A New Kitchen for a 1940s House by Pietro Belluschi3 min read
Q: When is a kitchen remodel so much more?
A: When it’s at the landmark Platt House, designed by the legendary architect Pietro Belluschi, transforming a whole wing of the master’s original design and offering a new view of one of Portland’s best private gardens.
Belluschi and fellow designer John Yeon (who created the Watzek House, a national historic landmark, also in the West Hills) became founding fathers of Northwest style during the 1930s, fusing modernism’s glassy, streamlined forms with local traditions, particularly the use of wood and pitched overhanging roofs. In 1940, when then–merchant marine John Platt and his artist-gardener wife, Jane Kerr Platt, asked Belluschi to design a home for their two-acre property, it was not just a commission but an opportunity to marry architecture and landscape.
Belluschi, who would become known for skyscrapers and cathedrals, sought a house design “that was all but invisible,” the late architect told biographer Meredith Clausen. It’s one of “Belluschi’s beautiful barns,” as Time magazine put it in 1943, clad in cedar shingles with floor-to-ceiling windows, its low-slung form hugging the top of the hillside almost as if it’s built into the earth. “He tucked it up right in the top end of the property so that this whole flow of aesthetic wonderland would be a part of this,” says Lisa Platt, who lives there with her husband, David—John and Jane’s son. “Pietro knew the garden was going to become a primary piece.” Indeed, 80 years later it’s a parklike oasis of oaks, flowers, and ferns. John Platt got to enjoy the garden his wife had hand-curated for nearly a quarter-century after she died; he lived there until he passed away in 2013, at age 100.
The house’s interior, dating from the early 1940s, is a wood-festooned and sunlight-filled wonder, with a curved cedar wall at the entry giving way to the living room’s birch-paneled walls, hemlock ceilings, and large windows. Yet the kitchen, before its recently completed renovation by Outside Architecture, was another story: a closed-off space at one end of the L-shaped residence, with only a small-window view of the garden and no door opening on to the covered arcade walkway in the front of the house. Just to carry in groceries, David and Lisa had to follow a circuitous path, even though the kitchen was right there as they entered.
“This is just such a revelation,” Lisa Platt says, standing in the kitchen, which attaches to a new entry, mudroom, bathroom, and studio, all occupying what was a garage and later a den. “It’s more functional, and it made a huge difference in the way we access and use this back part of the house.”
Outside Architecture’s Jeremy Spurgin consulted not just the original blueprints but, in a visit to Belluschi’s archives at Syracuse University, old letters between the architect and his clients, John and Jane. These letters confirmed the new design was in keeping with the architect’s original intentions: while this wing of the house had already changed numerous times in the interim, Spurgin’s design finally connected the kitchen to the landscape.
“As the garden emerged over the last 80 years, it became really apparent that there wasn’t this strong connection from the kitchen that you had in the rest of the house,” Spurgin explains. “The Platts’ is the biggest kitchen I’ve designed footprint-wise, yet we struggled with how to make it fit, because we were not going to put anything on the exterior walls. That view of the garden had to be there. That was 100 percent the impetus: get out of the way of the majesty that’s there.”
The Platts are avid mushroom hunters and like to cook, making the renovated kitchen a center of activity. When grandchildren visit, there’s plenty of room. The ceiling and countertops were fabricated by builder Mike Banker and True Blue Construction using white oak salvaged after last winter’s ice storm from Jane Kerr Platt’s childhood home, Elk Rock Garden, a Dunthorpe greenspace created by her father. “So when you’re in this kitchen,” Spurgin adds, “even though it’s not original to the house, David’s parents and grandparents are still a big part of that space.”