bachelor of architecture ’55
Found calling as historical architect, preservation planner,
Alfred M. Staehli was one of the Portland architecture and historic preservation community’s most accomplished members up until his death in 2009. Born in Pasadena to an immigrant Swiss woodcarver but a Portlander since the age of two, Staehli graduated from Lincoln High School then received his bachelor’s in architecture degree in 1955 from the University of Oregon. After serving in the Air Force as a civil engineering officer in the early 1950s, he worked for ten years at Broome, Selig and Oringdulph, which would later morph into a firm still around today, BOORA.
After Staehli went back to school for a master’s degree in history and studied at UNESCO’s International Centre for Conservation in Rome (from which he earned a certificate in 1972), he found his calling as an independent historical architect and planner.
Staehli prepared the early feasibility studies, maintenance guides, and historic structures reports (and also directed restoration) for many of the best-known landmarks in Oregon and Washington, including the Kam Wah Chung & Co. Building in John Day, Portland’s Pittock Mansion, and the buildings and structures in Mount Rainier National Park. He was commissioned by restoration architect George McMath to perform color analysis of interior ﬁnishes for the seismic retrofit of the Oregon State Capitol dome and rotunda after the 1993 Scotts Mill earthquake.
Staehli was named to the national board of directors of the Association for Preservation Technology. From 1969 to 1983 he was statewide historic preservation coordinator for the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and he chaired both state and national AIA committees on historic resources. In recognition of his service to the profession, he was elected to the AIA’s College of Fellows in 1992. From 1993 to 2001 he was a member and ultimately chairman of the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation.
“Not only was Al an incredible resource for historic preservation issues, but more important to my relationship with him was his wry sense of humor and always challenging assumptions! I guess as an educator he never feared asking ’Why not reinvent the wheel?’ on any particular issue,” said Henry Kunowski, a former colleague of Staehli’s.
Staehli’s expertise in building technology led him to amass an extensive personal archive of manufacturer’s catalogs and period literature, which he freely shared and then gave to the UO School of Architecture and Allied Arts library. Upon his election to the board of directors of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon in 1976, he began writing a long-running column, “Advice for the Houseworn,” for the HPLO’s quarterly newsletter.
It’s through his involvement with the Fellows that I got to know Staehli in 1999 and 2000 while I worked for the AIA. I used to take notes for the monthly Fellows committee meetings he attended, and it was fun to sit in a conference room and listen to some of the most accomplished architects in the city alternately chitchat, talk shop, tell stories about the city’s architectural past, or target some kind of do-gooding action like trying to help Portland State get accreditation for its architecture school.
I got to know Al better when the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gordon House was threatened with demolition in late 2000. He and I spent a day together down in suburban Charbonneau along the banks of the Willamette near Wilsonville, where the house was originally located. The compromise for the Gordon House was that it got preserved but had to be disassembled and moved to a different location. It was a better solution than outright demolition, but the house had been designed specifically in accordance with and to take advantage of the views of the river and Mount Hood.
Al asked me to act as an assistant for the day while he photographed the Gordon House with a large-format camera, the kind that great, serious photographers from Ansel Adams to Julius Schulman always used. Even today that kind of camera achieves better precision than digital photography, but it takes forever just to set up one shot.
My memory of that day out there with Al is not of the things we said to each other, but the silence in between. It’s rare when you can stand in silence with someone, particularly if you’re not already well acquainted, and have it not be awkward. But there was a kind of serenity out there photographing the Wright house on the eve of it being eradicated from its intended place. At least if it had to go, the two of us were at least lucky enough to spend a day with the Gordon House, alone.
But of course he wasn’t mute, either. I also took notes when we did talk while photographing the Gordon House that day, and used some of his comments in a piece for Willamette Week. Here’s one of his observations published in the story:
“Wright’s houses are delightful to walk into. Unlike in most McMansions (or what I call ‘big-hair houses’), you don’t walk into some totally inappropriate corporate-sized lobby where you feel lost. You enter this house through a small, constricted opening with a low ceiling and transition into a dramatic high-ceiling area. You always have a sense of moving through a sequence of different-scaled spaces. Wright’s Usonian houses are of a scale that you can live in. I’m not the kind of architect who could design, say, a 600-square-foot bathroom, so I relate to these designs.
Wright was especially known for using wood and masonry for their color, their texture, their warmth. A lot of the Northwest-style architects like Walter Gordon and Pietro Belluschi did that, too. People here like to be able to look out the window to the trees but also have a cozy feel on the inside.
You would not find this kind of detail in most builder-made houses today — it would be too expensive and require more attention to detailing. But that’s exactly what some architects are now arguing for: more modest-sized spaces but spending the money on finish and detail and materials.
We’re losing landmarks monthly throughout the state. A little bit goes here, a little bit there, and first thing you know you’ve lost the integrity of the land. It isn’t as if this was one of Wright’s major buildings, but in the context of surviving Usonian homes it’s actually very important. And it’s definitely the only work of its kind in Oregon.”
I only talked to Al Staehli once or twice in the ensuing nine years, and even then only briefly. So it’s not like I knew him exceptionally well. But when I put together the incredible collection of buildings he is credited with helping to save and his gentle, warm, guileless personal manner, it’s a major regret to have to say goodbye — or to not have done so with more reverence.
Story retrieved from http://chatterbox.typepad.com/portlandarchitecture/2009/05/alfred-staehli-19292009.html. Reprinted with permission.