Mock’s Crest John Yeon Plywood Home

This house is one of the eight or nine “plywood houses” designed by John Yeon in 1939 for builder Burt Smith. Smith was the builder of the Watzek house,

Yeon’s first house and his best known. Smith was so impressed with Yeon as a result of that project that he commissioned him to design some smaller houses that could be built on spec (which explains why these houses are sometimes referred to as “the Speculative houses”). Three of the houses were built in Lake Oswego, two in the West Hills and two in North Portland. Although they have similar features the plans are not identical. The Jorgensen house, also in the West Hills, is also part of the plywood house series but it was built on commission and is more elaborate.

Mocks Crest House_-_Portland_Oregon
Yeon’s grandmother’s house on Mocks Crest

The two houses built in north Portland have a nice back story to them. Yeon’s maternal grandfather was David Mock and he had taken a pioneer land grant along the Willamette bluff “consisting of about a mile or so around the bluff”. His grandparents built a house on the bluff on what is now Willamette Blvd. According to Yeon, “when I was young there were just fields and a great big barn with a painted sign on the gable advertising Studebaker wagons. My grandmother’s house stood surrounded by fields; sort of an oasis of a tall, Victorian gingerbread house with a sort of private arboretum around it.” That house is still there and is, like this plywood house, on the National Register of Historic Places. The Columbia Park Annex next to the house is land that was donated by the family to the city.

Yeon was born and lived until the early 1930s in a house near his grandparents. Further, his father John B Yeon, purchased the land from the grandparents, later developing it into what is now known as Mock’s crest and Mock’s Bottom. And the two plywood houses were built in Mock’s Crest on lots owned by the John B. Yeon Company.

The plywood houses (which is how Yeon referred to them) are sometimes called modular houses, which is how Marian Kolisch referred to them in her interview with Yeon. When she asked him to explain what modular meant Yeon elaborated on the modular aspect and other features of the houses:

modulesWell, there’s a rythm. You could lay it out on a grid. The houses were all on either a four foot or a two foot module; the module was established by the width of the plywood which had just become available for use in exterior applications because of advances in the glues used in its fabrication . The houses were built on a slab and they were a very straighforward expression of balloon-frame construction. What made these houses special was that the balloon framing showed all through the window area. The glass was just set between the studs and there was no window frame per se at all. There’s no millwork for the window. And in order to do that, the source of ventilation was separated from the light source. These windows all had louvers underneath them. The roofs were made of two-by-six tongue and groove boards laid flat and spanning from the ridge down without any roof framing and that made a very nice thin eave line.

These houses are indeed notable for their innovations in design, economy, and use of materials and a fair amount has been written regarding Yeon’s skills in these areas and these houses. But it is Yeon’s aesthetic and his design skill that make these houses so special. Burt Smith went on to build many small houses that showed the influence of the ones Yeon designed for him and while they copied things like roof lines and ventilators, they end up being awkward and somewhat uncomfortable. They did not have Yeon’s eye or his discipline. That thin eave line is like no other and the proportions are so correct and the window arrangement and detailing so well done that these modest houses remain as pieces of architecture and not just innovative affordable houses.

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