WARRENTON — Norman Yeon looked to the Oregon Coast — a place of inspiration where he spent summers in his childhood — and saw that it was shrinking. The wild landscapes, shown to him by his father on road trips, were threatened by development. In 1958, he sought to preserve the land that was so special to him.
Yeon purchased 100 acres from Clatsop County near Sunset Beach. Although platted to support subdivision, Yeon had no intention of dividing the property. As such, at that time, it was the county’s largest coastal property purchased for a single residence.
Today, it is a cultural landscape protected by the National Park Service.
Yeon grew up in Portland. He had three college degrees including a graduate degree in fine arts from the Paris-Sorbonne University.
He owned Crossroads, an arts, antiques and furnishings gallery, in Portland. The gallery was said to be the first in Portland to introduce European tastes such as Alvar Aalto furniture and Scandinavian fabrics.
Mirza Dickel, Portland’s “grand dame” of interior design, worked side-by-side with Yeon at the gallery.
Planning a retreat
When Yeon purchased the property, he lived in San Francisco. It was thought to be a summer refuge from the city. Rather than immediately constructing a cabin or changing the landscape, Yeon spent several years studying the land. Then, he concentrated his efforts on the middle third of the property, using the surrounding forest and grass dunes as visual barriers to outside development.
He used design concepts from Japanese gardens to re-shape and work with the property. Yeon constructed a tea house-like cabin below the brow of the dune, but above an interdunal lake. He dredged the lake — ensuring a year-round view of water — to capture distant views from the cabin to Onion Peak, Sugarloaf Mountain and Tillamook Head. Yeon trimmed distant shore pines in the cloud pruning fashion to frame those views. And, he filled the lake with koi.
Near his cabin, he selected plants using two traditional Japanese garden principles: incorporating members of the same plant family (Ericaceae) to showcase differences in texture and shadow within the family, then selecting flowering native plants already present on the landscape. Yeon mixed salal, kinnikinnick, manzanita and rhododendron. His use of a lavender rhododendron, cascading down from the forest to the cabin, was exquisite.
Around his cabin, he planted naturalistic groupings of waxy stemmed plants such as kaffir lily, Japanese skimmia, lemon daylily, hosta and Japanese snowball. Then he blended them with Japanese maple and Japanese lace leaf maple.
Although Yeon expanded his cabin twice, he retained characteristics found in Japanese architecture. Set into the dune, it is broken into “pavilions” connected by a hall that resembles an enclosed porch. Long bands of windows frame the lake below and the mountains — now including Saddle Mountain — beyond. And, a wrap-around porch blurs indoor and outdoor spaces drawing the lake and its distant views into the house.
When considering the house and its setting, William Hawkins III, a Portland preservation architect said, it was “very Japanese ‘Katsura’ in feeling.”
Preserving his legacy
When Yeon died in 2004, his estate created a conservation easement for the property. In 2009, after being held by the Oregon Parks Foundation and owned by the Trust for Public Lands, the North Coast Land Conservancy acquired the property. They, in turn, sold it to the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which uses it for educational purposes.
While much of Yeon’s plantings are overgrown, and the annuals missing, the house remains, and perhaps more importantly, the land survives.
Hawkins, who visited the site when Yeon was alive, captured an essential truth: “…. walking around the house, there was nothing in view but pine trees and sand dunes. There was not a single building that I remember, and that’s what makes the property absolutely amazing today.”
For more information about renovating an old home or commercial building, visit the Lower Columbia Preservation Society website at lcpsociety.org.