John Bexell House
The John Bexell House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992; portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2016, The Gombach Group.
The John Bexell House occupies an approximately 50' x 100' lot on the northwest corner of Van Buren Avenue and 30th Street in Corvallis, Oregon. The long axis of this property runs east/west along Van Buren, and the house faces south onto that street. It was designed by the firm of Bennes & Herzog, of Portland, Oregon, for John and Dena Bexell in 1926. John Bennes, who designed at least 21 campus buildings at nearby Oregon State University, is believed to have been the principal designer of the house. Bexell was Dean of the School of Commerce at then Oregon State College.
The Bexell house is an excellent example of the Tudor Revival style, which was popular in Corvallis in the 20's. The exterior of the house is virtually intact as built. A complete set of marked-up working drawings and specifications is in the possession of the current owners, and very few differences are found between these and the house today. One basement window has been enlarged to provide legal fire egress (it is, however, still contained within its original window well); custom-colored removable storm windows have been added to all 36 regular shaped windows; and the exterior paint color has been changed from a light green with darker green trim to a dark red. Several changes have been made to the interior. The kitchen (1964-69) and upstairs bathroom (1980) have been completely reworked, but within their original walls. The full-size basement, which was originally left unfinished with a fruit room and laundry and furnace areas, has been remodeled (1982) to contain a studio, a bedroom, a bath, storage, and laundry facilities. Otherwise, only minor interior alterations and additions have been made.
The house is in the form of a simple, single-story block carrying a very steep (16/12) gable roof, with a low, shed-roofed wing extending east along half of the 30th Street elevation. There is an attached, gable-roofed garage on the west. This garage roof is of a lower pitch than the main one, and their ridges are parallel, creating a valley between the two structures. The main house roof is elaborated into usable living space by a complex set of wall dormers on each slope. These dormers are similar and symmetrically disposed with regard to the north/south roof ridge. They are made up of a shed-roofed central portion sandwiched between two smaller gables, which are roofed at the same pitch as the main gable. There is a large rectangular, central chimney of combed brick with two flues, rising several feet above the roof peak.
The principal block of the house is pushed somewhat east of center on the lot, increasing the size of the more private back yard. This effect is accentuated by the lower sunroom wing and its adjoining terrace, which extend the mass of the house gently east toward 30th Street. The yards on the north and south are minimal because of the strategy of orienting the building on the short axis of the lot.
The back yard is noted as "lawn and garden" on the original plan. Today it is enclosed by a large laurel hedge along Van Buren Avenue, and the surface is mostly paved with concrete and asphalt. Other surviving plantings known to have been made by the Bexells include several large lilacs near the northwest corner of the garage, hydrangeas along the north side of the house, and a laurel hedge enclosing the terrace adjoining the sunroom.
The house is of wood frame construction, built on a full, reinforced-concrete basement foundation. The first-floor walls are sheathed in painted, comb-sawn cedar shingles, and this treatment extends up to the sill level of the windows in the gable ends. Above the second floor windows in the gables the wall surface becomes stucco between false half-timbering, applied to imitate traditional structural patterns. The stucco and half-timbering are also incorporated into the two large dormer systems. The roof is very steep (16/12), providing considerable attic space even above the second floor. It springs from the top of the first floor walls, and is currently roofed with composition shingles. There is a gutter, with elaborate scuppers on the east side. While the original specifications call for composition shingles only if the owner was willing to bear the additional expense, it is unclear from historic photographs whether this was done. In the section where the main roof joins to the lower-pitched sunroom shed roof, the rafters are curved to visually ease the transition. The barge board also reflects this curve.
South: A large oriel window, centered and supported on decorative brackets, dominates the gable end of the principle elevation. Below, two double casement windows with segmentally arched heads serve the living room. They are separated by about eight feet. To the left is a smaller protruding gabled structure with a round-arched opening which shelters the front porch. The front door here is flanked by eight-light leaded glass side panels and topped by a semi-circular leaded window. To the right is the sunroom with a grouping of two casement windows flanking a fixed panel of lights. The garage front is set back at the left, with a gated opening at its right which serves the kitchen door. The garage closes with a three-segmented bifolding door with small windows in the upper sections of the panels.
East: This elevation is dominated by the expanse of the roof surrounding a dormer system of flanking gables, and a central shed section. The gable dormers each have two casement windows, and the central shed has a pair of casements. The lower floor presents a continuous array of windows on both the protruding sunroom wing and the dining room. In the sunroom section there are two fixed panels flanked by casements. In the dining room window sills are much lower, coming within a foot of the floor, with one 18-light fixed panel flanked by casements, giving the illusion of French doors, and the entire array topped by three short windows forming a graceful segmented arch. There is a brick wall, with upswept ends, dividing the terrace north of the sunroom from the east laurel hedge which shields the terrace and the dining room windows from the street.
North: The proximity of the property line makes this the least significant aspect of the house. It is similar to, but simpler than, the front elevation, having no bow window and no sunroom extension. There are paired windows for the dining room, separated by about three feet, as well as paired windows for the breakfast room and kitchen. A small window for the lavatory and an off-center small window for the garage complete the array of windows on the first floor. The second floor bedroom presents three windows and the bathroom one. All of these windows are double-hung. The north side of the sunroom, facing onto the terrace, accesses the outside through a single 18-light French door, flanked by six-light fixed side panels located under a highly decorative pediment.
West: Once again, this is an elevation dominated by the roof of the house with its elaborate dormers. The dormer windows are all casements on this side, one looking out from the bathroom and an unmatched pair from the stairwell. The garage wall, with a paired set of double-hung windows off-center toward the left, obscures about half of the lower portion of the house. That portion which is visible contains two small round-headed windows, one a single pane on the porch side wall and the other an elegant 14-light window looking out from the foyer (there is an identical round-headed single pane window on the east wall of the porch).
The two-story Norman Farmhouse constructed in 1926 for college dean John Bexell and his wife, Dena, at the corner of Van Buren Avenue and 30th Street on the periphery of the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis, was designed by the firm of Bennes and Herzog. The house occupies a 50 x 100-foot lot at the northwest corner of the intersection and faces south onto Van Buren Avenue.
The house is a locally distinguished and well-preserved example of historic period residential architecture in the Tudor Revival, or Norman Farmhouse style. It is a two-story rectangular volume with gable end entry offset to the west side that is balanced on the east by a single-story, shed-roofed wing which is sheltered by the flaring sweep of the main roof slope. The main volume is enclosed by a steeply-pitched gable roof, the ridge of which is perpendicular to the facade. Long, shed-roofed dormers on either side are planked by gabled dormers at either end.
The stylistic character of the house is proclaimed by the shingle-clad facade, which is accented by stuccoed and "haIf-timbered" gables. The main gable with its close verges is jettied over a central, polygonal second story bay, or oriel which has decorated, stuccoed spandrel. The double-hung windows of the bay have divided lights in upper sashes. These, at present, are covered by storm windows. Tall, double-leaf, or French windows having segmental arch heads light the front living room. The rest of the windows are multi-paned, either round-headed or arranged in banks. Although no true Tudor arch is apparent on the exterior, one hallmark of the idiom is the label molding that finishes the roundheaded porch entrance. Eclecticism characteristic of period architecture of this type is evident in the Georgian windows and lunette top light of the front entry.
The interior continues the blend of styles with Tudor, or segmental-arched and four-center arched portiere archways and firebox opening used in combination with a Georgian staircase anchored by a newel post with urn finial. The house, apart from kitchen and bath remodeling and a change in exterior color treatment, is unaltered. The early treatment is reported to have been pale green with darker green trim. At present, the body and trim color are dark brown-red. A gable-roofed, single-bay garage is attached to the west side of the house, set back from the facade separately contributing feature. It is an integral part of the house.
The house holds significance to the university community also under Criterion B for its association with the original owner-occupant. John Andrew Bexell (1867-1938), a native of Sweden, emigrated to America with his family at a young age, was raised in the Midwest and entered into the field of higher education as an expert in business science. He came west in 1903 to head the School of Commerce for Utah Agricultural College at Logan, where W. J. Kerr was the president. In 1908, Bexell followed Kerr to Oregon Agricultural College to assume similar duties as dean of the developing School of Commerce there. He held the post to 1931, building the reputation of his school to national prominence as a pioneer in the development of business methods in farming. He was the author of three widely-used textbooks, including Principles of Bookkeeping and Farm Accounts, which was in its eleventh printing by the time the Bexells moved into their ultimate Corvallis house. The book was the standard authority in the field of agricultural business. Bexell was commemorated on the campus of Oregon State University in the renaming of the Commerce Building, which was designed by John Bennes in 1922. The building was rededicated as Bexell Hall after the dean's death in 1938. The property, the final residence of five in Corvallis occupied by the Bexells, is the one bearing the most important association because it represents the culmination of a distinguished career. It was designed and built just four years before Bexell reached emeritus status. In its spacious living and reception room, it epitomizes the hospitality the Bexells customarily extended to colleagues, students and friends in academic life.
John Bennes, principal in the Portland-based firm of Bennes & Herzog, is thought to have had the leading hand in the building's design. The house plans bearing the firm's title block are dated 1922. John V. Bennes (1867-1943), also raised in the Midwest, is one of the designers of rank in annals of Oregon architecture. He is well known for his several Portland residences that effectively introduced the Prairie style to Oregon. He is noted, too, for much fine work in the tradition of Beaux Arts Classicism for the State System of Higher Education. His Administration Building of 1929 for Eastern Oregon State College in LaGrande is listed in the National Register. Against the backdrop of a significant array of monumental architecture from his hand on the Oregon State University campus, the Bexell House is a contrasting example in the romantic tradition. It is a comfortable, yet dignified domestic type stylistically appropriate and serviceable for a college dean. The building ranks in the outstanding category of single family houses of the English Cottage/Norman Farmhouse style in Corvallis, based on analysis of local cultural resource data.
The "John Bexell House" was built by plans commissioned from the prominent Portland, Oregon architectural firm of "Bennes & Herzog" and dated May 1, 1926. One can presume that John Bexell, Dean of the School of Commerce at Oregon Agricultural College (later Oregon State College and finally Oregon State University) from 1908 to 1931, was well acquainted with John Bennes, architect for more than 30 years at Oregon Agricultural College and designer of at least 21 buildings on that campus between 1909 and 1939. Among the latter's achievements at OAC is counted the "Commerce Building," completed in 1922 and today known as "Bexell Hall." Thus, the lives of the owner and of the designer of the "John Bexell House" are intertwined in more ways than one.
John Andrew Bexell was born in Bexet, Sweden, on June 8, 1867, to Swan Johnson Bexell and Kristina (Anderson) Bexell. His father, a stonemason and farmer, brought the family to the United States in two stages, in 1881 and 1882, settling in Bancroft, Iowa. Young Bexell entered the preparatory school at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1889, becoming a freshman in the regular college in 1892 and receiving his Bachelor of Science degree from that institution in 1895. He thereupon joined the faculty of the Business College at Augustana, serving as a professor of bookkeeping, arithmetic, civics, and later banking. He continued his studies there as well, earning a Master of Arts degree from Augustana in 1901. Bexell remained on the faculty at Augustana until 1903, when he was called to Utah Agricultural College in Logan, Utah, to serve as director of the School of Commerce at a salary of $1,400.00. Bexell may have left Augustana to further his career, but he would retain a great affection for this prominent Lutheran college, leaving to it in his will the contents of his personal library and provisions for both "The Bexell Scholarship Fund" and "The Bexell Library Fund in Social Sciences." The high regard was mutual, for when Bexell was offered the position in Utah, an April 1903 edition of the Augustana Observer asked rhetorically, "Shall we let Prof. B. leave Augustana? Why, certainly not." And, too, the college would grant him his second honorary Doctor of Laws degree, in 1935.
Bexell remained at Utah Agricultural College from 1903 until 1908. President of that college was Dr. W. J. Kerr, who was later to serve as president of Oregon Agricultural College. These two men would be associates for nearly 35 years. At UAC, Bexell not only organized and developed the seven-year business course there, he also served as secretary of the board of regents and business manager of the college. In 1908, Bexell was called to Oregon Agricultural College to serve as dean of the School of Commerce, a school which was still in its infancy but, which, under Bexell's able leadership, would grow to be the largest of the ten degree-granting divisions at the College and enjoy national prominence, exercising "constructive influence on the development of commercial education throughout the country." During his first two years at OAC, Bexell also served as manager of the business office, but resigned from those duties in 1910 to devote himself fully to the School of Commerce.
Bexell made his mark not only at OAC, but statewide and even nationally as both an educator and an author. He was a "pioneer in the development of business methods in farming," the central tenet of his work and research being that "there is a business side to every vocation." He published bulletins with the U.S. Bureau of Markets in Washington, D.C., and authored three nationally distributed textbooks (including Principles of Bookkeeping and Farm Accounts, and First Lessons in Business). Naturally, Bexell was an active member of numerous professional organizations.
When Bexell retired from his Deanship in 1931 (interestingly, his successor also came to Oregon State via Utah), the State Board of Higher Education honored him with an appointment as Dean Emeritus, "in recognition of distinguished service and notable achievements which entitle [him] to relief from the many administrative burdens that [he has] borne with unsparing devotion." Further adulation would follow with the honorary Doctor of Laws degree awarded by now OSC to Bexell in 1932. His achievements and contributions were summarized in laudatory tones in obituaries after his death in Corvallis on February 6, 1938, following a long illness which had kept him bedridden for years (Parkinson's Disease). He was remembered as a "pioneer figure in Oregon higher education." Then OSC president Peavy, a colleague of Bexell's for 28 years, paid tribute as follows: "He was a steadfast friend, kindly, considerate, just—always in his years of service to Oregon State College he touched in a fine and enduring way the minds and hearts of thousands of young men and women. This achievement, weighed alone, constitutes a valid claim to immortality." Friends and family alike would not soon forget "Uncle Bex." And of course, Bexell would achieve a further measure of immortality when it was decided in later years to change the name of his "Commerce Building" to "Bexell Hall."
Bexell was married at the age of 30 to native Iowan Dena Dahn in 1897 at Rock Island, Illinois. Although she never pursued a career in her own right, Dena Bexell appears to have been an exemplary example of that class of devoted wives from an earlier era who managed their households with uncommon zeal and efficiency, ever ready to serve the community and fully support the husband in his chosen career, all the more so in this case as the couple was childless. She was a fastidious homemaker, given to folding the dirty sheets neatly before placing them with the other laundry and to aligning her centerpieces with the aid of a measuring tape. Bexell's devotion to his wife is evident in various drafts of his last will and testament. The couple was prominent in the Corvallis community, often appearing in the local social columns upon the occasion of a trip or other event. (Following her husband's death, Dena Bexell sold the Bexell home on Van Buren Avenue in 1938 and returned to the Midwest to be near relatives. She died on March 25, 1961, in Illinois.
Reportedly, the Bexells lived in at least five different houses in Corvallis. In addition to the Van Buren Avenue house—their final residence in Corvallis— they are said to have lived at Tyler Avenue and Sixth Street, on Monroe Avenue on College Hill, and at Sixth Street and Harrison, as well as at 762 SW Jefferson (the latter is documented in the Corvallis Cultural Resource Inventory as having been commissioned by Bexell in 1908).
The house embodies the success of a prominent professional at the zenith of his career. Bexell turned 60 in 1927, the year the house was likely occupied. The home is relatively large compared to most of its neighbors, and particularly so for an older, childless couple. However, the spacious size of the rooms obviously facilitated the entertaining for which the Bexells were known (teas, receptions, etc.), and the graceful and elegant design details throughout bespoke the owners' positions at the college and in the community. Versatile architect John Bennes' talent was employed in this residential commission to the best advantage of the owners, displayed in a traditional style executed to the highest standards of workmanship. Although most members of the OSU community are today familiar with the name Bexell because of "Bexell Hall," it is with the "John Bexell House" that this dedicated educator left his personal mark on the community with which he and his wife shared so much of their lives.
† Tamara D. Stehr, homeowner, with David Skilton, John Bexell House, Benton County, OR, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.