“The previous owners lived here 37 years and were big do-it-yourselfers, but they didn’t pay attention to the style of the house,” says Adam Murray about his Knight and Piercy home in Portland’s West Hills. That included ’70s tile in the kitchen, a mix of hardwood and parquet floors, and “wood” beams that were in reality painted and covered with wood-grain contact paper. So much for inheriting a purist canvas.
The third owners, Adam and Sammy Schwarz-Murray, bought it five years ago and have been slowly bringing it back to its purist origins ever since. In a hilly neighborhood of ’50s and ’60s custom homes on meandering streets, the view from the front windows and patio off the kitchen takes in the adjoining suburbs all the way to distant McMinnville and the wine country. During the house hunt, it became apparent their realtor didn’t even like ranch houses and she was pretty certain the couple would be unimpressed with this 1954 split-level.
Wrong; it pretty much fit their wish list. “We wanted a two-car garage, we wanted a backyard, an open floor plan and tall ceilings,” says Murray, who does online sales and marketing for a BMW dealership. “It was 3,500 square feet of house and $425,000.
“When we saw it, we just wanted to clean it up and do it right,” he continues. “The main thing we tried to do was unify what was in the house. We’re not big do-it-yourselfers—we’ve mostly had handymen that we gave direction to. But we have friends who are architects, and Sammy’s really great [at design].” “We wanted a home we could build together,” adds Schwarz-Murray.
“We know lots of designers and artists who we can talk the talk with,” says Adam. During the first four years, the couple replaced sections of rotting wood, had Pella fiberglass windows installed, painted inside and out and added an outdoor kitchen to the large covered patio over the garage. Murray designed a simple wood railing for it made out of 2” x 2” cedar that adds a trellis-like detail to the front facade and protection from the one-story drop to the driveway.
“Jack-and-Jill” baths in the master bedroom and hallway were redone because they were laid out poorly and had plastic tile and funky corner sinks. “This was our first remodel in the house and I’m not really happy with how we did it,” admits Murray, as he shows off the narrow powder room with paisley wallpaper in a humongous scale.
In the kitchen they removed upper cabinets and painted the lower ones white so the horsey tile would virtually disappear. They also painted the wall paneling in that room and plan to replace the cabinets with natural wood ones and install new counters—perhaps Paperstone or tinted concrete. The kitchen’s adjoining “cocktail” room was furnished with reupholstered vintage Danish pieces and an eBay couch shipped from Florida, purportedly once part of Errol Flynn’s estate.
The most ambitious project was remodeling the basement and connecting it to the main level with a new staircase punched through the floor between the kitchen and dining areas. Previously, basement access was from the garage, so this link allows them to have a bona fide family/ media room and office space down below, as well as a third full bath. At the head of the stairs, they designed a storage/display cabinet that helps define the various functions of the open living-dining-cooking-imbibing space without adding unnecessary walls.
Coming from a 1959 brick traditional across the Willamette River, the pair discovered that bright wall colors and Pottery Barn furniture didn’t work in this new home. Their primary focus was on finding era-appropriate furnishings, many of which came from Hawthorne Vintage in Portland. “We bought a new leather furniture set, but it didn’t fit the house,” says Schwarz-Murray, who owns Sammy’s Flowers, a Portland chain of open market flower stalls.
Since the 2007 photo session, the family welcomed their first child and updated the kitchen, reporting that it’s “much cooler now.” The couple’s future wish list includes replacing the parquet flooring upstairs, installing built-in closets in the master bedroom, redoing the fireplace facade in the basement, installing a new fence and landscaping the back yard in classic PNW style with lowcare rhododendrons and azaleas.
“One thing we’re unsure about is the fireplace upstairs,” Murray says. They already removed bronze-color glass enclosures and installed the chain fire screen, but are unhappy with the soot-darkened appearance and overall color. “We’ve thought, should we get the brick professionally cleaned so that it’s vibrant or see if there’s a stain that can be used on brick? We’re definitely afraid to paint it or stucco it.” “For me, I don’t want it to feel like a remodeled house,” Schwarz-Murray says. “We’re scared to tamper with it.”
“The traditional feel adds character and coziness,” Murray adds. “Anything that we put in place of the original elements needs to not call attention to itself. We’re always going to have the Dutch doors and the beams and the exposed ceilings. “We’re both involved 50/50 in decisions about the house and we both have a hands-on attitude,” he continues. “We’re partners in every sense of the word.”