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A home worth saving

Couple return to their neighborhood roots and take on historic challenge

Remodeling a single-family dwelling is one thing, but transforming a 10-unit boarding house into a home is a project for only the most intrepid remodelers.

Enter Smith and Mary Piper, Portland natives who returned several years ago after 30 years in Seattle, where Smith was a government financial officer.

'I was looking for a house that I could save,' says Mary Piper, a longtime antique dealer and home refurbishing expert.

She found her project in a 6,000-square-foot American Craftsman-style house in the Irvington district that had been broken up illegally into apartments.

The Pipers set about the task of restoring the home to its grand origins, the result of which will be on display for this year's Historic Irvington Home Tour.

Relocating to the Irvington neighborhood made perfect sense to Smith and Mary, who attended Lincoln and Jefferson high schools respectively and met while attending Lewis & Clark College.

'My grandmother lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, and our grandkids live just four blocks away,' Smith Piper says of the appeal of Northeast Portland. 'There's also a lot of history in the neighborhood, and all the upgrading makes for an attractive environment.'

Attractive often translates to expensive in Irvington, which contains some of Portland's swankiest houses. According to Windermere Cronin & Caplan real estate agent Billy Grippo, the average asking price for a currently listed Irvington home is $370,000. But he's also sold $1 million-plus homes in the tree-lined neighborhood that resembles the setting of 'Leave It to Beaver.'

Walls come tumbling down

Retired but not retiring, the Pipers provided much of the elbow grease and most of the design savvy behind the remodel, the cost of which Smith says they lost track of.

'The day that the last tenant moved out, we moved in,' says Mary, who dismantled each unit as the tenant left. The effort required much more than simply stripping wallpaper and applying a coat of paint.

'Each apartment had its own kitchenette and bath that had to be removed,' she says of the labyrinth that held massive amounts of slapdash wiring and plumbing.

Three years later, the 1910 home reflects the vision of the couple, who share the house with their cat, Baby Blue.

Walls erected over the years in the entry and living room have been knocked down. Bold beams and period fixtures define the space and underscore the Craftsman style, while a new tile fireplace provides a focal point for the oversized living area. This is also where much of Mary's collection of Native American baskets is displayed.

Wool Berber carpet runs up the stairs and into the guest and master bedroom, where period wallpaper and imported French fabrics reflect the influence of William Morris, who led the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s. A deep corner bathtub is the highlight of the master bath, where large windows take in the southern exposure. Outside the bedrooms, a cabinet housing Smith's collection of hedgehog figurines lends the hallway a dose of whimsy.

On the main floor, a farmhouse kitchen includes clever storage systems, such as drawers that separate recyclables, and authentic details, which Mary feels strongly about.

'I kept telling the men as they worked: 'Please leave the little nicks and imperfections in the wood; that's what makes it real,' ' she says. 'I firmly believe that a house should feel lived in; nothing should be precious.'

A new old kitchen

Jay Ylvisaker, owner of Carpentry by Design, executed Mary's design, ensuring that she would have all the amenities that she's come to want in a kitchen, such as a long-armed faucet over the stove to fill pots and a hidden nook for the microwave.

'I asked Jay to give me a kitchen that didn't look new,' says Mary, whose collection of antique food choppers, nutmeg graters and yelloware ceramics accentuate the vintage theme.

The kitchen also best reveals the Pipers' appreciation for the sense and style behind recycling.

The kitchen counter was crafted from a log pulled from the Columbia River, while the maple flooring was once the gym floor at Marshfield High School in Coos Bay.

The dining room, with a hand-painted mural encircling the room, is where the couple hosts family gatherings. The oil-on-canvas mural, painted by Northwest artist Jane McQueen, depicts eight of the Pipers' favorite homes in the Irvington neighborhood.

'I asked her to paint it in the fall of the year,' Mary says of the mural's origins. 'We took a walk around the neighborhood and decided which homes to include. I wanted a variety of styles that epitomize Irvington.'

The result is a uniquely charming touch for the Pipers' home, one made even more personal by the inclusion of two small figures: The couple's young grandchildren smile out of the mural's bucolic setting.

Contact Jill Spitznass at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..