Abandoned, the house had been decaying for years, its fate locked by a family trust. Like many other residents of the Wallowa Valley in Oregon, Steve Arment had been eyeing the Victorian house for years. The east end of the house and south end of the barn, built by Horatio Cole in the 1890s, had been moved a mile by horse and windlass, rolling on logs, to this location by James Haun in 1908. Haun then doubled the size of the house with a western addition, and doubled the barn as well.
Finally, the 10-acre property went on the market in 2013. With his then-fiancée Joella, Steve—a well-known woodcarver and artist— did a few walk-throughs. What they found was horrifying. Largely uninhabited since the 1980s, the house was infested with rodents. Pack rats had filled the walls of the Morning Room with nests made from newspaper, toy circus animals from coffee tins, and peach pits. “When I stuck my head into the attic,” recalls Joella, “I saw this writhing mass of bats surrounded by bright green mold. I shrieked and left.” The seller’s agent said: “What bats?”
A 1968 fire in the dining area had gone to the roof, which was patched with plywood; window glass had been shot out by vandals; the parlor fireplace was walled up; the old porch had been replaced in the 1960s by glass sliders.
The couple considered that the house might be too far gone to save, but they couldn’t stop talking about its potential. “The family who owned it wanted to burn it down,” Steve says.
Steve and Joella bid on the house in the spring. Their bat research revealed that maternal bats usually return in early May. The couple had to rush against time to close the deal, so they’d have time to close up all holes 5/16″ in diameter or more before the bats arrived.
“It was pretty exciting,” says Steve, who hauled away two pickup loads of bat debris after the April closing. The Arments became only the second owners since the 1908 move and additions.
As word went out in the community, family, friends, and neighbors appeared to help with cleanup and restoration. “Young people showed up and wanted to know how to do things,” says Steve, who taught some of them woodworking and how to use a lathe. At the outset, Joella’s daughter Christina and her now-husband Cole spent nearly a year living with the Arments to help out. Joella’s son John also contributed time and energy. Steve’s daughter Audrey lived with the couple for a time to assist with many construction and painting projects. “Kelly, the daughter of friends of friends,” says Steve, “was here a year and went on to become a woodcarver and woodworker. Artist Anna Vogel painted the original clawfoot tubs and the scullery window adornments.”
After they opened the boxed-in stair landing, Steve stood looking out through the parlor, dining room, and kitchen for a long time. “We didn’t know at that point what the interior would look like,” Joella says, “but the design came to him as an inspiration right then and there, and he began drawing it, then he built it.”
Handwritten signs warned guests “Danger! Do Not Use!” throughout the house. A woodstove sat in front of the hidden-away fireplace. “I figured there had to be chimney behind it,” says Steve. He designed the mantel treatment after an 1880s carved mirror from a San Francisco hotel, purchased at a yard sale in Oregon.
The couple, who’d married that August, lived in a 1970s camping trailer donated by friends from May until mid-November, when the house was more-or-less habitable. Friends and family gathered as local monks led a Buddhist blessing of the property. Steve’s artistry, along with his lifetime collection of antique furnishings and oil paintings, joined Joella’s collection and the couple’s do-it-yourself mentality, allowing them to dream and decorate the Willows Homestead.
See more Victorian trim: oldhouseonline.com/house-tours/rescuing-folk-victorian-family-home
Joella wanted the scullery, a space behind the kitchen formerly used to store firewood and lawn chemicals, to have an arched entry. The checkerboard flooring, color scheme, and overall design was inspired by Pat-A-Cake, a children’s book by artist Scott Gustafson. Joella’s passion for irises, inherited from her late mother, inspired Steve to carve the flowers on kitchen cabinetry as a surprise for her.
Joella christened a western-addition area upstairs the Curlew Room, after the slender birds with down-turned bills. Steve designed and painted the window adornment depicting the birds.
Now the Willows Homestead is a testament to vision, talent, and perseverance. “The
town’s reaction has been very positive,” Steve reports. “People are really happy we saved the house—including the 26 family members from whom we bought it, who consider it part of their family’s history.”
HISTORY IN THE BARN
A considerable amount of Oregon history can be read through the barn at the Willows Homestead:
• The 1890s Horatio Cole barn was moved to its current location in 1908 by James Haun, who enlarged the double-cupola structure to 10,000 square feet.
• Haun, a poor settler from Missouri, arrived in the Wallowa Valley in the late 1870s, where he became one of the area’s wealthiest ranchers. He is listed on the “Original Pioneers” plaque on the Wallowa County courthouse.
• The two-storey barn was designed to feed workhorses and store hay.
• A dairy was added to the north in 1913. A granary, still in good condition, is located to the south.
• The house, barn, and granary all were built from locally milled Ponderosa pine.