Portland Architectural Styles
In the last few decades of the twentieth century, the city of Portland has experienced a rising prosperity and a growing population. This influx of people has brought with it an array of new commercial and residential developments. Some of the new residential areas are modest in size, and a considerable number command impressive prices and offering every amenity in size and contrivance.
The Street of Dreams is the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland showcase. In 1975 it was the first home show of its kind, a showcase of dream homes with innovative designs and new products. Now, there are many Street of Dreams shows across the country, many copies of Portland’s success.
Portland is trying to avoid urban sprawl by increasing housing density mainly using Urban Growth Boundaries (UGB) as the tool. Whether this has been effective is still being debated. Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland wants more of the farmland in which to develop whereas organizations such as 1000 Friends of Oregon is a strong advocate of UGBs. 1000 Friends is a nonprofit citizens group founded in 1975 whose mission is to protect Oregon’s quality of life through the conservation of farm and forest lands, protection of natural and historic resources, and the promotion of livable communities.
Portland is still building some well-designed and interesting single-family homes. Because downtown Portland offers so many attractions, new row houses, condos, and lofts are being erected in the downtown area. Mainly close to the waterfront and in the Pearl District. Apartment buildings close to downtown are also being converted into condo units.
Empty buildable lots within the city are increasingly hard to find. Builders are demolishing older homes and new homes are rising on these lots. Another scenario is building on lots with steep sloops using modern “stilt” technology. Years ago, these lots had almost zero value. The building trades in Portland have a good supply of craftsmen so you will see numerous remodeling and updating projects taking place all over the city.
You will find just about every style of house in a Portland neighborhood we will cover the more predominant styles.
The Arts and Crafts style is the most prolific style of house in Portland. These houses are asymmetrical with multiple single-room-wide extensions. Second floors cantilevered over polygonal or curved bay windows. The roofs are multiple steeply pitched gables, hipped-roof and gabled dormers. Usually the roofs are wood shingled.
Portland has a love affair with the Bungalow and many are located on the east side. Actually the Bungalow is a form of the Arts and Crafts home style. The most predominant style features are the low-pitched, side-gabled roof, widely extended and support by brackets, the banks of casement windows, and a prominent porch, often across the entire front of the house. To learn more about Portland Bungalows, see Alice Cotton’s website.
If you like Bungalows, a two-block(1700-1900 block of SE 41st Street) stretch in the Southeast Portland Richmond neighborhood is the place to view them. Every home in this two-block street is a Bungalow and many have been renovated. They were all built in 1911-1912.
The Craftsman house is a distinctive American style. Common to most Craftsman houses, particularly in Portland , was a moderately to steeply pitched roof with extensive eave projections. Loren Waxman built a number of Craftsman homes on the east side of Portland in the 90s. His four row houses, built in 96-97 in the Craftsman style, captured much attention in the local press because he addressed the density issue with attractive single-family housing units. Loren’s newest project is in the Sellwood neighborhood – 16 loft homes in the craftsman style.
The two-story, shingled sided Nelson house is a fine example of Pacific Northwest architecture known as “Portland Style,” popular at the turn of the century. Built in 1904, its 3,700- square-foot floor plan features the symmetry of Colonial Revival, but includes the expansive porches often associated with Craftsman-style homes. Built by a leading furniture maker, it also is a tribute to fine wood, including the mahogany that panels the living room, entry, and stairway. The dining room has paneling and moldings made from myrtle-a wood so rare it is known to grow only in Oregon and Israel.
Architectural historian Thomas Hubka, writing in OregonLive.com/The Oregonian, states that four Sellwood houses best represent Portland’s first major Boom Era of house building following the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905: the Four-Square, the Hip-Roof Bungalow, the Pyramid and the Porch-Gable. Driving the less traveled streets of the Sellwood neighborhood is a good way to experience an earlier turn-of-the-century Portland. Over 100 years ago, before the bungalow became popular, there were other types of popular houses that combined late 19th century, Victorian dwellings with new 20th century houses.
We can find these houses throughout Sellwood in Southeast Portland, for example, the district west of 13th Avenue and north of Tacoma Street bordering the Willamette River. Here you will see a collection of dwellings that local builders concocted from pattern books and builders’ catalogs for an up-and-coming, suburban middle class just after incorporation into the city in 1893.
The Four-Square is named for its cubic dimensions and its standard four-room ground floor plan including stair-hall, living room, dining room and kitchen, and upstairs, either three or four bedroom and bath. Today it’s called a middle-class house but when it was built, the Four-Square was home to an upper middle-class.
Called one of Portland’s first modern houses because it replaced Victorian domestic formality including isolated parlors and servant backstairs with a modern domesticity—and it is still a house capable of supporting a modern lifestyle. Although rarely analyzed by style, the Four-Square was also an aesthetically modern house.
One cannot discuss architectural styles and ignore the Ranch. California architects built the first ranch houses in the 1930s, inspired, some say, by the rambling one-story designs on Spanish ranchos in the Southwest. By the late ’40s, the design had caught on across the country, promising safe, affordable homes built for casual living and efficiency. From the ’50s through the early ’70s, the ranch was the most common housing style built in America, a symbol of post-war prosperity. With attached two-car garages and sidewalks leading from the driveway–rather than the curb–ranch homes were made for the automobile age. Other common features include picture windows, sliding glass doors to backyard patios and skinny wrought-iron balustrades. In Portland, ranch houses are abundant in Cedar Hills and other suburban neighborhoods.
Another style you will see in the Portland West Hills is the West Hills Modern (for lack of a better term). This style emerged slowly starting in the late 50’s when “stilt” construction started. It allowed for the building of homes on steep slopes which the Portland West Hills has an abundance of. The early version used wooden timbers anchored to concrete pilings. Later, steel beams replaced the wooden timbers and three- and four-story homes appeared as evidenced by the photos. Improved concrete methods have also helped with erecting homes on steeper and steeper slopes. A new technology appeared in the 2000s – freezing part of the hill to prevent any “land slides” during construction.
Vista Brook, tucked away on the west side of Portland, has 62 homes that are almost Eichlers. But Joe Eichler never constructed any of his mid-century residential homes in the Pacific Northwest. It’s builder Robert Rummer, now retired from residential home building for nearly two decades, who built these modern house, as well as nearly 750 other Eichler look-a-likes in the Portland area. Built between 1960 and the mid-’70s, and known as ‘Rummers,’ these stylish post-and-beam homes are spread all over Portland’s West Hills and Beaverton, with small pockets in other communities. For more information on Rummer homes, visit Portland Modern.
Researching Your House History
Anyone embarking on an old-house history search should expect the effort to take time. Experts estimates each project requires at least 40 hours of research. For history lovers, the results can be rewarding.
House history hunters often want to know the name of the architect who designed their home. They often come away empty-handed, primarily because many of the city’s historic homes were built from standardized designs. Many others built before World War II were sold by companies that advertised in catalogs, including Sears, and shipped the lumber and building supplies by railroad cars.
Original blueprints are also tough to find, though digitized Sanborn maps at the library, created to assess fire-insurance liability, can reveal the outline of a house and help pin down when porches, rooms and garages were added on or removed.
People who want to know the style of their old house sometimes find themselves without firm answers. The question is complicated in Portland because the city went through a building boom after the Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1905 and the late 1910s, a time when home styles were evolving from showier Victorian to simpler Craftsman tastes. Resource books at the Central Library and the Architectural Heritage Center on Grand Avenue can provide generalities but not specifics about designs, floor plans, building materials, even typical furnishings and fixtures.
A good place to start is at the Multnomah County Central Library. Old Portland directories can tell you who lived there and what they did for a living. Reference librarian can point to the book that translates your current address to the one before a 1930s renumbering project. Here are some other resources:
- Consult Sanborn maps for your house’s footprint.
- Look through the city of Portland photo archives at the City of Portland Auditor’s Archives website.
- Find information about historic home tours and classes at Architectural Heritage Center here in Portland
Portland Classic Houses Walking Tours
Timber Press has created walking tours of some of the Portland Classic Houses. They have given us permission to allow visitors to www.movingtoportland.net to download and print these tours maps for your personal use. Please remember that these Walking Tour maps are copyright by Timber Press. The walking tours files are in PDF format.
You can order a copy of the Portland Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon 1850-1950 directly from Timber Press but it may be out of print.
- Irvington Northeast Portland.
- Kings Hill Southwest Portland – close to downtown. Kings Hills is in the Goose Hollow neighborhood.
- Montgomery Drive Southwest Portland – 10 minutes to downtown.
- Nob Hill Northwest Portland – close to downtown. Nob Hill is in the Northwest District neighborhood.
- Sellwood/Eastmoreland Southeast Portland.
To locate the neighborhood where the Walking Tours are located: Portland Neighborhood Map (1998) in PDF format.
What is a historic home? Most preservation offices deem a home “historic” if it is 50 years or older. Even when a home is not on The National Register of Historic Places, if it meets this definition, it may still have historic value. One of the myths about historic homes is that you cannot remodel them. You can remodel a historic home but you have to match the character of the house. This means for example you cannot put in vinyl windows in a 100 year old home if you want to designated it as an historic home.
- Architectural Heritage Center (AHC) is an organization dedicated to preserving Portland’s character-driven homes. Owned and operated by the Bosco-Milligan Foundation, The AHC hosts dozens of programs, workshops, and exhibits each year, helping people appreciate, restore, and maintain vintage homes, buildings, and neighborhoods. AHC are also caretakers of one of the largest collections of architectural artifacts in the United States.
- Historic Properties An online resource for buying and selling historic real estate. From projects to completed renovations, residential to commercial, west coast to east coast and now even outside the U.S.A., Federal to Eclectic; you can search the database of properties for sale. If you have a property to sell, you can list it for sale using the List a Home form and view it online within three business days.
- Venerable Group This company and its subsidiaries provide clients with a full range of professional real estate services and a team dedicated to the preservation and adaptive reuse of historic properties.