It’s not your average remodel story when the homeowner spends a decade fixing up a house he has never lived in. Yet, perhaps strangely, it’s also an architectural love story—albeit somewhat of an unrequited one. Call it a continuing quest.
When Nike executive Aaron Cain purchased a midcentury modern house in Portland’s Sylvan Highlands in 2010, following a return to the city after years working in Shanghai, he had every intention of moving in with his family. His dad, a retired builder and carpenter, told Aaron the house had leaks and other maintenance issues. "But then he said, ‘It’s an absolutely incredible home. You’d never in a million years be able to build this today,’" Aaron recalls.
Aaron got an additional opinion on the house from an architect friend—Paul McKean—who felt similarly smitten. "I ended up putting in a bid before I even saw the house in person," Aaron remembers. "It’s bridging these two worlds: a Northwest rustic aesthetic and a modern aesthetic. For me, that’s always been what’s special."
In the early 1960s, architects Richard Campbell and Joachim Grube acquired a parcel of forested land in Portland’s Sylvan Highlands west of downtown that had gone undeveloped because of its uneven topography. Soon the partners co-designed for themselves and their families a pair of houses nestled on two small swaths of high ground.
The house Aaron owns today—which was completed in 1962 and won an award in Sunset magazine shortly thereafter—was the one architect Richard Campbell occupied with his wife, at least until their divorce. But Aaron bought the house from Campbell’s ex, who lived in the home for more than a half century and left its design—including the feeling of being enveloped in a cocoon of wood on the main floor—largely untouched.
"There’s not much drywall in that house," says McKean, "just those beautiful cedar ceilings and the Douglas fir beams."
Indeed, while large concrete columns anchor the structure into the hillside, they give way to that wood-ensconced great room with vaulted ceilings. A lack of flat land for a yard gave way to extended roof decks that blur the lines between indoor and outdoor space.
Before Aaron and his wife could ever move in, however—and just after construction began on a McKean-designed renovation of the four-bedroom house—Aaron got his assignment in China extended, first for one year and then another.
Still expecting to return, he and McKean continued the renovations—including a new roof, furnace, and lighting—between short-term rentals to trusted friends. Then Aaron got promoted and transferred—not to Nike’s Portland headquarters, but to Amsterdam.
Still he kept the faith, continuing with an ever-more extensive renovation: this time refinishing the floors, and adding a new bathroom downstairs. Yet when it was finally time to move home from Amsterdam, the house was one big construction site. Frustrated, Aaron and his wife bought another home—on the same street—but persisted with the renovation. Save for a few wintry nights he spent there by himself between renovations, sleeping on a mattress and watching it snow, he’s never lived there.
Begun in 2009 and completed earlier this year, McKean’s renovation made the home more open and full of light. A combined fireplace and kitchen island was refashioned to create less of a barrier between the cooking and living area. Although the living area is bookended by two walls of glass, the middle of the room had grown darker over the years due to an expanding tree canopy above, so McKean’s redesign added a small window there, just above the living room sofa.
"It was sort of baby steps," says the architect. "We tried to be as careful as we could in respecting a piece of architecture." The biggest exception, besides the more open kitchen? Perhaps the mustard-yellow hot tub in the master suite. It’s been replaced.
What remains is a remarkably tranquil home only a five-minute drive from downtown Portland. "You’re up in the trees," says Casey Richwine, who co-owns a local distillery and lounge and lives in the house with his wife, Allison Wong, along with eight-year-old daughter Iowa and five-year-old son Cedar. "Everyone calls it a tree house, or a ski chalet. The wood and the wood ceilings, that’s what makes it special."
But with apologies to Richwine and his family, they might not want to get too comfortable there. "It kind of still is my dream to live in it," Aaron says. "This is an economic disaster for me. But I just love the house: the spirit, the originality."
Architect of Record: Paul McKean Architecture LLC
Builder/General Contractor: Harding Construction, Sean Harding
Structural Engineer: Munzing Engineering, Mike Munzing
Cabinetry Design/Installation: Schuett Cabinetry, Mike Schuett