Though Frank Lloyd Wright is hugely famous for designing buildings all over the U.S. (and even in Japan), and though his illustrious career spanned some 70 years, somehow he managed not to get a lot of jobs in this part of the country. To experience Wright’s mastery of materials and space, we generally have to travel – to the midsection of the country (Chicago, Racine, Buffalo), or at least to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, or Arizona.
The eminent, prolific, influential Mr. Wright designed only three projects in the Pacific Northwest, all of them modest-sized yet dramatic and beautiful private homes; two are in the Seattle area, one in Oregon. So while Wright’s influence is seen across our region (in the work of Pietro Belluschi and beyond), his buildings are not.
A wonderful exception is Oregon’s Gordon House, and luckily for us, it’s the one Wright-built Pacific Northwest home open to the public. For anyone who cares at all about architecture, it’s well worth the hour or so drive down I-5 to Silverton, OR to see, and go inside, the Gordon House.
The house is one of what are called Wright’s “Usonian” houses: relatively small (1500-2000 square foot range), one-story, single family homes built of common, local materials, intended to be affordable yet well-designed and beautiful. They were his vision of housing for the masses, or at least for the middle class: economical and efficient but not boring little boxes.
Wright’s Usonian house type was published as part of a 1938 Life magazine feature (he was one of several architects the magazine commissioned to come up with an affordable “dream house” for a middle income American family). In Wright’s vision of the world, “American” was replaced with the term “Usonian,” as in “United States of North America;” “Usonia” was the thriving, innovative, individualistic, car-oriented and pastoral paradise our country would develop into in the 20th century.
Throughout the mid-20th century, Wright built about 60 of these relatively modest homes, starting with the Jacobs House in 1936. The Gordon House falls solidly in line as an example of the typical Usonian features: a strong connection between interior and exterior (continuous materials extending inside to out as walls, terraces, balconies and overhangs); an emphasis on the horizontal, creating a sense of shelter and solidity with the earth; and simple but dramatic sequences of space clearly separating public from private.
In 2001, the Gordon House was threatened with demolition, but was saved by architecture-lovers – and dramatically moved from its original site in Wilsonville to the current Silverton location adjacent to the Oregon Garden. Since 2002, it has been owned and operated as a public museum and education center by the Gordon House Conservancy. A capital campaign to raise about $200,000 for maintenance and preservation is underway.
The house is available for tours just about every day, and also for rental for private events like weddings, dinners and meetings.