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Conversing with Colonial

1961 SW Vista Ave, Portland, OR

The main facade features a central portico in the Doric order and is flanked at either end by a double height ionic pilaster. The crowning balustrade gives the illusion of a flat roof.

Each quarter, Daniel House attempts to identify one house on the market in its immediate vicinity that its designers agree is architecturally a head above the rest. This quarter, we’ve selected the 9,100 square foot colonial revival residence at 1961 SW Vista Avenue. 

Built in 1913 by the same architecture firm as Portland’s prized Pittock Mansion, the house boasts five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a servant’s wing, several large indoor/outdoor spaces, and a classically columned three-car garage with a lift. Moreover, it is a perfect example of an architectural style that surfaces again and again in the psyche of the American homebuyer.

When we talk about the American colonial revival style, we immediately begin conjuring up images of Williamsburg, Virginia. Few realize that while some of the structures of the east coast tourist mecca are, indeed, from the colonial era, the majority are re-creations from the 1920’s by groups who cared to both preserve and project our nation’s beginnings. In more recent times, we, as a nation, have begun to reject (sometimes vehemently) the projection of our Western European colonial roots onto our future. Simultaneously, we’ve seen a resurgence of Modern design in the domestic realm. On the surface, this may simply be the result of the inevitable ebb and flow of trend, but we wonder if there is, at least, a portion of the population that subconsciously perceives the streamlined aesthetic as less charged and more egalitarian than earlier classically influenced homes. No doubt, the house at 1961 SW Vista is commanding, as its colossal (double height) Ionic columns, modified Doric entry portico and scalloped seashell sculpture niches link it not only to colonial America and the British Empire, but also to the Italian Renaissance and Ancient Rome.

There is an inscription on the side of The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Rhode Island which reads, “speak to the past and it shall teach thee.” It’s an odd thing to say. Maybe we could comprehend listening to the past. We hear old music or read writings from an earlier time and grow to understand something of the preceding culture, but to speak to it would imply the past is somehow still alive and well. And that’s precisely the point; the past is, in a sense, alive. This was as much the case when the giant house in question was built as it is today. 

Today, when we say colonial, we think of hundreds of years of attempted world domination by the West, and we see supporting evidence of this living and breathing all around us. In 1913, when architects said the word “colonial” to their clients, they were thinking, “our nation has come of age and it’s time to celebrate by reaching into our distant past and honoring our beginning.” This house fits into Portland’s first wave of colonial revival architecture, which began around 1905 and continued for about ten years. It demonstrates that firms and clients of the time were interested in the nation’s past, but had not yet begun speaking to it in earnest.

Colonial motifs were employed willfully. Floor plans were vaguely related to 18th century domiciles, but often not that dissimilar to the more recent Queen Anne or shingle style plans. They weren’t really trying to understand how their ancestors lived or from where they inherited their artistic literacy. By the late teens and early twenties, certain firms had dedicated teams of people to carefully study and measure existing colonial structures so that all the details, down to the size of individual window panes, would be in precise adherence to its predecessors.

1961 SW Vista isn’t a careful study; it falls in the more willful category. Its large rooms and their large open connections to one another are better suited to 21st century living than its more academic counterparts. Some of its interior detailing has a specifically Northwestern feel, especially the weighty, blocky detailing of the fireplace in the living room, almost reminiscent of those deep, heavy eaves of 19th century commercial buildings downtown Portland. 

Its windows are possibly entirely unique, featuring double hung plate glass with large transoms above. For those lost in that architectural jargon, the windows are big and let in lots of light. Last, and most notably, the house is laden with Ionic columns both inside and out. Their employment is much more liberal than in homes of the latter revival, and while the conversation these columns are having with architecture of an earlier era is in a somewhat broken language, they are nonetheless communicating.

Ionic columns mark passageways throughout the interior of the house. This one separates the upper hall from a small sitting alcove.

Portland’s current design climate isn’t speaking to the past beyond the mid 1930’s (rise of regional Modern aesthetic). Its makers and consumers are stuck in a combination of raw industrial materials and a 1960’s retrospective which they helped create ten or twelve years ago and which the rest of the world has gotten over. 

One classical house further down SW Vista has just undergone a major renovation during which many of its original fixtures were stripped to make way for contemporary interpretations of mid-century sputnik lights; its double height entry hall was clad in white paint overlaid with a mess of thick, black lines crossing one another arbitrarily. The single decision that elevated the house rather than aggressively destroyed it was to paint its exterior entirely black. It now makes a very striking silhouette against the city views beyond. 

It would be very fashionable, indeed, if some nuanced Portlander was to buy 1961 SW Vista and take the time to learn the architectural language skills required to have a rich conversation with it, rather than loudly shouting his or her own language right over its more metered words. And should they need any help, they can feel welcome to call Daniel House! Or better yet, take a look at the plans we’ve already shown here for a master bedroom refresh.

The north facade features yet more giant ionic columns. Here they are crowned by a tympanum like those of a classical, Greek or Roman temple would be.

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