At age 82 Saul Zaik still comes to the office each day and he brings with him an irrepressible passion for design. One of the things you realize when you talk with him and review his career is that he has executed an amazing amount of work. Practicing continuously since 1952, his architecture dots the entire Portland metropolitan area and the most picturesque parts of Oregon. He has designed a great many residences and vacation homes, as well as apartment buildings, condominiums, banks, shopping centers, schools, medical and commercial buildings. The first computer center at Oregon State University was a Zaik design. He contributed significantly to developer John Gray’s forward thinking resort developments at Sun River and Salishan, and to the resorts at the Inn at the Seventh Mountain and the Breakers in Cannon Beach.
In 1980 his firm Zaik/Miller, along with GBD Architects of Portland, developed a master plan for athletics giant Nike’s corporate headquarters at a site along the Willamette river. (The company later located in Beaverton with a Thompson Vaivoda Architects-designed campus.) Zaik also partnered on the 1968 addition to the Historic Timberline Lodge, did extensive adaptive restoration on the Crater Lake Lodge campus and oversaw the restoration of the Vista House at Crown Point. He helped restore and update two houses by renowned Portland architect Wade Pipes. He was also active in the formation of the Oregon School of Design, the architecture school founded in Portland in the 1980s.
Seminal Portland Modernist
A 1973 portrait of Zaik in Symposia magazine started out by saying, “When one thinks of Oregon architecture one immediately envisions weathered wood structures resembling Willamette Valley farm buildings. The Oregon architect of the current generation most sympathetic and skilled with this vernacular is Saul Zaik of Portland. His residences, condominiums and apartments are to be found throughout Oregon, and like his predecessors Pipes, Brookman, Yeon and Belluschi, a Zaik home is easily identifiable. The shapes of his structures are sometimes complex, but always the roof lines are simple, and the resulting building is an easily understood statement of its use and its site.”
Asked if he thinks northwest regional is a valid style, Zaik’s response comes without hesitation. “It is absolutely valid,” he says. “It is site-oriented in terms of sun and weather. It respects the vegetation of the site. Our attitude was that the best thing you can do is something nobody can see as they drive down the street. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Maybe it is better to say that it is something discreet. I think it has to do with a northwest lifestyle. Our clients were outdoor people, who appreciated the landscape and wanted to be connected to it and to preserve it.” That makes for a pretty good manifesto. It’s also a motivation he understands well, for Zaik is an avid skier and outdoorsman with a passion and a respect for the northwest landscape. His thesis project at the University of Oregon was for a ski lodge and recreational development at Diamond Peak in the Willamette pass.
The architect is a Portland native who attended Couch and Irvington grade schools and Benson Tech high school. “I have childhood memories of stacked cord wood and wet sawdust fuel piles, Willamette Heights’ street cars and streets lined with maple and chestnut trees,” he says. During World War II, Zaik was a radio operator in the US Navy, serving in the South Pacific. But always he was eager to get back to the Northwest.
Zaik received a degree in architecture from the University of Oregon after the war. Although this was a defining moment in his career, one that would reinforce Zaik’s inherent principles about nature and building, the UO and architecture were actually not his first choice. “I thought I was going to be an electrical engineer,” he remembers. “I went down to Oregon State but there wasn’t any housing left. They said, ‘Why don’t you go down to Eugene for your first year and then come back up?’ I wound up making a lot of friends down there and stayed.” His friends included not only the fellow young architecture students who would become Zaik’s colleagues, but also artists like painters Carl Morris and Tom Hardy, glass sculptor Fred Heidl, and potter Jim Bartell.
Upon graduation he came back to Portland for a year, then moved to The Dalles to work with Boyd Jossey on several school buildings. Zaik returned to Portland and went to work for what was then Belluschi, Skidmore, Owings and Merril where, he remembers, Dick Ritz sat at the desk behind him. One of Zaik’s first assignments for BSOM was to work on the US Army Air Corps base in Klamath Falls. “I was doing a little bit of everything,” he recalls. “I designed the bachelor officers club, officers’ housing, and cold storage buildings. They even had me draw up the taxi way lighting on the landing strips. I told them I’d never done anything like that, but they said to just put the blue lights along the sides of the strips.” Zaik chuckles as he recounts this, and it reinforces a sense that a ready sense of humor has been a well used skill throughout his long career.
The 14th Street Gang
Iron House ApartmentsSoon Zaik began designing houses at the requests of friends and acquaintances. In fact, he was bringing in enough work to leave BSOM and strike out on his own, which he did in 1956. But being out on his own didn’t mean that he was alone. An old victorian house on SW 14th and Columbia (where I-405 is now) became home to what is referred to as the “14th Street Gang.” George McMath in his essay “The Wood Tradition Expands” in Space, Style and Structure describes it: ” In the late 1950s a remarkable group of young architects gathered together in an old Victorian house on the edge of downtown Portland. The group, all University of Oregon graduates, included Saul Zaik, William Fletcher, Donald Blair, John Reese, Frank Blachly, Alex Pierce, and designer George Schwarz. Sometimes known as the 14th Street Gang, they shared office space, ideas, and an occasional libation after work. each had his own practice, though from time to time they collaborated on particular projects such as the two award-winning apartment houses designed by Reese, Blair, and Zaik.” Zaik and Donald Blair joined forces to become Blair Zaik Architects in 1960 although they had collaborated often prior to that.”
Golden age of Houses: 1955-1970
Feldman ResidenceOne of Zaik’s first houses to come out of this period, the circa-1956 Feldman House, is one of his most celebrated and one he still recalls fondly. Built for Philip Feldman, heir to Mt. Hood Borax Company, the structure has a cantilevered, low-pitched gable roof and vertical tongue-and-groove cedar siding. Its broad overhanging eaves express the sheltering element that Zaik brought with him from his University of Oregon studies and which he considered fundamental to the style.
“It is extremely modern in using very flush surfaces and wide panes of glass,” notes architect Don Rouzie, one of Zaik’s longtime collaborators. “It is very simple. It doesn’t jump out at you as being this terrific thing. But you get in there, and it’s just awesome. You realize what northwest regional means.” The house was honored by the Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects and was featured in an issue of Pacific Architect magazine. It was also was featured on the 2008 Street of Eames Homes Tour and garnered much praise as a crowd favorite.
The Bigley house of 1962 has a similar spirit to the Feldman house, without quite as heavy an emphasis on the horizontal. It was built for Bob Bigley, a hematologist who taught at Oregon Health & Science University (then the University of Oregon Medical School). “I had a cousin who was also a hematologist at the med school”, remembers Zaik, “so that was the connection. Bob Bigley and I became lifelong friends. Bob is a person of quite refined tastes. That house was built by Harry Wold and his father with whom I did a number of other projects. The roof deck is a laminated hemlock 2X3 structure like the one I used in my own house.” In the accompanying Bigley House photo shown here the Ford Falcon station wagon parked in the carport belonged to acclaimed Portland architect Van Evera Bailey. Bailey’s wife was the local rep for the magazine Better Homes and Gardens. “Van helped arrange the furniture and brought in some landscape props,” Zaik laughs, remembering. “He groused the whole time, I’m sure.”
Zaik did the Inskeep residence for Jerry Inskeep of Columbia Investment. Situated on SW Myrtle Drive, high in the west hills on the southern end of downtown and above PSU, it is an impressive site with a commanding view. The house remains firmly rooted in the northwest style and its wood-based aesthetic, but it is imbued with an elegance and formality that was perhaps not often part of his clients’ programs. The landscaping design was by legendary designer Barbara Feeley. Interestingly, the house also was built twice–necessitated by a fire that destroyed the original. Saul notes with satisfaction that the house is very well maintained and is in quite good condition.
In 1959 Zaik designed a house for his family that he and his wife still live in today. Nestled into a northwest Portland hillside near Skyline Boulevard, the house, built in 1960, consists of simple box forms with a symmetrical pitched roof. The main space is connected by walkways to two additional pavilions, one for
bedrooms and the other for the garage. This allows light to permeate the space and retain a human scale to the residence. The entire home inside and out is clad in wood, in keeping with the northwest modernist style. Inside spaces are informal, open and flexible.
“Zaik’s work is truly timeless and rooted in every site he built upon,” says Corey Martin, a principal with Portland’s Path Architecture and one of Zaik’s fans. “Over fifty years after it was built, his personal residence is better than most new work. It is so simple yet dynamic, sophisticated and humane.”
1A Prefab Project
In 1965 Blair/Zaik received an award from Better Homes and Gardens for a project they called the 1-A House. The idea was to build affordable well-designed houses that employed prefab techniques. American Lumber Company did the prefab for the houses. The client for the project was developer Ed Gammon who was teaming with builder Harry Wold. A number of the houses were built in the Cedar Hills area. Priced at $17,500 , the houses provided value and style—a combination still difficult to achieve 43 years later.
In 1970 came one of Zaik’s best-known projects, the Zidell House. Octagonal in form with a panoramic city view from its hillside site, the house was designed for Arnold Zidell using a 48-foot ship’s mast.
“He was a crazy guy, Zidell,” the architect says today. “The mast idea was his. He came in with that thing and said, ‘I want to make it round.’ It was built like an umbrella or a ski-lift tower—just bolted on. At one point he wanted to make it rotate.” While the basic idea for the Zidell project came from its owner, the client also gave Zaik room to be creative. “That’s what would happen in those days,” he says. “People would come in with an idea and go away to let us design it. Now they come in and they don’t ever go away!”
Working with John Gray
In 1961 John Gray bought the property along the Oregon coast near Lincoln City that he would ultimately develop into the Salishan resort, a much-lauded project that helped to redefine resort planning throughout the country. Gray hired top notch talent for the development: The master plan was done by the Portland office of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, the lodge and lodge buildings were done by John Storrs and the landscape design was by Barbara Feeley.
In 1964 Gray hired Blair and Zaik to design the Longhouse condominiums at Salishan. Virginia Guest Ferriday describes the building in her essay ‘Planned Resorts’ (Space, Style and Structure): “[built on the sand pit where it meets the mainland], these wedge-shaped units are similar to the condominiums built at Sea Ranch, the well-publicized resort on the California coast. The shed roof form at Sea Ranch was supposedly a response to prevailing wind patterns, which were studied in detail. Whether this claim is valid or not, the form in its bold simplicity is undeniably appropriate to the dramatic sites along the Pacific Coast. By staggering the Longhouse units the architects exploited the compositional possibilities of the roof form and created the necessary protected recesses for outdoor seating.”
Longhouse Condominiums Salishan SpitThe Longhouse condominiums provide a good example of how Zaik’s style, while almost always remaining rooted in the northwest regional style, was always evolving and was not limited to a narrow and prescriptive list of elements. He was always looking at other’s work and at other vernaculars. As noted above, the influence of work done at Sea Ranch by Charles Moore, William Turnbull, Joseph Esherick and others is something Zaik acknowledges gladly. Here broad overhangs have disappeared and are replaced by clipped roof lines and planar arrangements–elements that would figure prominently in much of Zaik’s resort and vacation home work.
In 1969 Zaik was back at Salishan designing a house for Bill Naito. “Van Bailey was Naito’s architect and had done other work with him,” Zaik explains. “This house was supposed to be a collaboration between us and Van. But man, nobody collaborated with Van. He was a very temperamental personality. Should we say he had an artist’s temperament? And he was not a very liberal kind of guy, so I don’t know how he and Naito got along. But knowing Naito pretty well and knowing Van pretty well, I can just imagine some of the language that might have gone on between the two of them. Naito was not lacking defensive social skills. My first partner, Blair, had worked for Bailey and I remember saying to him once, ‘I don’t think Van likes me.’ And Blair told me, ‘So what’s new? He doesn’t like anyone!’ So it ended up just being me although Bailey was living in Gleneden Beach and he was around. He built the stairway in the house.”
“Van was quite a good craftsman and cabinet maker,” Zaik adds, “and he had a nice wood shop. He would often work out on a site how to resolve construction details with contractors. For years he designed and built a window in his own shops that we called the Bailey Window. It was maybe 5′ by 3′ and one side of it would be fixed. He’d route out grooves on the top and the bottom and then on the sliding one he’d cut a piece of wood and rabbit it and somehow jamb that damned thing on the glass. So that became the slider that would come over and seal with another piece of wood that was on the fixed piece of glass. It was an ingenious bit of design. I had several clients request them. We designed a house for Reese Stevenson up in White Salmon Washington. Bailey had done a house for the elder Stevenson using those windows, and Reese made sure that we included them in his house in white Salmon. Bailey was a talent to be respected.”
In the late 70’s Zaik designed more condominiums at Salishan for John Gray. The Bluffs, as they were called, were built on the east side of Hwy 101 above the Lodge. This time the architect used pilings and a pole house configuration to respond to the hilly site. Zaik also did the commercial shopping center at Salishan at about the same time.
Sunriver Ranch Cabin and Meadow Houses…photos: Art HupyJohn Gray’s second big resort development was Sunriver and again Zaik was chosen to do a good amount of work there by Gray and and also by individual homeowners. “My wife and I bought one of the cluster cabins there so I had the advantage of observing the weather in different seasons. When I designed for Sunriver I tried to design bullet proof for the harsh swings in weather the area has.” Zaik/Miller/Butler did the Country Mall, a collection of shops and stores and offices as well as the original grocery store. The firm also designed the Ranch Cabins, a series of forty condominium houses, and also several individual Meadow Houses. Among the private houses Zaik completed at Sunriver was the one for Nike co-founder Phil Knight in the early 1970s.
Timberline and Historic Adaptation
Timberline Lodge addition…….photos: Art HupyAnother side of Zaik’s design career is the historic adaptation and renovation work he has done. Chief among these is a 1968 addition to Timberline Lodge, which was an ideal commission given the architect’s love of skiing and mountain hikes. The addition to the 1938 landmark, built by the Works Progress Administration, achieves an impressive balancing act. It is at once in keeping with the original architecture even as it reveals a subtly modern form. Timberline was actually closed due to mismanagement and disrepair in the years after World War II. The mid-1950s addition and renovation (as well as a jump in public interest in skiing) helped renew the lodge and restore the life it enjoys today. Zaik’s firm also designed a day lodge for Timberline that the client rejected due to cost (a cheaper, less ambitious day lodge was built several years later that Zaik did not work on).
Crater Lake OregonHis experience with Timberline led to other restorations and new architecture for national park buildings at Crater Lake and other ski facilities at Mt. Bachelor as well the adjacent Inn of the 7th Mountain resort.
These days, when most of his peers are either gone or retired, Zaik seems possessed by a restless energy. In his office when the phone rings he jumps for it; “hey, it could be a new client!” There are a few projects: a collection of duplexes in Saint Johns and a large Portland hillside residence that he seems to be kicking around. He recently returned from a ski trip to Sun Valley with a torn up shoulder–the price paid for continuing to indulge his love of the mountains and skiing. The pace may have slowed but the enthusiasm still flows. One thing seems certain, he shouldn’t worry about his place in Portland architectural history-it’s as solid as the foundation of any of his seminal regional modern houses.