A house in Mosier captures everything special about the Columbia River Gorge
written by Melissa Dalton
photography by Christopher Dibble
Richard Brown is no stranger to working on esteemed sites. Consider the architect’s deft addition to a 1949 Pietro Belluschi house in Oak Grove—Belluschi being perhaps Oregon’s most famous modern architect and known worldwide. But when the owners of 10 acres near Mosier in the Columbia River Gorge reached out, it wasn’t an existing house that struck awe in Brown. It was the land. “My first thought was, ‘This is a rare opportunity for us to work with a really beautiful site,’” said Brown. “I felt a great responsibility to be respectful, in order to take advantage of as many aspects of it as we can.”
The Columbia River Gorge is indeed dramatic: a canyon 80 miles long and 4,000 feet deep in spots, cut by the Columbia River and marking where Oregon and Washington meet at their north-south border. Picture a meandering riverscape, bordered by steep tree-covered cliffs, dotted with waterfalls big and small, the amble of the Cascade Mountain Range in the distance. As the largest National Scenic Area in the country, there’s a vista at every turn.
This site in Mosier partakes of the natural wonder, perched high enough to have panoramic views looking down into the Gorge, as well as out at Mount Hood and Mount Adams. The primary challenge for Brown and the team at the Portland-based Telford + Brown Studio Architecture was to site a new home that captured those views without impinging on the neighbors’ as well. “But the challenges that you have to build with are also the opportunities,” said architect and principal, Hope Telford.
The architects joined local contractor John Bloomster Construction to tuck the new home into its slope. From higher up, its rooflines seem to duck below the vista, and a charcoal standing seam metal roof and inky-colored siding, being wood that’s been heat-treated to its dark hue, let it remain unobtrusive. “The exterior colors play really well with a lot of the colors in the landscape,” said Telford. (Such siding also has notable fire-resistance, said the architects, which is important when it comes to range fires.)
The team divided the plan into three gabled sections—including a two-story segment with the main living areas and bedrooms, a one-story guest suite, and garage—connected by a flat-roofed hallway. A concrete wall anchors the home into the hillside, with the wall running from the driveway into the house, through the length of the building along the spine of the hall, and into the open living areas.
“We wanted to express that act of digging into the hillside by exposing the concrete wall, so you can understand how the building is holding back the hillside and how it’s burrowed in,” said Brown. “We wanted it to feel elemental and a bit rugged.”
In contrast, the interior is decked in a medley of fine-grained woods, like white-washed hemlock and fir, their airy tones playing against the dark exterior and the concrete’s board-formed texture. In the guest suite, tongue-and-groove hemlock covers the walls and pitched ceiling, while the main living space has paneling, exposed rafters, and custom-built cabinetry. “We wanted a sense that this building was put together by humans,” said Brown. The pinnacle is the eating nook off the kitchen—the center of family life, said the owners—wrapped in wood with floating benches and a table that seems to hover on a single spindle leg. “The craftsmanship in that particular area is just extraordinary,” said Telford.
Keeping so many of the details streamlined and consistent, down to the same cabinet hardware from the kitchen to the principal closet, allows the owners’ more off-beat decisions to surprise. Things like a salvaged organ screen from a 1920s-era church bought years ago, which the owners asked the architects to incorporate into the finished design however they saw fit. “That was the only directive we got from them about interior finishes,” said Brown.
The contractor sanded the finish to get the color just right, and installed it around the staircase, where it defines the space while also letting light and shadows pass through. Other delightful picks include vintage European light fixtures rewired for modern use, and playful tile colors, including a pink variety from Portland’s Pratt + Larson in the principal suite.
As far as views go, the firm did not disappoint. There are dynamic panoramas glimpsed from just about everywhere: from the main bedroom, at the soaking tub, across from the living room couch, and ensconced in the dining nook. “Except for the garage and the guest bathroom, all the rooms have a view,” said Brown. Those large picture windows are balanced with smaller splices of glass that frame and isolate aspects of the setting, almost like they’re offering up a hillside or a distant mountain peak for contemplation.
The owners chose Mosier as an alternative to urban life in Portland, and the drive there feels like a retreat, winding through hills flecked with grapevines and fruit trees, past meadows with grazing horses. “By the time you’re in the living room, you already feel comfortable,” said Telford. “You feel like you’ve shed a lot of your burdens.” There’s not much in the way of other cars, but there is a pond with a rare variety of frog that occasionally holds up traffic when the amphibians decide to cross the road. “You don’t get that going to Fred Meyer,” said Brown.