When Buildings talk, she pens their stories

Illustrator Alice Cotton memorializes noteworthy structures



The Tribune

When buildings speak to Alice Cotton, she has to listen carefully.

That's because she's drawing them in pen and ink, and any misunderstanding will he hard to correct.


Cotton is the author of "When Buildings Speak" (Artemis Publishing); a 72-page book about noteworthy buildings in Oregon, whose page-long stories face painstaking illustrations by the author.


"I've taught art and mathematics together, and I've always thought the two should be from the same source instead of separate ones," she said. "Architecture is the natural place for that to happen; it's structure, physics, function and art."


Cotton grew up in Cleveland and went to New Orleans to become an artist and musician. She was fascinated by the historic buildings there and started drawing them.


"I didn't know why I liked doing it, but I was selling drawings to tourists and homeowners," she said. "I’d get ideas and go sell pictures at the square."


Moving to Portland to pursue her music career, Cotton took a teaching job and again fell in love with the architecture of her adopted city.


"This is the newest part of the colonies; it's not like New York where everything dates back to the 1700s," she said. "People came here from all over and brought ideas with them."


As she started commissions for homeowners, Cotton began to assemble houses with a book in mind, eventually shooting 30 rolls of film as she ranged across the state looking for landmark buildings.


"People told me about some houses, and others I discovered for myself." she said.


Portlanders probably will recognize houses such as the Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island and the Mark Ashley House, at 2947 N.W. Westover Road. But there are more obscure houses -- or example, the George Pipes House, at 2526 St. Helens Court, and, out of town, the Haller-Black House in Seaside and the James A. Flippen House in Clatskanie.


Every home has a story


Cotton also has gathered stories about the homes. For example, the Flippen House was built by a Tennessean who came overland on the Applegate Trail in 1845 and made a fortune in the California gold rush.


He built the house for his son, Thomas, and observed, "A man's home is his castle, so I built mine to look like one." These days, the Flippen House is the town's senior center and a museum.


The Sam Barlow House in Canby is a spectacular Italianate mansion that was rescued from decay in the 1970s. Barlow, of course, developed the Barlow Trail across Mount Hood and subsequently became a pioneer developer, owning a sawmill and bank.


Cotton also explains details of the houses' construction.


"There were a number of things that drew me to individual buildings," she said. "There was the history, and I could feel them as pieces of art and something more -- architecture is one of the first technologies. Man came out of caves and developed the first post and lintel -- a technology that Greeks formalized with all their cornices and columns."


Buildings such as Portland's Union Station, at 800 N.W. Sixth Ave., can serve as a keystone to an entire architectural movement Cotton said.


Architect Henry Richardson initiated the Romanesque revival on the West Coast. It was an offshoot of the Gothic revival back East and features massive chunks of masonry, steeply pitched triangular gables, rounded turrets, polygonal bays and facade dormers. Cotton's illustration concentrates on these elements.


Buoyed by self-marketing


As Cotton drew the buildings, she learned how they were constructed and how the artistic elements came together. Her detail work completed her understanding of the structures -- especially the Hollywood Theatre, which ,was so intricate that she had to draw it in levels.


"It’s like listening to pieces of music," she said. "It helps to know where it came from, some of the history, art forms and paradigms - it gives the music more meaning. It's the same with architecture."


In order to better illustrate building details, Cotton sometimes moves trees and changes seasons so plants will be in flower.


"It'sartistic license," she said with a laugh. "People will sometimes say: 'Oh, we didn't rake today. Can you make the garden look groomed?"'


Between private commissions, which generally take a couple of weeks, Cotton draws for the McMenamin’s establishments and is preparing a follow-up book on modernist houses, "though many of those are in California."


If she gets depressed over the ebb and flow of commissions, she takes a half dozen of her books and becomes a marketer, stopping into stores and businesses.

“I can always sell one to somebody,” she said. “If there’s a house in the book in their heighborhood, most people will buy one.”


written by

Paul Duchene at pduchene@portlandtribune.com.