Saving a Forgotten Portland Landmark
A project of this scale is not for the faint of heart. Given the decrepit state of this nearly 7000 square foot early 20th century mansion, most developers would have called for tearing it down. Fortunately, Lyrin Murphy is not that kind of person. A realtor with a passion for rescuing old homes, she was ready to take on this herculean task. Fearless and visionary, she recognized a forgotten treasure waiting to be rediscovered.
The home was built as Queen Anne Victorian in Portland’s Mt. Tabor neighborhood sometime around 1893. The rear of the house and parts of the top floor still retain the ornate Victorian hardware and Eastlake style staircase from this original build. A wealthy lumberman, Jacob H Cook, bought the house in 1904 and in 1909 undertook a massive reconstruction in the popular Classical Revival style. The remodel purportedly cost the astronomical sum of $12,000, the equivalent of many millions today. The double-height columns, grand balconies, and spacious interior with elaborate woodwork were the result of his efforts.
After a series of owners, the house fell into decay, eventually standing vacant for seven years. Increasingly hidden behind an overgrown landscape with the paint peeling and graffiti accumulating, it took on an air of mystery. Squatters and vandals had defaced the interior walls and removed the lighting and door sets. Set on a large lot in mixed-use neighborhood, the house was a prime target for demolition. When the propertiy finally came up for auction in 2018, Lyrin and her business partner took a leap of faith and bought it virtually sight unseen.
Once the property was theirs, they hit the ground running. “We knew something special had landed in our laps, and we were going to make it great.” As she soon discovered, the scope of the project was enormous – all new systems, a complete exterior overhaul, and foundation repairs. Interior work included restoring the grand main floor rooms, reimagining the derelict kitchen and breakfast room, updating six bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and creating a magical “speakeasy” in the basement. Not to mention landscaping the entire one-third-acre lot.
Early on, the house was dubbed “Walter”. Lyrin recognizes the unique personality of each home she restores and bestows a name accordingly. Walter’s comfortable and welcoming nature starts at the expansive wrap-around porch and continues through the broad front door into the spacious entry hall. Formerly riddled with graffiti, the foyer is now as bright and cheerful as the exterior.
A stickler for period detail, Lyrin mixed genuine antique hardware with new reproductions throughout the home. For example, the restored brass lock set on the front door is accessorized with a brass mail slot and vintage style doorbell. Likewise, most interior doors sport a pleasing medley of old door sets and new hinges.
The original woodwork, plumbing fixtures, and tile were all carefully preserved and lovingly restored in each room. In the formal dining room, mahogany paneling and box beams create a framework for the remarkable Rookwood faience fireplace. Fortunately, the scenic tile relief, which depicts a storybook cottage in a romantic landscape, had survived unscathed.
Lighting was key to Lyrin's period restoration. Since all the original fixtures had been removed, she sourced dozens of antique chandeliers, pendants, and sconces from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She also installed reproduction push-button light switches with genuine mother of pearl buttons throughout most of the home. For the final touch, she chose understated forged brass plates with a living antique finish, which will age gracefully with use.
The living room was also restored to perfection, preserving the white oak woodwork and amazing tiled fireplace. The unique mantel with faience corbels was another Rookwood Pottery design featured in their 1903 catalog. The antique chandelier is outfitted with lustrous art glass shades, which look equally beautiful lit or not.
The kitchen, last remodeled in the 1980s, was damp and moldering, the cabinets falling apart, and the walls covered in graffiti. Lyrin’s goal was to create a new kitchen that would look like it had always been there and was just restored. The now light and airy space features traditional face-frame cabinets and a farmhouse worktable instead of an island. The existing floor could not be salvaged and was replaced with 100-year-old reclaimed fir flooring from a rural schoolhouse. A tongue-and-groove wood ceiling, rustic vintage pendants, and bare-bulb wall lights cement the old house vibe.
For hardware, Lyrin chose classic cabinet latches and bin pulls. The oil-rubbed bronze finish pairs well with the heavily patinaed door and window hardware found in many rooms. Miraculously, the 1892 ice box on the glassed-in service porch had survived previous remodels. Lyrin removed and restored the painted-over brass hinges and latches, which shine once again.
The fourteen-month project not only transformed this landmark home, but Lyrin as well. “Walter changed me in ways I’m not sure I fully realize yet. I’m so grateful to be a part of this story and so grateful to all of the incredibly talented, passionate people I’ve met along the way.” Whether as a single-family residence, a private event space, or something unknown, Walter’s next chapter is waiting to begin.