bungalow blog

It is a simple house. Built in 1926, in a modest working-class neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. It’s a basic as it gets, staking out barely more than 700 square feet of American Dream. A bungalow. Over the past 80 years, previous owners had stripped most of its historic features in the name of progress. When I took the keys to my first home, with my father's help, we took on the challenge of returning the house to its original style and spirit.

Location: Portland, Oregon, United States

Friday, September 30, 2005


Flipping through my stack of library books, I admire the small lights above the fireplaces. Often small leaded glass shades, they cast an amber glow, joining the warm of the crackling fire.

I tell Dave that I want to wire the wall so I can put two lights on either side of the fireplace. He says—sure, we can do that. I draw on the drywall with my pencil the location I’d like to see the lights. Well, he says, let’s get the rest of that dry wall off while we’re at it. When we finish, to our surprise, there is already a hole in the plaster wall and an old outlet with two thick wires wrapped in electrician tape. I’ll be damned, we mutter. Whaddya know?

Sadly, there is no hole opposite the first. Looks like we’ll have to do some original wiring after all.

A week or so passes, my wall gaping open with the cement drying, my 1926-2005 peeking out of the shadow, and the one lone light outlet. My dad comes over to see the progress. I am pointing out the old light socket we uncovered, and pointing at the wall where I’d like to put the other one, when my finger pushes through the plaster. At that spot the plaster is thin. I poke more and peel away. Sure enough, there is the twin outlet.

for the first time, fortune has turned. I feel as if the house has one or two secrets its been holding, just waiting for the right person to find it.

Maybe that’s silly—maybe houses don’t hold secrets. Maybe they do. At least, for those who look, who uncover, rather than cover up, there are certainly a few pleasant surprises. Dave tests the wires; they are hot. When the cement dries, we’ll cover the wall again, good as new, and return lights where they had been meant to shine.

Sunday, September 25, 2005


As we opened the fireplace back up, we noticed that a previous owner had layered a sheet of drywall on drywall. Odd, we thought, as we removed the top sheet. Beneath was a perfectly smooth sheet of drywall, with one small problem. It bowed out. We ran our hands over it. We tried to push. Why did it bulge out?

Only one thing to do: take a Sawsall, cut out a section, and take a peek.

We uncovered a mess of crumbled brick and masonry. At one time, someone had inserted a round hole to fit a stovepipe. But now, the stovepipe gone, the brick had collapsed, pushing out the wall above the mantle. Rather than address the cause of the problem, the previous owners simply slapped a second sheet of drywall. Heavy spackle. Good as new.

We shook our heads in disbelief. The only positive aspect we could think was thank goodness the fireplace had been too ugly to use. If anyone had actually built a fire, the smoke would have curled up, into the hole, into the wall.

After the demolition, we were we left with a large, gapping hole above the mantel. It remained for a week or so, until I could plan the next move. Dave loaned me some stucco mix, some masonry tools, and some steel mesh screen. With a few simple instructions, he leaves the job to me.

It’s awkward at first, learning to hold the tools and work in the wet cement. My mixing is off for the first few bathes, then it comes. Soon I am mixing well and working the mortar between bricks. When I finish, I take the tip of my trowel and scrape in 1926, and then 2005.

I hope no one ever has cause to strip these wall down to the brick again, but if they do, I want them to see that we were here, with care, and a sense of this house’s history. Just for fun, I type up a short note, seal it in a ziplock bag, and leave it as a small, informal gift for a future caretaker of this old home.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Next, we turn to the fireplace. Fire is more than decoration or warmth for me; it is the heart of a home. I think the originators of the Arts and Crafts movement would agree. Seems they’d design the fireplace and build the house around it. It is the center, and the soul of the home.

We grew up with a wood stove. When stoked, it chugged and churned out heat. Every fall, when the sap would sink, we’d fell extra trees on the property, cut and stack wood to season. We’d then split from last year’s pile, and haul into the house.

At age 17, I went to work for the Forest Service. We’d stoke a fire and hang out wet wool from nails above. Snow would drip and hiss. We’d grease our work boots. The room smelled of pine and sap and beeswax and woodsmoke. I cannot imagine a more earthy, rich, and rugged smell as it filled the small CCC cabin.

This house’s fireplace, originally built for long rainy winters, had been sealed off, gagged with a shiny brass decorative screen, boarded by particle-board trim, slopped with bright blue paint, and then tiled with stick-on linoleum squares. It had the shape of a fireplace, but none of the function, and certainly, none of the charm.

We tore in with pry bars. Off came the plastic squares, off came the particle board. We unhooked the brass screen and donated it to the Rebuilding Center. Then, when the dust settled, we saw a simple brick fireplace, a wide open hearth, and the remains of an old-growth mantle.

The bricks had been painted, but I scraped them with a steel brush. It helped enough. The bricks looked like bricks. The fireplace breathed again.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


The moment of instant gratification passed, we set down to work. We take up pliers and claw hammers and pull up hundreds of tiny nails. After a full day, we keep finding more. We return to corners we’ve covered, and find more. For two weeks we find more nails. Then, at last, attention can be turned to the next step.

Saturday, September 10, 2005


The first thing that comes with a new purchase—whether a house or new socks—is instant gratification. Always a renter, never an owner, I’d spent my life in apartments, rooms to rent, and other people’s shacks, always wanting to tear out the broken and dilapidated and return my living spaces to an original luster, a rich historic charm, or at least a level of sanitary. No, it was mismatched furniture, and bad carpet. Settle in meant maybe a fresh splash of paint, and ask if the landlord would take part of the sting off that month’s rent.

When you can’t do much in a rental house, there is a helplessness. With helplessness prompts inaction, which spawns apathy. Years of apathy on a rental property brings a living situation down to its lowest level of half ass. This can, over a decade or more, wear thin on a spirit. Make someone distant even in the place they call home. I’d lived the last couple years in a massive old Portland Four Square house. Built in 1903, it boasted six bedrooms, two baths, full living and dining room, and a basement that had to have been at least 2,000 square feet. It had wide cove molding, cast iron radiators, wood floors, glass door handles, and a solid oak front door that opened to a wrap-around porch. It was, in short, an elegant historic home. Yet, for decades, it’d slipped into utter neglect. The walls had been painted, repainted, slapped on, slopped on. Floors gouged. Walls busted and taped. Windows painted shut. Carpet put in some places and stained. Nothing matched. It was all the old dim fixtures and woodwork could do to peek out from under heaps of junk, the clutter of young adults like myself, in starter jobs, needing a room to rent, wiling to live with 2-3 roommates, and always—always—skipping out on the shared house cleaning chores.

So—with pliers and pry bar, we yank up the shag carpet of the 1926 Bungalow. It groans and a cloud of dust wafts up. We yank again. It rips off the small carpet nails. We shred through the carpet pad, and there, below, good news and bad: our intuition was correct, there are wood floors beneath. Our worries were confirmed: they are in poor shape. We yank and tear, tear and yank. Within an hour or so, the old shag carpet is outside in the carport. The living room is suddenly big and bare.

The previous owners hadn’t given the wood floors a lick of respect—they are spattered with paint. They must have planned on putting in carpet, thinking no one in their right mind would ever, ever, ever, want to walk on old cold wood floors.

I am just the person who delights in the shock of wood floors on bare feet in the morning.

Monday, September 05, 2005


In October of 1989, after a prolonged economic recession of the 1980s, the home sold for a mere $17,000. A year later, the property was flipped for nearly twice that at $33,000. In five years, as the economy began to boom in the mid-90s, the value more than doubled, and sold for $70,000. It wouldn’t change hands again for another decade, but by 2004, the little house on the plain street sold for $165,000. A young entrepreneurial couple bought it as a rental and finished the basement for a second bedroom and added a second bathroom. As soon as the improvements had been completed, they hoped to unload the house for a tidy net gain. They asked $215,00 and my father, a good negotiator, talked them into 200,000 eventually.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


We purchased the house for $200,000.00, a sum that shocked most of the older neighbors. They knew, however, that the neighborhood was turning upward and a new generation of younger professionals were seeking simple starter homes. For decades, the North Portland area had been an overlooked working-class corner of Portland. In the recession of the 1980s, it slipped into disrepair, neglect, and increased crime.

In October of 1989, after a prolonged economic recession of the 1980s, the home sold for a mere $17,000. A year later, the property was flipped for nearly twice that at $33,000. In five years, as the economy began to boom in the mid-90s, the value more than doubled, and sold for $70,000. It wouldn’t change hands again for another decade, but by 2004, the little house on the plain street sold for $165,000. A young entrepreneurial couple bought it as a rental and finished the basement for a second bedroom and added a second bathroom. As soon as the improvements had been completed, they hoped to unload the house for a tidy net gain. They asked $215,00 and my father, a good negotiator, talked them into 200,000 eventually.

We’d spent the winter hunting for potentials. Expectations dropped, and dropped against the reality of our budget. I thought I’d lived poor through my 20s in rented rooms of old shabby houses filled with shifting roommates, two or three fridges of frozen pizzas and beers, and hodge-podge thrift store furniture that had accumulated not because someone wanted to keep them, but because the last roommate didn’t like them enough to pack off. When I started searching for a place to call my own, I wasn’t expecting anything fancy—woodfloors, lots of windows, built-ins, a porch for sitting, a garage to tinker. Something not under the airport flight pattern, or wedged between a McDonalds and a Taco Bell.

Turns out, that small list alone translated in Portland’s housing popularity to price tags double what we could afford. More shocking: what we could afford. I’d lived simply before: age 17, in a forest service cabin. Through college on Western ranches. Often the bunk rooms were nothing more than a cot and some hooks on the wall to hang your hat. Though Spartan, there was always something comfortable in these accommodations. Something warm, and comfortable. The houses we saw for sale had none of these qualities; they were dark, damp, and dingy. Anything that has been done seemed to have not only been done cheaply, but with total disregard. Walls of vinyl wood panels, cracked, peeling, and duct taped. Layer on layer of linoleum flooring. Shag carpet with cigarette burns. They smelled of mildew, rotten cabbage, cat urine. One home we searched by flashlight, because they power had been shut off. Rooms were crammed with paper bags of newspapers, greasy rags, plates with crumbs. As we explored deeper into the inner rooms, it got the creepy feeling that maybe we’d find a body.

After dismissing dozens of houses, we found two candidates. One a 1909 home that had been some historic charm left in it: tall ceilings, wood floors, wooden windows. The drawbacks, no garage (and no potential space even to build one), a steeply sloped backyard, a kitchen small enough to touch two walls at teh same time if you stretched out your arms. No fireplace, or even room to add a woodstove. A basement that would require digging to convert to living space. Otherwise, a charming home that had a dusty warm glow, like libraries or old school houses.

The 1926 home had been stripped of its charm--one of its drawbacks, and also challenges. The original wooden-framed windows had made way for aluminum, the leaded glass fixtures had been replaced by garish brass globes. They’d even built a particleboard surround around the fireplace and faced it with stick on linoleum squares. Yet under the blue shag carpet, I knew there must be wood. The backyard was a blank patch of weeds, but potential for a yard, garden. There was a carport that could become a garage. A decent front yard. And at least enough space to cook a meal.

I debated for a week: take the home with the desired historic features, or the one with the history needing to be built back piece by piece.

Perhaps it was the challenge. Perhaps it was youth’s inevitable combination of ignorance and confidence.

So, by the end of summer, 2005, at the age of 32, I took the keys of my first house, and took on the project of restoring a 1926 bungalow to its original quality, comfort, and character.