Two remodelers remove layers of grime to unearth a gem of a house in Portland, Oregon.
The rectangle of deep orange on the ceiling brings attention to the coving and also increases the perceived ceiling height.
Photo By Susan Seubert
Driving along Mississippi Avenue in northeast Portland is like seeing a neighborhood renaissance in fast-forward. Once burned-out and boarded-up buildings sprout new restaurants. The Rebuilding Center sells reclaimed building materials from a new warehouse constructed mostly of salvaged materials. Coffee shops and hip boutiques abound.
There weren’t any early signs of neighborhood transformation when artists Virginia Young and Janie Lowe, driven from New York by the high cost of living and the daily grind of commuting, bought their house here in 1998. “We both have a strong connection to the outdoors,” Virginia says. “Living in New York City without a car, it was difficult to get to anyplace ‘wild’—and when we did, it felt like thousands of others were escaping the city with us. Though we were aware of Portland’s progressive bent, we moved here mostly because of its proximity to both the ocean and the mountains.”
Virginia and Janie’s search for an affordable old house in a neighborhood close to downtown led them to their current abode. “Though it was sitting in the middle of a double lot, this house had been on the market for a long time,” Janie says. “It had no curb appeal. Painted dirty white and bright blue with a chain-link fence and barren yard, it was downright ugly.”
But beneath the layers of grime, they saw a gem. “When people ask, I say we bought the house because of the hardware,” Virginia says. “It was built in 1888 and, though it had been remodeled over the years, it had most of the original baseboard, trim, doors and hardware.”
Like many first-time homeowners and remodelers, Virginia and Janie tackled the most obvious problem area first. “We didn’t have a plan, but I love to cook and the tiny, dark kitchen did not inspire good food,” Virginia says. In the process of opening up a space adjacent to the kitchen, they tore out a dropped ceiling and discovered the house’s original eleven-foot ceilings. Though at first reluctant to take on the extra work and mess, they removed the false ceiling and soffits over the kitchen cabinets as well.
Working on a tight budget, Virginia and Janie removed the kitchen cabinet doors, added crown molding to trim out the top, and painted the cabinets inside and out. They ripped up five layers of vinyl flooring, revealing a Douglas fir subfloor that they refinished with water-based sealer. They stripped away plaster behind the stove to expose a brick chimney and refinished the plaster walls with all-natural Aglaia casein paint and beeswax glaze.
Because of the home’s age, there was no place for a refrigerator, so the couple removed base cabinets and installed two under-counter fridges. They brought natural light into the kitchen by replacing the solid exterior door with one that has a top window (bought for $5 at a garage sale).
“Some of the work in the kitchen reminded us that we’re not builders,” Janie says. “When we poured the concrete countertops around the existing sink, we had the forms secured with duct tape and our dog’s leash. We’re really best at finishes.”
The expanded area next to the kitchen—the salon, as they like to call it—serves as both informal dining area and den. Painted in warm, strong reds, the space functions as the home’s social center. “The added height makes all the difference. These rooms can support the strong colors without feeling cramped,” Virginia says.
Playful and cozy
With a place to nourish themselves and their friends, Virginia and Janie turned to the only main-floor bathroom. “We learned a lot about materials by redoing the bathroom—paint, tiles and plasters,” Janie says. “It’s easy to experiment here because it’s so small,” Virginia adds. “We’ve redone the bathroom four times since we moved in.”
The women decided to keep the dropped ceiling in the living room and formal dining room because the coved ceiling and arched openings give the house much of its charm. They accentuated the difference between the rooms but kept the open flow with new wall finishes: an earthy, variegated, burnt-orange Venetian plaster for the dining room and a rich, golden, zero-VOC paint for the living room. They tore out the fireplace’s stovepipe and ugly tile to reveal the chimney’s structural brick. “We love the juxtaposition of the rough, unfinished bricks with the refined, carved surround and mantel,” Janie says. “It’s become a theme through the whole house. It reminds us that nothing has to be perfect.”
They also refinished the parquet floors; replaced the industrial-style, metal-frame front window with a double-pane wood window; and hired a local artist to create a beveled glass window for the front door that matches the existing leaded-glass side lights. The light streaming in through that window inspired them to resurface the entry walls with an ocher earth plaster from American Clay. “Earth plasters have a unique depth of color and a comforting feel,” Virginia says. “We love having them in the entry; when you walk in the house now, it hugs you.”
Virginia and Janie couldn’t afford to replace a corresponding metal-frame window in the dining room, and that turned out to be a good thing. With time and rumination, they realized they could create an enclosed outdoor room off the dining room, and the window was replaced by French doors that open to a patio.
“Our vision was a room open to the sky—a place safe enough to sleep outside,” Virginia says. The saltillo-like tile floor, mosaic around the built-in hot tub and stained stucco walls evoke an old Mexican courtyard. Morning light pours into the dining room through the French doors.
Janie’s mother owned and operated a nursery, so garden design comes as easily to her as painting; it’s all about composition, color, texture, balance and scale. The home’s extensive gardens developed along with the interior remodeling projects, transforming from weedy and barren to a verdant jungle. First Virginia and Janie tore out the forbidding chain-link fence and replaced it with an open picket fence. Then they brought in large rocks to create a retaining wall, now covered with trailing perennials that cascade to the sidewalk.
Inside the garden gate, gravel paths (which allow water to percolate through the soil to recharge the aquifer) weave through beds filled with flowering perennials, berries and fruit trees. A tiny lawn under a sheltering apple tree is a perfect spot for a cup of coffee in the morning sun. In the lot’s back corner, the couple shored up an ancient grape arbor to create a space that has become the summer dining room.
“When we bought this house, we didn’t realize how much we’d enjoy the gardening space and the privacy afforded by a double lot,” Janie says. “Also, the neighborhood has been a wonderful surprise—kids playing on the street, neighbors chatting as they pass and people watching out for each other.”
Adding an income stream
Virginia and Janie’s biggest investment in the house was a 1,200-square-foot basement apartment that had previously been used as a living unit but needed a major overhaul. “Our design process was very organic; the contractor came over, and we laid out the apartment by drawing chalk lines on the floor,” says Virginia. They kept part of the basement for their own laundry and utility room and, to save space, installed a gas-powered tankless water heater to serve both units.
The apartment’s positive impact has been greater than they could have imagined. “We rent to artists, and they often become friends, so we have some built-in community,” Janie says. “Though we like our privacy, developing the apartment has freed us up financially.”
A remodeling future
After seven years of off-and-on remodeling, at a total cost of about $40,000, the house feels almost done. All the surfaces have been refinished or painted, the apartment is rented out, and the garden is lush with seasonal fruits and flowers. However, Virginia and Janie have more projects in mind: finishing the north garden, floor-to-ceiling bookcases with a sliding library ladder in the salon, a rainwater-catchment system, recycling the storage shed into a painting studio and adding a photovoltaic system.
“Remodeling is an evolving creative process,” Janie says. “I think we will work on this house for as long as we live here.”
For the past 12 years, Virginia Young and Janie Lowe have run a successful custom paint and plaster business. As both designers and installers, they became increasingly aware of how interior finishes affect indoor air quality and health. Their house became a laboratory for experimenting with healthier plasters, paints and sealers. “Much of our remodeling project has been about refurbishing and refinishing surfaces,” Janie says. “Color has the power to change the feel of a space quickly, and at a relatively low cost.”
As they continued to work on their own house and on their clients’ homes, Virginia and Janie had an epiphany. They saw a need for a line of paints with zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in a limited palette based on nature’s hues: clay, stone, water, air, vegetation. “We could see how overwhelmed our clients were by an unlimited selection of tiny paint chips,” Janie says. Based on their experience, they teamed up with Rodda Paint, a Northwest company known for creating high-quality, durable paints, to create the Yolo Colorhouse (a contraction of the last names Young and Lowe) line of zero-VOC paints.
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