A QUEEN ANNE TRANSFORMATION
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
Last quarter, the house we selected as “best on the market,” was a fairly restrained colonial revival mansion on SW Vista Avenue in Portland Heights. Though the house had one addition in its history, it was very sensitive to the prevailing character and could go almost unnoticed. We talked about how the colonial revival in domestic architecture sought to celebrate the early days of our nation and its role as the torchbearer of western civilization. The house we’ve selected this quarter is a stone’s throw away from that one, but it couldn’t be less classically inspired if it tried. Built in 1885, the Nicholas-Lang house is nearly 9,000 square feet, but it hardly feels imposing. Actually, it’s not particularly noticeable from the street, and while you could throw one heck of a party inside, you’d be just as comfortable kicking up your feet to read a good book or watch the latest Netflix original. In its early state, this house was more flamboyant, but some 1920’s alterations by the prominent Portland architect Joseph Jacobberger gave it a more subtle language which makes it very difficult to label as being part of any one architectural style. Later interior alterations only enhance the mysticism of this place.
Jacobberger is, perhaps, one of the most gifted designers in the city’s history and we are amazed by his ability to transform this house from what some might have considered a Victorian monstrosity, to a light, airy, almost cottage-like place with seemingly few strokes of his pencil. Happily, interior designer, Jessica Helgerson, executed the home’s more recent interior renovations. We imagine she will one day join the ranks of Jacobberger—the way she made a creaky old house feel more contemporary than many brand new houses is truly noteworthy.
We should start at the beginning: when Mr. Nicholas built his house in the 1880’s, it stood pretty much alone on the hillside, commanding a very prominent view over the entire city and the mountainous geography that lay beyond. The Queen Anne style was a likely choice for domestic architecture then. A lot of houses that fall under this style remind us of something Herman Munster and his family might inhabit, and the Nicholas house was no exception. It had a garishly detailed wrap around porch and a three-story tower with spindly-railed balconies jutting off the northeast corner at a diagonal.
Its ornamental chimney recalled scenes from novels by the Bronte sisters. Pre-Jacobberger photos submitted to the Historic Register portray a haunted gingerbread house. Even now, this house and others of its type lend itself to eccentricities of all kinds, like the taxidermy in living room shown in Fig. 2. Before Jacobberger, the house looked light-years further away from contemporary domestic life than its colonial neighbor we featured last quarter. Chronologically that makes sense since this house is almost 30 years older. But anyone who has studied the trajectory of American architectural practice knows that designers from the midcentury on having favored these older Queen Anne (often nearly synonymous with Eastlake, Stick, or Shingle style) abodes for the greater contribution their creators made a purely American way of life than those of the somewhat newer colonial revival works. Why would this be? Why, when something looks almost foreign from the exterior, could someone argue it to be more relevant to current American life than the all-American colonial dream house?
The answer lies mostly in the floorplan. Once inside the front door of the Nicholas house, we sense something oddly familiar about it. Something coveted—something that we did not and so much of at the colonial revival house. That thing is free-flowing space. The plan of the house is completely asymmetrical. Its architect had no interest in a classic “center hall” plan (one in which the stair hall runs through the center of a house with its main spaces banking either side). English practitioners like Richard Norman Shaw were leading a movement against classical forms and geometries in favor of more handmade, finely crafted, often rambling and romantic edifices in which rooms often struck off in more willful directions than they had in the neo-classical period. In the United States, houses that looked and felt like those of Shaw were not likely reactions against anything, rather assertions that ours were also a people of fashionable taste who could afford to build places just as nice as the people of western Europe. And so we nd ourselves in the entry hall of the Nicholas House on Vista Avenue staring at space in every direction.
To our left, through a very tall, very wide pair of sliding doors, we see an ample “parlor” with a new mantle and several sets of glass-paneled French doors leading to Jacobberger’s conservatory. We catch a glimpse of another sliding door leading from the parlor into the dining room. Straight ahead, is another, even larger parlor, with another, even larger opening to the dining room. Each room has a behemoth-sized replace and double-hung plate glass windows that must be ten feet high; the ceilings are all over 12 feet, probably 14. Finally, to our right, we have a great stair, skirting the edge of the entry, contributing to its ample feeling but also processing its own important piece of the story. The rise of the stair is gentle, and its switchback landing with its over-scaled reading nook is gregarious. Most landings that have some sort of bench seat seem a little more like a decorative joke than an actual option for seating, but here we imagine it would be possible to while away the hours with a good book. If the Munster’s ever did live here, they certainly must have been a happy bunch.
The upper levels are equally vast and their rooms equally well connected to one another. This vastness would all go away in the colonial revival era, thanks in part to its required symmetry and historic scale, but also in part to the implementation of income taxes in 1913. It wouldn’t be until the late 80’s that we’d see rooms of such size again, only by then any ability in most designers to figure out how to provide scale to such a room would be lost. Beyond its well-articulated size, what makes this house “the best on the market,” are its lovely interior renovations by the earlier mentioned Jessica Helgerson.
While her work throughout the house is successful in its deliberate disassociation with the house’s inherent character, her execution of the new kitchen is particularly masterful. Her triumph here is largely one of the “less is more” variety. The kitchen is quite large, probably almost 20’ x 20’, with various auxiliary rooms. A lot of designers might have tried to make the space overly elaborate, thinking that would fit the fretful schemes of a time gone by, but Helgerson kept it neat and tidy. The kitchen seems to be a perfect square. Its center is occupied by a square island, and each of its surrounding walls has a distinct purpose. The north wall, with its large range, unadorned plaster hood, and thick solid marble backsplash, commands the most attention. The east wall holds the sink and a bank of windows. One passage in the south wall leads to the mudroom, while an elliptically arched opening houses a long banquet that makes up the eat-in space. Finally, our favorite is the very clever west wall. It appears as just a bank of our to ceiling cabinets, but on closer inspection its doors conceal not just pots, pans, and the refrigerator, but also a passage into the laundry room, pantry, and wet bar. We love this reminder that not all doorways need be treated the same. Here Helgerson created to delight in the spirit of the old architecture without necessarily employing its frilly vocabulary.
While the Queen Anne style isn’t ordinarily our favorite, we cannot say enough good things about the Nicholas-Lang House. It various owners and creators have embraced all the good things about the style and used all the regrettable things down the toilet, leaving a home in a category of its own. Perhaps its new owners, whoever they may be, will have the wit to continue to pull out more of the good!