The Back Story: Chapter 1
The Stickley Project
I grew up in a big old house in the northeast neighborhood in Portland, Oregon called Irvington. This old house, built just after the turn of the 20th century, had some interesting features like a big brick fireplace flanked by two glass book cases, tapered square columns between the entry way and the living room, and a box beam ceiling and wainscoting topped by plate molding in the dining room. I remember members of my family telling me that we lived in a Craftsman house, but I didn’t understand the significance. Although I liked the features of the house, I grew up thinking that most houses were like ours, since it was a neighborhood full of old houses. It wasn’t until I moved out, grew up, and started looking for a house of my own that I understood the treasure of owning one of these great old homes.
My first house was a small dumpy 1970 ranch in the Multnomah Village neighborhood of southwest Portland. It was small, ugly, and in disrepair due to the neglect of several tenants and landlords of recent years. At the time, it was the only thing I could afford that was a reasonable commute to work. I spent the next 8 years fixing it up and making it a better place, only to come to the realization that it was still a dumpy ‘70s ranch house. During this time, my income levels increased, as did my longing for the grander homes of my childhood. But, grand old Irvington had become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Portland (after my parents retired and moved away) and the commute from the east side is a bit of a challenge if you work in the southwestern suburbs of the area. So, after some poking from my girlfriend, I put the dumpy ranch up for sale and began a 4 month search for the best old-house opportunity in the southwest Portland area.
After looking at a lot of overpriced, mediocre houses on noisy streets, and missing a few decent opportunities due to late bids, we finally jumped on a small 1942 Cape Cod style house (or so I was told) in Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood. Even though the house was way too small (around 940sf on the main floor) and the asking price was too high (Hillsdale is an ideal location, relatively quiet yet close to downtown, which makes for some hefty asking prices for even the smallest of houses), we took the plunge and began a new chapter in our lives.
I had no idea what we were doing. I’m not saying we made a big mistake. We bought a sturdy house, on a large private lot, on a quiet street, in an excellent neighborhood. But, as for the house, it was small and had that closed-in feeling. It was also lacking those grand old house features like the built-ins. But, probably the most offending thing to me personally was that all the woodwork was painted. I didn’t understand this house. I decided I needed to do some research to find out what it was. I wanted to find out what we could do for it to make it more of a home we could be proud of, and less of a small, closed-in, track house that I didn’t understand. I decided I needed to find out: what happened to the Craftsman houses, why there are so many more in Portland’s eastside, why they stopped making them, and why my house was so small and missing those great old house features. I decided to search the county library for books the covered the history of 20th century housing in general, and specifically the history of Portland houses.
What I learned is that Portland and the Arts and Crafts movement had a great convergence just after the turn of the 20th century. At the time, Portland was a small port city full of businessmen who believe in Portland’s future as one of the west coasts great cities. It seemed obvious to them. Portland is situated just a few miles from the Columbia, the largest river in North America that flows into the Pacific, it was near millions of acres of rich farmland and thick timber forests, and it had the right infrastructure in place to exploit these resources. But, Portland’s population was pitiful compared to its west cost rivals. San Francisco had boomed during the California gold rush and Seattle had burst during the Alaskan rush. But, Portland had failed to benefit much from these glories. The gold of Oregon lay in the surrounding natural resources and there were not as many people rushing in to get to Oregon’s gold. Few people outside of the region even knew about Portland, Oregon. Most people only knew of it’s namesake in Maine. Oregon was out west somewhere at the end of the Oregon Trail. Out where Lewis and Clark had ended their expedition a century earlier. In fact, it had been almost exactly a century after Lewis and Clark’s famous voyage when the residents of Portland began formulating a plan.
The business and political leaders of Portland came up with a scheme to promote Portland. They decided to get together and invest in a fair, a World’s Fair, to celebrate 1905’s 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It would be a huge fair rivaling the many world’s fairs that were so popular at the time. In it, they would build many splendid pavilions that would promote all of the region’s benefits. A lot of money was spent building, organizing the fair activities, and promoting to the rest of the country. The pavilions even included the world’s largest log cabin to promote Oregon’s timber industry. It was a big risk. The nervous investors waited anxiously for the summer of ’05 arrive.
When it did, the response was overwhelming. Huge crowds flocked to Portland's fair. Many favorable reviews were published in major newspapers across the country. Not only did a lot of people visit, but also many stayed. The economic stimulus of the fair lasted for years. Thousands of houses were built for the influx in population. Most of these houses were built in what is now Portland’s east side in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. But, why were most of them built in the style called Craftsman?
Between 1905 and 1929, Portland’s economy was booming and houses were going up like mad. At the time, many builders, architects, and prospective homebuyers subscribed to a popular magazine called The Craftsman. Published by a furniture maker named Gustav Stickley in order to promote his furniture company, The Craftsman presented the reader with the ideal home for modern family living. These magazines included, not only wonderful sturdy oak furniture, but also complete house plans that were seen as consistent with Stickley’s values. These values were grounded in the Arts and Crafts movement that had begun a half a century earlier in England. This movement preached functional designs, organic materials, and themes of nature. They rejected the expensive and ornately detailed styles so popular in Victorian England that seemed more a moniker of wealth than honest functionality. But, whereas the English Arts & Craft movement stressed the importance of handmade items, Americans like Stickley downplayed this and used modern machines to help build with a focused on clean lines, functionality, and natural materials. Like other American designers at the time, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Stickley blended the English ideals with earlier American influences such as Shaker and Mission styles. Many of the Americans who built houses featured in The Craftsman filled their homes with Morris chairs, Mission tables, and Shaker dressers.
As a furniture maker, Stickley understood the importance of furniture in the house and stressed the ideal of the right furniture making the home. He also enjoyed the idea of combining the furniture with the house. His “built-in” furniture was primarily focused on storage and had the added bonus of matching the houses’ own style. These house designs began in the living room. Stickley believed one should be able to sit in a comfortable chair with a good book in front a warm fire. This was before the age of mind numbing cable TV, and even before radio. Stickley’s ideal was to be entertained with books and conversations with family and guests before fire and hearth. His interiors were sturdy and practical with an emphasis placed on the living and dining rooms. The front door opened into an entry room that usually had an opening into the living room that was flanked by heavy tapered vertical columns. The cozy living rooms had warm fireplaces with heavy mantels flanked by bookcases worthy of a collection of leather-bound books. Although the kitchens were “conveniently” small and intended for only a single cook (the idealized house wife), the dining room was often quite large, big enough for both family and guests. Although not ornate like the Victorian homes, these dining rooms were filled with lots of sturdy warm woodwork including wainscoting, plate moldings, box beam ceilings, and built-in sideboards to store the dinnerware.
Stickley loved the warm natural look of wood, especially oak, and included it throughout the house. Moldings and casings were wide and usually made of oak. The exterior of the houses shared this sturdy look. Roofs generally overhung at least a couple of feet and were supported by exposed roof beams that ended with triangular shaped (knee) braces. The front porch was open and inviting and usually included tapered square columns like those found between the entry way and the living room. This new style promoted by The Craftsman magazine was just immerging at the time of Portland’s 1905 fair. Within 10 years it would be the norm.
The Craftsman style home’s emphasis on wood made a lot of sense in the timber rich region of the Pacific Northwest. Although the featured oak was still expensive, Oregon’s fir was cheap and plentiful and the softer wood had the additional benefit of being easier to work than the hard oak. In the 1910’s houses went up rapidly in Portland with fir frames, fir walls and ceilings (horizontal slats that were plastered over), fir doors, fir casings, fir moldings, and even fir floors. Once the fir was in place, it was often stained and varnished to look like oak, mahogany, or even walnut. The local builders had “Portlandized” the Craftsman style. Today, some local architectural historians even give this style its own name: “Old Portland.” There is often real estate listing that list the style of a given house as “Old PDX.”
Portland’s home building juggernaut cruised along until the stock market crash of ’29 signaled the end of the economic boom.
Although, arguably, Oregon’s economy weathered better than many other state, due in part to transplanting farmers moving out of the dust bowl states to Oregon’s still fertile Willamette valley, the Great Depression left its mark on Portland’s housing scene. What few houses built at the time were commissioned mostly by Portland’s wealthiest citizens. These wealthy few saw the Craftsman houses as common and old fashion and a new modernist movement emerging in Europe won their favor. Gone were the large over hanging roof. Gone were the triangular knee braces. Gone were the dormers, the large porches, the tapered columns. The building of Craftsman style houses in Portland came to an end.
The Great Depression kept its grip on Portland’s housing market until war broke out in Europe at the end of the ‘30s. America’s industrial support of the allied forces perked up the demand for Oregon’s timber and Portland’s shipbuilding. Once again, new residence found jobs in the Portland area and demanded new, though modest, housing. The increased nationalism at the time helped create a renewed interest in colonial style architecture and the Cape Cod revival style fit into this new aesthetic. The big old Craftsman houses were seen by many of Portland’s wartime transplants as too big, too expensive, and too old fashion. Since many of the transplants were young single men or small families, the demand for new small inexpensive “starter” homes created many developments like the ones seen today mostly in north Portland but also scattered around the rest of the metro area. Although sturdy and well built, these houses were kept small and plain in order to keep the selling price attractive for the new working-class buyers.
Our new house was completed just weeks after Pearl Harbor ushered America into the war. As the military industrial machinery shifted into high gear, the economic stimulus helped create even more demand for single-family housing in the Portland area. The house sold quickly as did many of the similar houses of the time. When the first owners walked in the front door, they found a house with a generous living room with a warm fireplace on one end and a connected dining area on the other. The new house also had 2 bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. The very small dining area did include a single built-in cabinet with a simple leaded glass door. The floor was beautifully finished top-nailed white oak and the colonial style white painted moldings framed single panel painted fir doors. The chalking white paint, very popular at the time, gave the house a clean and formal look. The kitchen had an electric range, a small sink, and a few cabinets above and below a built-in counter top. The windows throughout the house were wide with horizontally split panes arranged 2-over-2 that were placed close to the corners of the house, often referred to as wrap-around windows. The steep cedar shingled hip roof had just a few inches of overhang that was neatly enclosed. The full basement had a washbasin and a sawdust burning furnace that fed the house’s central heating.
It’s not a bad house, really. We bought it because it was located in on a quiet side street in the convenient neighborhood of Hillsdale. My girlfriend and I like to garden and the lot includes a large level and private backyard for us to play in. I believed we were doing the right thing as I was signing the papers. The inspector report did mention a leak in the roof over the attached garage and the ungrounded wiring, but found few other problems considering the age of the place.
But, when the day came for us to take possession and we got the keys and ran over to the house, the first thing that confronted us was the absolutely appalling condition of those oak floors. When we last saw the house it was full of furniture and area rugs. Now that that clutter was gone and the house was left bare, it was obvious to me that the floors seemed to be a lost cause. They were stained, warped, faded, and cracked. We weren’t able to get a floor guy in right away so we moved our stuff in and waited for what seemed like a very long month before the floor people could do their thing.
During this time I spent a lot of hours going over the house with a very critical eye. The kitchen had been remodeled with a decent sink and counter top, but some of the cheapest cabinets I have ever seen. One corner of the base cabinets included a rickety carousel (lazy Susan), obviously hand built. The cabinet opening was so small that we couldn’t put anything in there beside a rolling pin. Perhaps these same remodelers also added the French doors to the 2nd bedroom, which provided a nice view and access to the backyard, but, the doors were cased with ill-fitting plastic modeling. Plastic!!! The bathroom too has had some work done to it. Anything original has been replaced with a plain looking square tub enclosure, a decent looking pedestal sink, but more ill fitting molding. This time the molding was wood, but the conventional finish nails were rusting and streaking stains. At some point someone had decided to finish part of the basement. They added the house’s 2nd bathroom, a bedroom, an office, a small shop area, and walled off the utility area with the furnace and laundry. Unfortunately, the bedroom does not meet today’s code because there is no safe fire exit. The quality of the construction was pretty poor do-it-yourselfer stuff too. It is wallboard over 2x4s, splattered with rough texture, and painted white. But, at least it was livable space (actually very nice during some of those hot days that first summer) that we could store most of our stuff until the floor guys came. I must admit I spent most of this time moping around the house and drove my girlfriend crazy. I had seemingly trading my cheap dumpy ‘70’s track house for an expensive dumpy ‘40’s track house.
My research wasn’t raising my pride of ownership level either. The more I read about Cape Cod style houses the less I liked mine. A true Cod, as I read, had a centrally located fireplace capable of heating the entire house. Our fireplace was small, on the far end of the living room, and had been converted to gas with an ineffective heater. A true Cod had tall narrow windows flanked by shutters that were big enough to completely cover the windows during especially stormy weather. My windows were short and wide and had no shutters. I actually saw a drawing of my windows (the horizontally split 2-over-2 panes) in one of my newly purchased research books with a big X through it and a caption reading something like “inauthentic Cod revival style.” The chimney was wrong, the fireplace, the roofline, the attached garage was wrong too. My Cod was a fraud. I looked around at the trashed floors and inauthentic windows and wished I had held out for a wonderful Old Portland Craftsman.
However, my mood started to pickup a bit in our second month of ownership. The floor guys came and proceeded to perform a minor miracle. After 5 days of work, they had reset the top-nails, sanded off the old finish, filled in the various gaps, and refinished them with a warm satin glow in the finest of the Swedish tradition. Yippee! I now have a house with beautiful oak floors. This was very encouraging.
Shortly there after we invited a couple of my girlfriend’s friends over for dinner, one was an architect. That evening’s conversation naturally turned to house styles and features. He encouraged me to think about converting the house into a Craftsman.
I was a bit skeptical at first. I had read horror stories of poor old houses radically modernized or feebly converted from one style to another (usually half-assed and incomplete). I could see attempts by previous owners to “fix-up” the place only to leave pathetic remnants behind. Would future owners of this house curse me for ruining the house’s original cottage intent? The architect assured me that this house was a blank canvases waiting to be embellished. “These old track houses are so simple that it is easy to change them around and so sturdy they could support more weight,” he said. “Just add some built-ins, extent the roofline, pop out some dormers, enlarge the front porch, and pretty soon you could have a nice Craftsman. Besides, you don’t have to worry about ruining its authenticity; it never had any.” Naturally, I thought, we will want to add some square footage too. It doesn’t seem worth the investment unless you get a large modern kitchen and a private master suite. But, it now seems possible to get that grand old Craftsman I had hoped for without moving or demolishing the exiting house. I was happy again. Now the next question: how much is this going to cost me?
Building strait up seemed like the most expensive option. Currently you might expect to have to pay up to $200/sf when you consider that you have to reinforce the foundation, reinforce the weight baring walls, and completely replace the roof. I’m not up for paying that much so I thought about giving up part of the yard in order to gain some of the much-needed space. My goal was to keep the costs as low as possible with a smart design, doing as much of the work myself, and spreading the work out over time in various phases.
I’ve already started. I’m now finishing up on a project to rebuild the mantel in the living room, adding a flanking bookcase on one side, and a little built-in bench on the other. All in white oak, not fir. I got the design ideas from a book containing reprints of Stickley’s old Craftsman magazines. I must say it doesn’t look too bad, though my (lack of) carpentry skills have left a few loose joints that I’m going to have to go back and fix up. Also, I’m going to remove that worthless gas-burning fireplace and convert back to wood, although I will install a modern clean burning stove/insert. I am looking forward to a time when I can relax next to a warm fire, pull out a good book from the bookcase, and relax in a comfortable chair.
It’s going to take us many years to convert the house, but I’m very excited and I think it will be worth it. I also hope that the future owners of the place don’t curse me for making the conversion, appreciate the built-ins and other Craftsman features, and never paint over the woodwork!