When I finished college, I found the house I was looking for here in southeast Portland, Oregon: a simple, Victorian-style cottage built in 1909. I’d saved just enough money for a small down payment and knew I couldn’t afford to undo the remodeling indignities you see in so many houses for sale. This one, however, owned by the same family since 1917, had escaped; its beautiful fir woodwork, original windows and hardware, and even some lighting fixtures were intact.
I was so anxious that I get the house, I even asked friends to write letters to the elderly man who was selling it, telling him how much I loved restoration and how I would do a good job with his family home. Several bids were in, but it was my offer that got accepted. I rolled up my sleeves.
I decided to keep restoration simple—largely by respecting the character of the house and resisting impulses to “update” it. Basically, it had been built from salvaged materials and was never particularly fine. The coat hooks that still hung on the back of closet doors, for example, were plain wire; I cleaned them up and reinstalled them, rather than spend money on reproduction brass hooks.
I polished and replaced the doors’ slide bolts, and even kept the skeleton keys. I kept the aging but obviously original (or near-original) fixtures such as the stove, bathroom sink, and tub. Sometimes it was hard to resist temptation. Working at Rejuvenation, Portland’s premier restoration supplier, I was surrounded by elegant products. But I picked my indulgences carefully.
Rather than upgrade, I restored what woodwork I could and matched its simplicity where I had to add it. Part of letting the house speak for itself meant using the original red and green paints I found behind moldings. With a lot of elbow grease—from me and friends and family—I can report that my restoration cost only about $5,000.
Starting on the exterior, I removed the imitation brick siding (1958), then primed and painted the clapboards underneath in a schoolhouse green, which was evident behind a cornerboard. I picked a trim paint in a butter-yellow that had been used on the house in the 1920s. I replaced the front steps, stripped the front and back doors, and added appropriately modest period hardware where it was missing.
Inside, I found traces of a plate rail and vertical wainscoting under later wallpaper in the dining room. So, with the help of friends, I put them back. I kept the room simple, stripping floors and painting them a mocha color which looked to be the original finish. It was tedious but cheap to remove layers of wallpaper and calcimine paint, after which I painted walls in a warm palette: Italian-villa red, a pleasing green, and a vibrant mango yellow-orange, all colors taken from chips of the original painted plaster. My dad and I did add a swinging door to the kitchen, but merely cleaned up existing hardware and stripped the floor registers.
Fortunately, the chandeliers in the parlor and dining room were still there and just needed a thorough cleaning. In the kitchen, I took up the vinyl floor and just waxed the wood underneath with carnauba. Believe it or not, I did almost nothing to the kitchen cabinets—didn’t even sand them, just stripped the doors and rubbed them with carnauba wax. I discovered an old stove and refrigerator in the basement, which I refinished and installed. The 1940s vintage table was sitting in the middle of the kitchen, where it had been for 60 years, so I left it there. I replumbed the only bathroom, and restored the sink and tub.
My furniture, too, is simple. The owner had left 1940s drapery and I bought some of his furniture from him, including four dining-room chairs. My relatives pitched in with furniture and mementos for the house. I like the results. Best of all, so does Joe, the man who sold me his house. He stops by to check on my progress (and his kiwi vines). I think that sensitivity combined with elbow grease can go a long way.
Story produced by Brian Coleman.Published in: Old-House Interiors December/January 2004