Way Out: A Night Out with Portland's Atomic Age Alliance, Lovers of all Things MidCentury
by Inara Verzemnieks, The Oregonian
Monday December 31, 2007, 2:30 PM
On a gray Sunday night, I make my way to The Alibi for an infusion of electric-sticky-maraschino cherry-umbrella-drink happiness. This is where, once a month, the Portland chapter of the Atomic Age Alliance gathers to celebrate all things mid-century.
One might expect this to be a fairly lonely pursuit in Portland, Ore., the City of the Bungalow, but in fact, by the time the meeting starts, the long table at the back of the bar is completely filled (lots of umbrella drinks all around), and someone mentions that this is actually a small turnout.
It is a passionate group, representing a range of ages: Everyone I talk to seems to own a mid-century home, or in the words of member Haley Lewis, they "are searching for one, or praying for one."
Lewis and her husband Steve once owned a 1912 bungalow in Alameda. "We went through our Shaker phase," she says, and laughs. Steve, who works in advertising and also plays in a surf-rock band, had been pushing the idea of a ranch home for a while, but Haley, a designer, says she kept resisting him. "I kept saying, 'Too cold."
And then last year, Steve gave her a coffee-table book "Atomic Ranch," and she read it all day. Five days later, they found their new home on craigslist, under the listing "Custom Ranch with Atrium." It turned out to be a rare Eastside find, a house built by Robert Rummer, an Oregon builder with a cult-like following — complete with a lava rock swimming pool and a cement slide.
These ranches (and their mid-century kin) are party houses, to be sure, with pools and basement bars and massive fireplaces.
Basically, says Justin DuPre, who created the chapter's website, and who has what everyone agrees is the most amazing basement tiki bar, complete with a beer tap, keg cooler and working safe (details that have prompted some speculation as to whether previous owners ran an illicit club down there): "We all joined this group because we wanted to hang out at each other's houses."
But along with all the cocktails and rumpus room appreciation, there's also a seriousness that runs through the group, a strong desire to protect and defend a history that's maybe still too close to fully appreciate. Alyssa Starelli, the chapter's founder and a real estate broker, grew up in a house with "tiny rocks on the roof and kidney-bean shaped pool." For a long time, she says, she ran the other way from all that.
Now, she specializes in selling mid-century properties and doesn't even keep a microwave in her kitchen anymore because she doesn't like they way it disrupts the feel of history. ("What do you do about popcorn?" asks Haley Lewis. "I make Jiffy Pop," Starelli says. )
Inspired by the Atomic Age Alliance of Las Vegas, which is working to save the mid-century architecture of that town, Starelli says she started the Portland chapter to bring together local aficionados so they could pool their energy and expertise and convince people that the area's mid-century architecture is also worthy of preservation. (The club's website includes an "endangered" page devoted to threatened properties, and for those already lost, a "memorial" section. )
"We can also convince people they don't have to remodel (these properties) so inappropriately," Starelli says.
In other words, says Haley Lewis, "Step away from the granite."
The number one item on tonight's agenda is a discussion of what the group can do to help save the neon sign outside the Crown Motel on North Interstate Avenue. The motel is being converted to affordable housing. and the plans don't include preserving the sign.
"This is just a harbinger for more of this happening," says Starelli, and the group agrees to hold a special emergency meeting in one week's time.
There is discussion of forming a photoclub, possibly producing a calendar next year, holding an Eastside/Westside tour of Rummer homes, and organizing a group fieldtrip to the Aalto library at Mount Angel .
Austin Jordan, the club's president, mentions forming a bowling league. He says he knows of the coolest place to bowl, too: the Elks Lodge in Milwaukie, where they still score "with grease pencils and overhead projectors."
I wish I could recreate for you the sound that followed, an entire room exclaiming, "OOOOOOHHHHHH!!!!," all at once. The best way I can describe it is that it sounded like delight — the discovery that something you imagined gone forever, can still be reclaimed.
The next meeting of the Portland chapter of the Atomic Age Alliance: 6 p.m. Jan. 27, the Alibi, 4024 N. Interstate. Also check out the G.I. Dream exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave., which includes items from members' personal collections.