All in the Family: Pietro and Tony Belluschi
In Portland, Oregon, a son safeguards the legacy of his father, acclaimed Midcentury Modern architect Pietro Belluschi.
Tony Belluschi lived in Chicago for 30 years, and people constantly asked him if he were related to John Belushi. The two are not related, and “Belluschi” is pronounced with a hard “ch” that sounds like a “k.” Tony didn’t mind; it was just something that came with the name and the city. But when he and his wife, Marti, moved to Portland, Oregon, three years ago, the pattern changed. Forget about the Chicago-born Animal House star; everywhere they went, people asked if they were related to the prominent Portland architect Pietro Belluschi. This time, they could answer yes: Tony is one of Pietro’s two sons.
Drawn there by the opportunity to preserve one of his father’s greatest works, Tony returned to Portland after a successful career as an architect designing large retail and mixed-use buildings. And in the process, he found himself becoming a steward of the elder Belluschi’s built legacy.
In downtown Portland, you can’t throw an artisanal doughnut without hitting a building that has some sort of Pietro Belluschi connection. The Italy-born Cornell graduate came to the city in 1925 to work for A.E. Doyle, Portland’s premier architect at the time. By 1931, the impeccably dressed Pietro was corresponding with Frank Lloyd Wright over his brash, radically stripped-down design for the Portland Art Museum, which had caused alarm among some donors. “My dear Belluschi,” Wright wrote in an encouraging letter, “I think your plan simple and sensible and the exterior would mark an advance in culture for Portland.” (The museum was built as planned, and Pietro designed new wings for it in 1939 and 1969.)
Other key Pietro Belluschi works in the heart of Portland include the 1948 Oregonian Building, which housed the city’s major newspaper for 66 years and is currently undergoing a renovation; the 1950 Federal Reserve Bank Building, which was renovated in 2008; and the 1948 Equitable Building, widely viewed as one of the best of the Modernist era. The baby-faced front desk guard at the Equitable (now officially known as the Commonwealth Building) tells me his interest in Midcentury Modernism has grown since he started working there. “I just hate it when people take something apart and tear it down,” he says.
This is the effect Pietro’s best work has on people: It makes them like Modernism. It’s not stark or intimidating. Despite its industrial materials of aluminum and glass, the Equitable, built in 1948, still comes across as jaunty and lighthearted, fitting its busy corner like a bespoke suit. “There’s no weight to that building,” I.M. Pei once said, in one of the highest compliments one architect can give another. “It has that very fine Belluschi touch.”
The Equitable Building’s success drew international attention to its intellectual yet approachable architect, and in 1950, Pietro was asked to become the dean of MIT’s architecture school. The family, including 10-year-old Tony and his 12-year-old brother, Peter, decamped to Boston. Pietro, always prolific, did some fine work while living on the East Coast—the campus for Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island, for example—but most of his best buildings are still in Oregon.
Pietro found as much joy in a windswept Pacific Northwest meadow as he did in a refined architectural detail, and that connection to the natural environment saturates his Oregon buildings—particularly the midcentury houses and churches he designed in Portland and other parts of the state. They use wood in a creative but understated way, echoing the forms of rural agricultural structures. This idea of relating the architecture to the landscape excited him and his fellow Midcentury Modernists in Portland, such as John Yeon and Van Evera Bailey. Together with these and other architects from Oregon, Washington, and even Northern California, Pietro pioneered a distinctive Pacific Northwest Regional Modernism that reflects the area’s unpretentious, outdoorsy culture.
During his 22 years in Boston, Pietro missed the Pacific Northwest. In 1973 he and his second wife, Marjorie, bought a house in Portland that he had designed in the late 1940s. The original clients, Dr. Clint Burkes and his wife, Genevieve, had admired Southern California residences by architect Richard Neutra, and asked Pietro for something similar. They wanted a flat roof, which typically doesn’t make sense in rainy Portland.
But their thoughtful architect had developed a reputation for listening closely to his clients’ desires. He made the flat roof work, with a twine-wrapped drainpipe running up through the living room to catch the rain. Next to it is a matching structural pipe, also wrapped in tan, fuzzy twine. Pietro Belluschi, using what the architectural historian Leland Roth calls his “humane Modernism,” had somehow found a way to make a pair of utilitarian pipes seem attractive.
I discover it’s not particularly easy to find the Burkes-Belluschi house, which occupies the end of a cul-de-sac off a steep, twisting street in the hills of Northwest Portland. The trellis-topped front entryway, defined with gray-painted cedar walls, doesn’t give much away. It just makes me even more curious about what’s inside—and once there, I’m wrapped in a jewel box of wood, glass, and stone, with an enormous central fireplace warming the space like a primordial campfire.
The city of Portland glows below in the late afternoon gloom, and lights from cars crossing the Fremont Bridge move hypnotically through the mist. This always-changing city view is the house’s most striking feature, and Pietro clearly planned it so the architecture would defer to the scenery. “There’s something about Belluschi’s houses,” says Peggy Moretti, executive director of the Portland-based preservation group Restore Oregon. “They don’t show off too much. There’s a lack of ego. They have presence, but they welcome.” Moretti wasn’t initially enamored of Midcentury Modernism—her first love was the Arts and Crafts style—but this house helped change her mind.
Pietro died in 1994, and his widow, Marjorie, stayed in the house until her death in 2009. The two Belluschi sons inherited it, and Tony decided to buy out his brother’s share and restore the building to its former glory. While its bones were solid, the finishes weren’t. The concrete slab had cracks in it, as did the cork floor above it. Much of the interior wood was badly stained or simply dried out—“thirsty,” in Tony’s words.
The project would be a major undertaking, and so would relocating from Chicago to Portland. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design and working in Boston and Los Angeles, Tony had run his own architecture firm in Chicago for three decades. (He chose L.A. and Chicago, where Pietro wasn’t well-known, partly as a way of escaping his father’s long shadow.) Marti had built a career there as a respected traffic safety consultant. But if the couple opted to sell the Burkes-Belluschi house, they ran the risk that it would soon be lost forever. “A realtor told me this would be a great site for a teardown,” recalls Tony, who has the same courtly bearing and silver mustache as his father. “I said I was going to fix it up as good as new, and no one would ever tear it down.”
“I said I was going to fix it up as good as new, and no one would ever tear it down.”Tony Belluschi
He had already replaced the roof in 2008, and just before Marjorie’s death he had started building a 235-square-foot guesthouse on the footprint of an old shed on the property. Before doing anything to the main house, though, the Belluschis hosted members of Portland’s architectural and preservation communities so they could see its condition. “A lot of people wanted to know what we were doing,” Tony says. “It pressured us in a positive way to do the best we could and not take shortcuts. We knew this was iconic.”
Over the next four years, a team of skilled local craftsmen helped him make good on his promise. The handpicked crew gently cleaned and sealed every square inch of wood, including the cedar walls and noble fir ceilings throughout the house and the rare woven-wood ceilings in the master bedroom and guest bedroom. Tony had them fill the concrete slab’s cracks and replace the worn floors with new cork, which covers original radiant heating that still works perfectly. They also cleaned the stone around the fireplace, replaced rotting wood details on the exterior, and repainted the cedar siding.
Along with all the restoration work, the Belluschis made changes that would allow them to live comfortably in the house. They enclosed the carport so it could function as a garage, and put a two-story, 750-square-foot addition on the south end of the house, connecting it to the original via a narrow gallery space. You can’t see the addition from the entry, but it provides space for the grandchildren to sleep and play, and extra storage to make up for the home’s lack of attic or basement. The original, approximately 100-square-foot kitchen has also been expanded, keeping the 1948 brickwork. Tony added more shelves to his father’s old library, mixing in his architecture books with Pietro’s. In the master bath, the couple replaced a plywood ceiling with solid maple and turned some of the open shelves into cabinets.
“I thought it was splendid,” says Leland Roth of the Belluschis’ update. Roth knew the elder Belluschi and has spent time in the house before and after its restoration and renovation. “I thought their work in the kitchen especially was extremely sympathetic,” he adds. “I am a preservationist, but not to the extreme of freezing things forever. Especially with private houses—they have to be lived in.”
Peggy Moretti agrees. “Maybe a real purist would say don’t change anything, just restore it,” she says. “But I think preservation is about livability, not creating artifacts. The vast majority of the essence of that house has been restored. We do these places a disservice if we don’t allow them to be livable.”
In 2012, Tony and Marti sold their home in Chicago and moved into the Burkes-Belluschi house full-time. The same year, they collaborated with the Oregon Historical Society on a Pietro Belluschi exhibition that helped boost attendance at the society’s museum by 30 percent. The couple also received an award from Restore Oregon in 2013 for their work on the house. And they’ve opened up the buffed and burnished residence to an interested public many times,once hosting 850 people in a single day as part of a Pietro Belluschi house tour they curated for Restore Oregon in 2014.
“Tony and Marti are serious supporters and publicizers, in a really good way, of the value of Midcentury Modern buildings,” says University of Oregon architecture professor Judith Sheine. “They are great promoters of architecture, and they use the house to do it.”
They’ve established friendships with several other Pietro Belluschi house owners locally. (There are about 20 total in the Portland area.) Tony even found a preservation-minded buyer for the 1938 Sutor house, one of Pietro’s most famous buildings. Originally commissioned by Jennings Sutor, editor of the Oregon Journal, the house had passed by word of mouth from owner to owner (including the swimwear mogul Carl Jantzen, who naturally added a pool). When Tony learned that the most recent resident was interested in selling, he persuaded self-described architecture buff Aric Wood—whose design consultancy is based in the Equitable Building—to buy it in 2012.
Wood has restored the Japanese-influenced house with Tony’s help, taking it almost completely back to the original and living in it with his two children and his partner, Erin Graham. “Our interest was in taking what was here and making it what it was before,” he says. Its signature curved zebrawood living room wall and woven entry ceiling are once again showpieces of wood craftsmanship, and the broadly pitched roof still evokes the barns of rural Oregon. The kitchen, which various owners had renovated and expanded, was returned to its original footprint, but with updated cabinetry and appliances. Other refurbished elements include the grasscloth wallpaper, oak floors and bookshelves, and clear-stained cedar siding.
Wood and Graham have also set about restoring the Japanese gardens that cover the 4-acre property. “The house really breathes with the seasons,” Wood says. “In the winter, we nestle around the hearth. In the summer, the portico is the most active part of the house. It feels like a sanctuary, with all these flowering Japanese trees.”
Aesthetically inclined Portlanders tend to go into a pleasurable dither when asked about their favorite Pietro Belluschi works. Many put the Equitable Building at the top of their list, or the Burkes-Belluschi or Sutor houses. Others settle on one or more of his churches, most often Zion Lutheran in the Goose Hollow neighborhood of Portland. Built in 1950, it has the natural light and simplicity of a Scandinavian chapel, with streamlined Gothic-style arches, small scattered windows, and delicate violet and golden stained glass. Pietro tried to work with local artists whenever he could, and he commissioned a pair of copper entry doors for Zion Lutheran from Frederic Littman, one of Oregon’s best-known sculptors.
The entire building was beautifully restored in 2015, including its innovative glue-laminated beams. Though Tony wasn’t directly involved, the church made sure he and Marti were regularly updated on the project’s progress.
This is the role they’ve gracefully accepted, as the unofficial guardians of Portland’s Pietro Belluschi buildings. They share their knowledge about his architecture and personality in a way only family members can, and they’re doing so in a city that’s eager to embrace his legacy. “Portland’s gotten so hipster all of a sudden,” says Chrissy Curran, Oregon’s deputy state historic preservation officer. “Tony has been a good bridge between that retro focus you see now in pop culture, back in time to a much more sophisticated version of midcentury architecture.”