantly.

Mothers’ Day Tea
2-4 p.m. Saturday, May 10 at
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House,
869 W. Main St. by The Oregon Garden
Celebrate Mother’s Day with tea,
scones, music, stories, and a grand
guided tour of the Gordon House.
$30 per person or $25 for members
and their guests. 503-874-6006
for reservations and tickets.
Visit www.thegordonhouse.org

“Our restoration projects have always been supported by donated labor and materials,” she said. “Our contractors have been very generous. Our tours and education programs have also benefited from volunteer labor and leadership.”

While many restorative tasks are “invisible” items like plumbing and electric installation, these current changes will be sweeping and dramatic.

Perhaps most exciting is the application of the Wright-specified wall texture and color on the new concrete block upon which the Gordon House came to rest 13 years ago.

“It’s a smooth finish that covers the pores of the concrete block walls, creating a softer and more homey atmosphere versus a ‘garage-y’ feel,” Murphy said. “It will be painted the color he specified: a pastel of Wright’s famous red concrete floors.”

When the weather clears up, work on the home’s exterior commences; first the masonry, then, in May or June, restoration of its Western red cedar exterior portions. Inside, extensive work to the kitchen involving wood surfaces, 1963 refrigerator, skylights and floodlights.

The same decorative wood inside needs TLC as does the west balcony. That’s about as far as the money will stretch – significant strides that pay homage to its Usonian design.

“Most of these projects are easy to see … and we get to show it off; we’re gonna boast,” Murphy said. All parts of the home will be affected in the restoration, such as further warming the original, second story bedroom, again with built-ins, that’s a soft, soothing sleep area success.

The Gordon House  - with its distinctive cedar framework window coverings – turns 50 this year.

The Gordon House – with its distinctive cedar framework window coverings – turns 50 this year.

“His idea was to make the house a natural part of the terrain,” Murphy said. “The flat roof is parallel to the earth, and the horizontal line of the building agrees with the tree branches. The house demonstrates passive energy control allowing for maximum sun when the leaves fall, and shade in the summer.”

“It is a great example of modern architecture in that era, the ‘50s and ‘60s, incorporating carports, floor-to-ceiling windows and the flat-roofed, horizontal design,” she added. “The landscaping was in concert with the natural environment – it was the precursor to the ranch style house.”

After the Great Depression, Wright’s wealthy clientele fizzled out and he began working on houses that were still designed to the specific needs of clients but wouldn’t be as costly.

“So he used low-cost materials and made the houses much, much, much smaller; very simple and basic yet keeping a lot of the amenities and the beauty that would allow them to be worthy of his name,” Murphy said.

Creating a middle class version proved too much to ask.

“He started to,” Murphy said, “but could never quite compromise on giving up some of his favorite amenities.”

Others took up the idea, stripping away a lot of the “fancier” aspects of the Wright-designed homes to truly get it down to a price the average person could afford, and the rest is history.

Meanwhile, Wright continued custom-building homes where he had freer rein.

The Gordon House is an example of Wright’s effort to provide an economical design for families of modest means, employing concrete-block walls and concrete floors throughout the house to cut the cost of building materials.

“Hot water pipes below Wright’s signature red concrete floor provide the home’s radiant heat – a beautiful demonstration of passive energy control,” Murphy said, “and he really utilized the terrain and the local weather patterns to keep the house warm and cozy in winter time and light and open in the summertime; you always feel you’re enjoying the outside to its maximum.”

The distinctive cedar fretwork pattern – original to each home and the sole window covering – elegantly filters in softer light and reduces glare.

Another hallmark in the design is built-in furniture to keep things harmonious and in keeping with his intent.

“He made space for a library and seating area at the far end, including music listening and a fireplace – luxuries that Wright thought families should not have to give up for the sake of economy,” Murphy said.

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