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Cross-Canyon Architect

Neil Farnham ’40

A picture of Neil Farnham

Neil Farnham ’40, September 17, 2014, in Redmond, Oregon.

An architect whose residential and commercial designs demonstrated a keen respect for the natural landscape, Neil left an indelible mark on the Pacific Northwest and at Reed, where his projects ranged from residence to reactor.

Neil grew up in central Oregon and engaged early on with the great outdoors—fishing, camping, and adventuring. He worked with the forest service and in lumber mills before attending Reed, where he focused on mathematics and physics, before transferring to the University of Oregon, where he completed a BS in architecture. Out of school, he was employed as a draftsman for the Bonneville Power Administration, and in 1942–46 served with the U.S. Army Engineer Amphibious unit in the Far East. He returned to military duty with the 434 Engineer Construction Battalion during the Korean War.

During his 50-year career, Neil created spaces that were open, naturally lit, and imbued with functionality and a modern aesthetic. He was the first alumnus chosen to design a building for the Reed campus, when longtime trustee E.B. MacNaughton [president 1948–52] recruited him in the ’50s to build four new dorms for Reed’s swelling student body. A History of the Reed College Campus and its Buildings (1990) records that MacNaughton told Neil and his partner, “You fellows are young, and I know you’ll break your necks to do the best possible job for us.” Of three proposed sites, Reed students approved one across the canyon, a space somewhat isolated and considered conducive to studying. Neil recommended using durable materials such as masonry and steel rather than wood, as MacNaughton proposed. He placed the dorms in an informal arrangement, with most rooms facing south toward the canyon. Each had three split-levels, with a continuous deck outside the upper level. Named in honor of longtime professors, Coleman, Chittick, Ackerman, and Sisson were dedicated in 1959 and featured in “Glass Houses for Clear Thinkers” in Progressive Architecture in 1961. Neil designed three more dorms the following year: Griffin, McKinley, and Woodbridge. Landscape architect Robert Hale Ellis Jr. ’37 added his own designs to the space.

Neil completed a number of other projects for Reed, including a cross-canyon bridge, Vollum College Center, the Physical Plant shop, a remodel project for Eliot Hall, and the research reactor. “Reed has been good to me and for me,” he remarked at his 50th class reunion.

Among his prominent designs was an award-winning addition to Timberline Lodge in 1976. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects and served as president and board member of the Portland chapter. He also volunteered with the Reed alumni association and was on the board of governors for the City Club.

A fitness devotee, Neil skied until age 95; sailed on the Columbia River and on the Pacific Ocean; biked in several Cycle Oregon tours, often as the oldest participant; swam; played volleyball and handball; and ran master’s-level track and field.

Neil married artist Mary G. Siemer in 1950; they had a daughter and four sons. He met his second wife, Marie-Eve “Ev” Takla, at the Multnomah Athletic Club; they were together for three decades and enjoyed traveling abroad and in the U.S.

“His endearing manner, encyclopedic recall and modest principled lifestyle ensured numerous enduring personal friendships, professional alliances, and stimulating conversations on a wide range of topics,” says his family. Neil and Ev moved to Redmond in 2002, living in a home that he designed and built. The home overlooked a dry canyon with an unobstructed view of eight mountains in the Cascade Range. “We love it here,” he wrote to Reed.

Survivors include his wife and children, a stepdaughter and a stepson, 11 grandchildren, and a sister.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2015

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