In a region renowned for scenic beauty, the Columbia River Gorge stands out. It is one of the most recognizable panoramas of the Pacific Northwest — appearing on countless postcards, magazine covers and calendars. Millions of sightseers come each year to take in the sweeping views.
Yet few know that directly across from the most-visited site in the entire gorge — the iconic Multnomah Falls — is a special place, hidden in plain view. It’s about a mile of riverfront on the Washington shore, covered by forest and recognizable only by an open meadow with a lone tree.
This 78-acre piece of land, nicknamed “the Shire,” played a key role in preserving the gorge as America’s largest National Scenic Area. In fact, without this little pocket of woods with a front-row view of Multnomah Falls, the Columbia River Gorge would look much different today.
The Puzzling Picnic Invitation
It’s impossible to know exactly what was going through the minds of Bruce and Nancy Russell as they drove from their home in Portland up the Columbia River Gorge — but they were certainly curious.
They’d been invited to a summer picnic but it was canceled at the last minute. Twice.
The location: a private piece of land owned by an influential but enigmatic Portland architect John Yeon.
They had never met Yeon personally but they knew of him. Most folks in Portland at least knew the family name, thanks to the Yeon building — once the tallest in downtown Portland — or Yeon Avenue.
The Russells followed the two-lane Highway 14 as it wound up and around Cape Horn. Perhaps they stopped for a moment at the overlook, which offers one of the best views of the gorge.
Looking upriver, the wide Columbia gleams silver in sunlight between the basalt cliffs of Oregon and the rugged slopes of forest and pockets of farmland on the Washington side. One of those pockets is “the Shire,” but it blends in — just as its owner intended.
It was this part of the Northwest that Nancy Russell especially loved. She was an avid hiker and nature photographer. A member of the Portland Garden Club, she gave lectures on the wildflowers of the gorge.
Little did she know that one of the people sitting in her audience had been John Yeon.
As the Russells rounded down from Cape Horn, they might have missed the gate to the Shire — it’s easy to do. That was intentional. Yeon designed several of his houses to have unassuming main entrances. He liked the idea of a visitor entering a small, simple door into an unexpected larger space.
He also delighted in designing clever reveals. Like a dining table that could be pushed out from the kitchen into the living room though a hidden wall panel. Voilà! Suddenly a table set for guests.
When he greeted the Russells, he had a few surprises to share.
Yeon was a dapper gentleman, often dressed in a wool sport coat and button-down shirt, described by folks who met him as distinctly handsome. He quipped that his preference for earth tones helped him “blend” into the landscape, recounted his long-time companion Richard Louis Brown.
Yet at parties, he hardly blended in — people would circle around him. Nancy Russell described Yeon as “a romantic mystery figure,” calling him “the most interesting person I ever met in my life.”
Yeon toured the Russells around his property, showing them the gnarled orchard trees of the old farm that had once been there, a blue hydrangea he planted to give an unexpected splash of color, and a wending trail carefully cut back to a hidden spring.
He’d lead guests to the dead-end trail, let them take in the burble of the spring. As they’d turn around to leave, they’d get his little surprise: a keyhole view of Multnomah Falls framed perfectly by two trees.
As an architect, Yeon loved the idea of nature framing houses — like a walkway deliberately built between the trunks of fir trees, or a roof gable mirroring the peak of Mount Hood in the distance. Cultivating his aesthetics from the English Picturesque tradition and Asian landscape scrolls, he especially loved the composition of nature framing nature — like the lone ash tree he left standing in the wide meadow, as if a counterpoint to the falls.
He led Nancy and Bruce back along the trail, where they stopped at the only structure on the property: a drab cement dugout with a metal door.
It looked like a tool shed. In fact, it was a tool shed.
He led them inside.
Surely, this must have been another curious moment for the Russells.
Yeon had made a name for himself in the elite Portland circles as a Modernist architect, designing stylish homes for a small handful of wealthy clients. The Russells must have wondered: Why was the acclaimed architect showing them his tool shed?
Inside the underground bunker, Yeon pushed aside another metal door. This led through a narrow hallway and opened into a small room. The windowless room had concrete walls painted crisp white with a cheerful yellow ceiling. It was adorned with priceless Asian art.
It was one of Yeon’s favorite surprises.
But he had one final surprise to reveal — saving the most significant for last.
He fetched a folding table and led the Russells up a grassy berm.
Yeon had hired a local contractor to bulldoze the shore into a crescent shape, like an amphitheater. The berm looked across the river, directly to Multnomah Falls.
He unfolded the legs of the wooden table and, like a docent of his own museum, perhaps noted its provenance as 17th century imperial China.
As they picnicked, they watched the summer day turn to dusk. The golden summer light caught the falling water of Multnomah Falls, making it sparkle silver.
They knew almost nothing of their erudite host and, curiosity piqued, were ready to hear his story.
Growing Up In The Gorge: John Yeon’s Story
When John Yeon was a boy, his father, John Baptist Yeon, was overseeing the construction of the Columbia River Highway.
The highway was a masterpiece of landscape design: The narrow road hugged the cliffs, slipped through tunnels with windows, and offered unexpected spots to pull off and admire the view.
The concept of preserving scenic views made an impression on the young Yeon.
When he was only 22, Yeon cashed in a life insurance policy to buy an outcropping of land on the Oregon Coast. He wanted to prevent the construction of a dance hall — a popular venue in the emerging Big Band era. Yeon thought the unspoiled view would be more important to posterity.
The outcrop of land is called Chapman Point, but few know it as that; millions know it by sight, though. It is the iconic postcard view of Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park — one of the most photographed vistas on the Oregon Coast.
In 1965, Yeon again bought land to protect a view: the stretch of river directly across from Multnomah Falls — the centerpiece of his father’s scenic highway. The 78-acre property had once been a farm, and its zoning allowed for industrial development.
At first, it served as Yeon’s private retreat. In the winter, when it flooded, Yeon rowed his partner Richard Louis Brown around in a small boat. In summers, he hosted private picnics. He hired a caretaker to cut the trails and small meadows he designed.
Having designed Modernist mansions for others, he could have built a grand home for himself. But he did not want to mar the view of the Shire with a visible building. Instead, he built the tiny bunker as an apartment for himself and Brown to stay in. A friend said it resembled the underground Hobbit homes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythical place called “the Shire.” The nickname stuck.
During those early years, Yeon and Brown, and select guests, enjoyed a private idyll.
In the late 1970s, with the building of the Interstate 205 freeway bridge across the Columbia River east of Portland and Vancouver, Washington, plans for residential and industrial development began to move up the Washington side of the river. Yeon foresaw the suburbs pressing up the gorge, all the way to the Shire.
And that’s when he had a vision for Nancy Russell.
As they finished dinner and Yeon finished his story, he was ready for his final surprise. He’d canceled twice before, it turned out, because the weather had been overcast. This evening was clear.
A full moon rose over the cliffs of the gorge.
“And that’s when he put the ask on her,” described Yeon biographer and Portland architecture writer Randy Gragg.
We don’t know Yeon’s exact words, but they were in essence a question and a challenge: Don’t you think all of this deserves to be saved from development? And then: Who will do this?
Nancy Russell Accepts Yeon’s Challenge
“Their lives were almost destined, because of their mutual interest in the gorge, to come together around conserving this place,” recalled Nancy’s son, Aubrey Russell.
Yeon had standing and influence in the elite circles of wealth and political power. He’d served on state planning committees shaping environmental policy. But late in his career by then, he looked to someone with fresh energy to lead the charge. Also, folks close to Yeon said, he was just too adamant in some of his opinions for the compromises required of politics.
Russell had no political experience. But she had, her friends said, a competitive spirit unequaled on the tennis court. Her tenacity would help her rally her friends, acquaintances and eventually lawmakers to her cause.
They started with Yeon’s lead, using the Shire for picnic fundraisers.
With help of her fellow Portland Garden Club members, Russell started a grassroots campaign and formed “the Committee to Save the Columbia Gorge.”
Their intentions, however, were not readily welcomed by all locals. The Oregon side of the gorge, with its sheer cliffs, waterfalls and hiking trails had long been a recreational getaway for urban Portlanders, while the Washington side had traditionally been farmland and commercial timber, supporting small, rural communities.
The more that Russell and her Committee to Save the Columbia Gorge spoke out, the more pickups sported bumper stickers that read “Save the Gorge from Nancy Russell.” Once, after testifying at a hearing in Skamania County, Washington, she discovered that someone had punctured three of her car’s tires.
After enduring threats and countless meetings and political lobbying, Russell’s team prevailed.
In 1986, a bill to designate the Columbia Gorge as a National Scenic Area finally reached the desk of President Ronald Reagan.
“Ronald Reagan signed the legislation,” Gragg recounted, “holding his nose with one hand and the pen with the other.”
For Russell and those who had worked so tirelessly, it was a resounding victory. Nearly 300,000 acres had been designated along some 85 miles of the Columbia River Gorge — making it the largest National Scenic Area in the United States.
Just three weeks before Nancy Russell died, she insisted that her son Aubrey take to the gorge one last time.
She was bedridden, debilitated by Lou Gehrig’s disease, so her family hired an ambulance to drive Russell from her Portland home to Cape Horn.
Cape Horn, where Nancy and Bruce first looked down upon the Shire, now has a small stone overlook dedicated to Nancy.
The grassroots group Nancy founded evolved into the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Sadly, Yeon’s feelings about their accomplishment in the gorge were mixed. He’d gotten what he’d intended with his original picnic: Nancy Russell had taken up his charge and led a grassroots effort and the gorge gained federal protection. But he wanted the gorge more stringently preserved as a national park.
“He always felt a little besieged,” said his life partner, Richard Louis Brown.
Brown is soft spoken and, once a newspaper writer, deliberate in his word choice. He is not one to get “maudlin,” he says. But when he recounted Yeon’s last visit to the Shire, his blue eyes got a little misty.
Yeon was frail then, walked with a cane. “I certainly knew he was dying,” Brown said. “I don’t know for sure if he had faced that himself.”
Brown helped Yeon down the rocky bank to a small inlet. He helped Yeon strip and then left him for a quiet moment to enjoy in solitude the small piece of land with the view of the falls.
With nature, it is said, the only constant is change. And no doubt Yeon reflected on what he made at the Shire and what he’d leave behind. The river had washed out Yeon’s berm once and he rebuilt it. In winters, storms knocked down trees he’d carefully pruned and flooded trails he’d carefully groomed. He tried to beat back invasive species and hauled in tons of rock to stabilize the river bank.
“Truth is,” he wrote a friend, “I will die before any of these problems are resolved and leave only a mess.”
After Yeon’s death, Brown helped transfer ownership of the Shire to the University of Oregon. It is now administered by the university’s College of Design.
Today, the university maintains the Shire’s key landscape features as best it can. However, the secret apartment is now a utilitarian storage room and the folding table used for events these days is plastic.
The river washed away the berm once again. And as Yeon had done before, it was rebuilt.
Now, on select summer evenings, Yeon’s tradition of picnics continues.
New guests sit on the berm and admire the Shire’s greatest legacy of all: the view.