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Case Study in Gresham: Visiting an A. Quincy Jones house

A. Quincy Jones house, architecture, family house

Although the Portland area has very few buildings designed by famous architects from outside the city, there are a few exceptions, particularly when it comes to single family homes. In particular, Portland is graced with a smattering of homes by two of the great Los Angeles architects of the post-World War II period, architects who became famous designing the jewel-like Case Study Houses of the 1940-60s: Richard Neutra and A. Quincy Jones.

QuincyME I'm yet to visit a Neutra house in Portland, but they do exist. Meanwhile, earlier this month I made my first trip to a Jones house. Just to be clear, we're not talking about Quincy Jones the musician and producer behind Michael Jackson's best-selling records. We're also not talking about Quincy, M.E. the '80s TV show starring Jack Klugman.

Jones deserves to be famous in his own right - and he is within architecture circles. The Case Study house Jones was commissioned to design never got built, but his imprint on west coast residential architecture is huge.

Jones was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1913 and raised in Southern California but finished high school in Seattle. Afterward he enrolled in the University of Washington program in architecture, before returning to Los Angeles, where his career began after World War II but really flourished afterward. Coincidentally, during WWII Jones served in the US Navy on the same aircraft carrier as my grandfather, the USS Lexington. The ship was sunk in the Battle of the Coral Sea, but by grandpa escaped from the engine room onto the last lifeboat. Thankfully, Jones made it to safety as well. I wonder if they ever met.

Quincyjones Initially after the war, Jones designed several buildings in the Palm Springs area, but when a house he designed was named "Builder's House of the Year", it led to a fruitful partnership with legendary California homebuilder Joseph Eichler. Jones's designs are reflected in as many as 5,000 california midcentury modern homes. Eichler homes weren't just numerous, but even today stand as one of the quintessential examples of postwar modern residential architecture. It's a style very similar to and overlapping with the great period of Northwest modernism before and after WWII exemplified by Pietro Belluschi, John Yeon, Saul Zaik, John Storrs and a few others.

Jones wound up making connections with another homebuilder, Hallberg Homes to design a few houses in Portland. The house I visited near Gresham was one of four Jones houses clustered together in this subdivision. The belief is that these homes were built as demonstration projects for what might have but didn't become a large tract-home subdivision here. Each of the four houses is a different design that would have been repeated in the rest of the neighborhood.

The house I visited, which is owned by designer-fabricator John Xochihua of Aztec Artistic Productions, is based around a simple rectangular configuration containing a living room, kitchen and family room in succession along a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass. Then bedrooms are spun off to one side. Inside these main public areas there is an absolute bounty of natural light. I visited on a late winter afternoon and there was no need for artificial light. Besides the wall of glass along the east facade overlooking a private fenced-in side yard, there is an even bigger wall of glass on the south side where the family room overlooks the back yard. Here there is not only glass extending from floor to the beginning of the roof line, but because the wood roof is completely exposed, the glass extends up to the triangular pitch of the roofline.

Also common to Northwest and West Coast modern homes of the mid-20th century is a blurring of the lines between inside and outside, not just in terms of spreading of natural light but a continuation of materials. In the photo above, for example, you're looking at the inside of the house on the left side of the frame, where the artwork is hanging, and the outside of the house on the right side of the frame with the thermometer, separated by glass.

Much as I love the natural light, materials and simple sculptural beauty of these homes, like a lot of them designed in the first few decades after World War II, they have a frustrating lack of presence facing the street. This house has a masonry wall extending between the sidewalk and the front of part of the house. It's the result of its time, when the design of homes was focused on the automobile. And while the wood and glass make this house sing, some of the other original materials wound up being dated, like the extensive use of particle board.

Even so, visiting this gorgeous '50s A. Quincy Jones house was certainly a "Thriller".

Photos by Brian Libby

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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