Monday, March 28, 2011

Post-War Architecture in Eugene

Grant Seder and Dick Williams (my photo)

I attended the first of the Building Modern Eugene lecture series last Wednesday at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House. AIA-SWO emeritus members Grant Seder and Dick Williams delivered an entertaining, first-person account of the evolution of architecture in Eugene since World War II. Their reflections upon the trajectory of local post-war architecture, suitably rendered in Kodachrome, enthralled the small but thoroughly engaged audience.

Grant and Dick know of what they speak. Both practiced in this community for many decades, bestowing upon Eugene a lasting legacy of quality design and mentorship to the generation of architects who followed them. Grant’s career included service at the helm of Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes and then Unthank Seder Poticha Architects, before continuing work as a sole practitioner. Dick literally wrote the book on local architectural history as the primary contributor to Style and Vernacular: A Guide to the Architecture of Lane County, Oregon (1983).

Like many communities of its size across the country, Eugene experienced a burst of home construction after the war.(1) Dick described how these dwellings quickly progressed from extremely modest tract houses to later developments of much grander size and pretension. Along the way, there was genuine invention that signaled changes in American family life and affluence. Developers like the Breeden brothers shaped entire Eugene neighborhoods, filling them with affordable, quality homes.

The firm of Wilmsen & Endicott figured prominently in Grant and Dick’s presentation. Grant worked for Robert Wilmsen and Charles Endicott early in his career in Eugene. Dick was a principal with WEGROUP Architects & Planners, the successor firm to Wilmsen & Endicott. Among the noteworthy projects designed by Wilmsen & Endicott are the Lane County Courthouse and a favorite of mine, the moderne-styled Kennell Ellis Building.

The curving, sidewalk-sheltering canopy of the Kennell Ellis Building was so daring for its time that it spooked the contractor. He was reluctant to remove the formwork after casting the concrete, leaving the task instead to the architect, Bob Wilmsen. The design itself was liberally “borrowed” by Wilmsen from a project he admired in a magazine.

Kennell Ellis Building - Wilmsen & Endicott, Architects (my photo)

The post-war years were characterized by much optimism and economic prosperity. Modernism became the prevailing architectural doctrine. Its veneration for newness and the utopian blank slate, coupled with the imperative for development, emboldened Eugene architects and planners to make big plans. Several came together on their own accord during the late 1950s to invent a master plan for a new civic center in downtown. The growing role of government in citizens’ lives inspired their vision, which ultimately was realized by the construction in rapid succession of the Lane County Courthouse, City Hall, Federal Building, and Lane County Public Services Building.

Lane County Courthouse - Wilmsen & Endicott, Architects (photo from the University of Oregon Libraries)

Wilmsen & Endicott’s design for the County Courthouse lacked overt and traditional symbols of institutional authority or the law. In their place, it offered abstraction and geometry as stand-ins for virtuous character. A concession to symbolism was the planting of three fir trees, one for each seat on the board of county commissioners at the time of the building’s genesis. A half-century later, you can find these now stately conifers in front of the courthouse’s south fa├žade.

The late DeNorval Unthank, FAIA initially served as Wilmsen & Endicott’s construction contract administrator for the Lane County Courthouse. De encountered an unfriendly workplace: he was threatened by contractors who objected to the presence of the young “negro” architect on the construction site. Some workers dropped hot rivets from overhead as he walked below. De asked Bob Wilmsen if he could be assigned to another project so as not to endure continuing harassment.(2)

De would go on to become a partner in the firm, and distinguish himself as a talented designer. Eventually, De joined forces with Grant and Otto Poticha in 1968 to form Unthank Seder Poticha Architects.

Eugene City Hall - Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects (photo from the University of Oregon Libraries)

Eugene City Hall, designed in 1960 by Stafford, Morin, and Longwood Architects, was the winning entry of a design competition. Great Buildings Online describes the complex as a “dignified yet purposefully anti-monumental city hall with a beautiful courtyard garden around the central council chamber.” What may be unknown to readers of this blog is that Stafford, Morin, and Longwood designed City Hall to anticipate the construction of a vertical expansion along its 7th Avenue frontage. Of course, this was never realized. Another fact is that a major focus of the courtyard was a majestic walnut tree, lamentably removed after the building’s construction despite landscape architect Lloyd Bond’s heroic efforts to nurse it to health.

After years of deferred maintenance, City Hall is now living on borrowed time. The City cites its structural inadequacies, which loom especially large since Japan’s massive subduction quake earlier this month, as a primary factor in its decision to raze the structure. In truth, the Eugene Water & Electric Board’s pending shutdown of its antiquated steam heating plant and the building’s energy inefficiency are equal factors in its imminent demise. I mentioned Otto Poticha’s efforts to save City Hall in a recent blog post.

Lew Williams/Joe Romania Chevrolet showroom - Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes, architects (photo from the collection of TBG Architects & Planners & Grant Seder)

Another threatened mid-century modern gem is the forlorn former Lew Williams/Joe Romania Chevrolet automobile showroom on Franklin Boulevard. Grant’s firm, Balzhiser Seder & Rhodes, designed the showroom in a vernacular that is akin to the futuristic “Googie” style first popularized by the car-focused culture of southern California during the 1950s. Grant downplays the degree to which the space-age styling of Googie architecture influenced his design, but the shared traits are readily apparent: abstraction; a gravity-defying, upswept roof; and uninterrupted walls of plate glass. The fate of the showroom is in the hands of its current owners, the University of Oregon.

Grant and Dick filled their presentation with one colorful anecdote after another:
  • Bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. suggested a many-storied tower set within a plaza for its Federal Building & Courthouse. WEGROUP ultimately designed the low-rise, precast concrete-clad composition that occupies the block bounded by 6th Avenue, Oak Street, Pearl Street, and 7th Avenue. WEGROUP intended the diagonal axis through the site to be a nod to the other buildings in the cluster of government offices, but the County Public Services Building (designed by Unthank Seder Poticha) didn’t reciprocate the gesture.
  • Otto Poticha objected to the City of Eugene’s plans during the 1970s for a downtown pedestrian mall. His punishment for going public with opposition was to be awarded the commission to design the project. He successfully managed to get Unthank Seder Poticha fired after proposing the pedestrian mall be opened to vehicle traffic during summer evenings to facilitate “dragging the gut”.
  • EWEB was not always the paragon of energy conservation it is today. WEGROUP and G.Z. Brown, FAIA, of the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory encountered institutional indifference to their proposed integration of green design measures in EWEB’s riverfront headquarters. WEGROUP (partnered with John Reynolds, FAIA) found a more ready advocate for sustainability in the Emerald People’s Utility District for the design of its contemporaneous facility. EPUD wholeheartedly embraced passive ventilation and daylighting strategies that remain state-of-the-art today.
  • The Eugene city council originally decreed that the spelling of “center” in the name of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts be “centre.” The affectation didn’t stick.
  • Out of its own fees, the design team for the Wayne L. Morse Federal Courthouse (DLR Group with Morphosis) paid for the construction of a full-size courtroom mockup. Judge Michael Hogan and his staff inspected the mockup, which was assembled in a west Eugene warehouse.
  • The Eugene Fire Chief compelled PIVOT Architecture to design Fire Station 1 in a traditional idiom as a tribute to firefighters who lost their lives on 9-11. PIVOT resisted, considering the application of historic pastiche misguided for a 21st century work of architecture. PIVOT went so far as to covertly enlist Otto to unleash a scathing rebuke during a public presentation of the design. Despite Otto’s best effort, the Fire Chief got the facsimile of an old-fashioned firehouse he wanted.
Throughout the lecture, Grant did not shy from voicing his clear preference for abstract modernism and disdain for contemporary projects that bear traces of historic styling. Fire Station 1 served as one case study. Two others were the University of Oregon’s William W. Knight Law Center (Yost Grube Hall Architecture), and the Eugene Public Library by my firm, Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (with Shepley Bulfinch of Boston, MA).

Grant hit a little close to home regarding the Eugene Public Library, but his critique was precise and without malice. He took particular exception to the tower flanking the library’s main entrance. If I understand Grant correctly, he regards the tower as an ill-conceived design contrivance. Admittedly, it is a compositional device, a vertical counterpoint to the mostly horizontal massing, rather than a place for people to be (it does enclose the public elevators and a fire stair). Its swooping profile and finials are decorative flourishes—call them ornamentation if you will, that bane of architects who subscribe to doctrinaire modernism—but can you picture the tower and the library without them?

Not surprisingly, both Grant and Dick admire the Jaqua Center for Student Athletes and Matthew Knight Arena projects on the University of Oregon campus. Perhaps they see in these new buildings vindication of the aesthetic they endorsed and worked within throughout their careers. I likewise appreciate modernism done well. However, I also believe its fundamental shortcoming remains the placelessness of much of the work executed under its banner. I favor architecture that is place-specific and particular, rich rather than impoverished. The Jaqua Center may be icily elegant but its architecture says little about the campus from which it sets itself apart.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thanks to both Grant and Dick for generously sharing their views on post-war Eugene architecture. Thanks too to Sara Palmer, Executive Director at the Shelton McMurphey Johnson House, for producing the Building Modern Eugene lecture series. On tap next is none other than Otto Poticha, FAIA, who will extend the discussion of where Eugene has been to where it is going next. I hope to see all of you at Otto’s presentation on Wednesday, April 6, 6:30 PM.

(1) It’s interesting how the “war” is synonymous with “World War II,” even though this country has been caught up in many other conflicts before and since. This is a testament to not only how horrific that struggle was, but also how impactful the “Greatest Generation” and its offspring have been upon history since then.

(2) The spring 2011 issue of Oregon Quarterly (the magazine of the University of Oregon) provides a chilling chronicle by De’s widow, Deb Mohr, of the intolerance she and De faced as a young interracial couple. The strides made since the 1950s are heartening. At the same time, it’s unnerving to realize that it wasn’t so long ago that blatant racism went unchallenged. The courage De and Deb displayed in the face of hateful bigotry is inspiring. We’re all richer because De Unthank stayed in Eugene.
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jessyca burke said...

My family owns Charles Endicott's home. Is there anyone you know who I can contact for more information about him?

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

Jessyca: I don't personally know anybody with more information. The best I can do is a search online but I assume you may have already done this. Here's a link I found to information about Mr. Endicott: