Bird, bunnies and backstory at the restored Isam White House in Northwest Portland
When Richard and Anne De Wolf bid for Isam’s White House in 2016, they knew what they were getting into – the two-and-a-half-story, originally four-bedroom home in northwest Portland, is listed on the National Register. historical places. The De Wolfs are co-owners of design firm Arciform, which specializes in historic preservation and renovation, and they had done that dance before.
“We lived in a historic house before that, but it wasn’t on the national register,” says Richard, who founded Arciform in 1997, with his wife Anne joining as lead designer a year later. “And we felt like we’d been talking all these years. So, we thought we’d better walk the talk.
Anne, from Germany, met Richard 29 years ago when they were both living on boats in South Carolina. They went on a road trip together just a month after they met, reunited in Oregon and got married. It wasn’t long before they began a new love affair with restoring and preserving old homes. While Arciform specializes in restoring and remodeling pre-1930s homes, other restoration projects in Portland include Union Station, Hollywood Theater and the Old Church Concert Hall. When a real estate agent they knew informed them that Isam’s White House was on the market, the De Wolves jumped at the chance.
“Our house that we lived in at the time was beautiful, nice and finished – to the point that we were a little bored. We like projects. So we were like, ‘OK, let’s see this,'” recalls Richard, “We didn’t look at other houses or do any benchmarking or anything like that. We just said, ‘We’re going to buy this place.’ And so we wrote a nice letter, and they accepted our offer.
Anchored on a leafy street corner in Northwest Portland’s Nob Hill neighborhood, the Isam White House has its own history as well. Built in 1904, the colonial-revival blue mansion is named after its first resident, Isam White, a wealthy merchant who moved in with his wife, Rose, the same year. It was designed by Whidden & Lewis, the same company that brought us historic highlights like Portland City Hall and the old Multnomah County Courthouse. After her husband’s death in 1909, Rose White owned the property until 1923. Things took a strange turn when subsequent owners bought the house with the reported intention of using it as a morgue, but these plans fell through due to zoning regulations. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the place was used as a boarding house.
In classic Portland fashion, Isam’s White House was also a gathering place for foodies. Beginning in the 1940s, owner Hilma Carlson operated a first-floor restaurant called the Cape Cod Tea Room, where Portlanders feasted on “luxury” $1.75 dinners of roast leg of lamb with jelly. of mint. The Cape Cod Tea Room would also have served pink princesses and other dignitaries.
Jack Hilyard moved in in the 1970s. A reverend active with nearby Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, which was looked down upon by his family when he came out as gay, Hilyard lived there with his partner David Druse. Both have since passed away, but were known to throw big parties at the historic home, according to Hilyard’s obituary.
” There have been [some] great and interesting families who have made this house a home for the community through charity events and things like that, so Anne and I are continuing in that tradition,” says Richard. Although large gatherings have been suspended during the pandemic, the couple are looking forward to welcoming the community back into their home.
“We love old houses because they have so much personality that isn’t necessarily trendy and current, but opens your eyes to how people thought 100 or more years ago,” says Anne. . “It just makes it a bit more of an exploration and that’s
really fun for us.
While preserving the quirkiness inherent in their new old home has been a focal point for the De Wolfs over the past six years, they have also added their own personal accents. Example: A colony of life-size rabbit statues guarding the rose bushes in the front yard. “It doesn’t take much to have fun,” says Anne. “Rabbits are the thing people take the most pictures of. They are a huge hit with the neighborhood.
By incorporating modern touches into their home, the De Wolfs made sure to do so in a way that respects the bones and distinctive architecture of the house. “You can do it with furniture, you don’t have to tear down the walls,” Richard says of some of the updates. “Instead, you can bring modern pieces like this,” he says, waving his arm at the sofas in the lime-green living room. Contrasting with the navy blue walls that dominate the room as well as the dark woodwork, the sofas contribute to a playful mix of old and new. Hanging from the ceiling are crystal chandeliers that once lit the Georgian Room, a restaurant and popular spot for affluent “lunch ladies” on the 10th floor of the former Meier & Frank department store, now the Nines Hotel.
But there’s not much the De Wolfs want to drastically change, and due to the house being listed on the National Register, they’re limited to what they can change when it comes to the exterior. “A large part of the house was already in very good condition. We feel more like custodians here, so we’re going to be doing a lot more preservation-type work,” says Richard. One of the other benefits of living in a historic home? The house has a working dumbwaiter that can be used to carry heavy items or bags upstairs. Richard’s 83-year-old mother, who moved in after her husband’s death, “uses it all the time,” he says.
One of the major projects was the kitchen, which had been covered by inexpensive, temporarily surface-mounted cabinets and appliances – a product of the 1970s.
“We pulled all that out and found the original kitchen,” says Anne. Beneath the 70s additions were original white hexagonal floor tiles and green cracked glazed brick tiles along the walls.
“Instead of demolishing the whole kitchen floor, we decided to leave it because it is part of the history of the house. And for the little cracks and such, I’m going to do gold leaf, a Japanese technique that celebrates life’s imperfections instead of hiding them,” says Richard.
If walking around this house picks up an animal theme, it’s all De Wolfs, including the flashing wallpaper and boxing bunnies you’ll miss. “Unless I pointed it out, you’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s just lovely wallpaper.’ But then you look at him and say, “Wait a minute, those bunnies are fighting,” Richard reveals.
There is one animal motif that could never go unnoticed: birds, lots of them. From a peacock table base to the living room wallpaper covered in flowers and cranes to a wrought iron swan faucet as well as the blue wallpaper with egrets that runs up the stairs to the second floor, one can safely say that the De Wolves literally put a bird on it. It’s “sophisticated-clunky,” says Anne.
While their biggest project so far has been getting three bedrooms on the fourth floor ready for Airbnb (the house is, admittedly, a little big for just three people), the couple’s favorite change is the library they’ve added to the area at the top of the stairs, complete with an old fashioned sliding ladder. “There was nothing here before, just a ton of doors actually,” Richard says of the newly added shelves filled with (in his own words) trashy romance novels. “We are in no way trying to be pretentious with our books.” Anne, a self-proclaimed bookworm, adds: “It’s the most rudimentary library you’ve ever seen.
Yet it’s this juxtaposition between classic and “goofy” that has made Isam’s White House a place the De Wolves can call home. “We try to have a kind of impulsive nature in our decision-making,” says Anne. “Every time we’re like, ‘Oh, this is getting too conventional’, we turn around and go the other way.”