Urban Escape

Published in Portland Monthly, August 2011 (link)

A short stroll from one of Southwest Portland’s particularly chaotic collisions of chain stores, a quaint road winds into a quiet forest of green. Ash, fir, pine, and maple trees weave together into a dense canopy with fern fronds below. “It’s amazing,” says Chris Hotz, who owns a 1962 split-level house here in the Raleigh Hills neighborhood. “You turn onto our street, and all the noise goes away. You feel like you’re in your own little world.”

Chris and his wife, Gretchen Hotz, bought their home four years ago, when they were itching for land and a nicer place to raise their now 7-year-old son Eero (yes, named after renowned designer Eero Saarinen). “We both had tree forts and rope swings growing up, and we wanted that for Eero,” says Gretchen. Late one night, the couple stumbled upon an online ad for the 2,600-square-foot split-level home on a sizable, forested lot and shortly thereafter put in an offer at the open house.

Once they were actually living in the house, however, they realized they needed to renovate. Chris, now a freelance graphic designer who recently left Nemo Design, the company he founded, and Gretchen, a hairstylist whose swank salon Gold & Arrow is set to open this month, are a hip, design-savvy couple. The house was a bland setting that didn’t match their style. From the exterior swathed in battleship-gray siding trimmed with pinkish beige stone to the interior of brown and cream melamine, “it was what we called Home Depot fabulous,” Chris says.

The problems weren’t just with the looks, though. Whenever they came home with groceries, they had to walk up a set of stairs into the living room, around the fireplace, then down another staircase to get to the kitchen. As a result, the side door became the default entryway, and the front door went unused. A large bank of shelves reached the double-height ceiling, blocking off the first floor from the second, and the kitchen island was too tall for Eero to sit at. Downstairs, a deep orange shag carpet ran through a small playroom and a damp cave of a guestroom. A rotting vestibule in the front completed the picture.

After a year of settling and brainstorming, the couple called in architect Darin Dougherty of Portland-based Seed Architecture Studio (now a senior designer at Gensler in San Francisco) to help. The first step was to refocus the entry. The stairs were ripped out, and Dougherty put a sloping black matte surface of Fuez (an eco-friendly mix of cement, fly ash, and recycled glass) that starts outside the front door and flows inside to become the fireplace hearth. A glass wall now divides the first from the second floor, opening up the whole house and making it brighter. The kitchen cabinets were removed in favor of long slices of windows—along with a ribbon window wrapping the living room—framing the views to the one-acre property.

Though Dougherty added no square footage, the home feels transformed, and much of that comes from the finishes. “We wanted the architecture and hard surfaces to go away, letting the homeowners put their lifestyle on the walls,” says Dougherty. As a result, all of the materials are neutral, from the gray ceramic tile flooring to the white walls to the black fireplace. Warm wood on the cabinetry and original ceiling keeps it from seeming antiseptic, as do the tactile surfaces, from textured white tile upstairs to wallpaper in the kitchen.

The color comes from the objects, art, and family themselves. All of the paintings inside—vivid splashes of rainbows, fluorescent pink lines, and red backgrounds—are the work of the family or good friends. Every room has its own pop of color, from the bright yellow kitchen faucet to a pink Eames shell chair upstairs. Japanese anime figures are dotted throughout, their pink, yellow, and blue forms expressing the family’s particular tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. “We’re kind of grown-up kids,” Gretchen says.

Indeed, the family fills both inside and out with a modern mélange of polish and fun. Chris soars on a zip-line out back to the tree house he built for Eero, and he and his son traipse around hunting for salamanders and frogs in the creek on a summer afternoon. Friends regularly enjoy the black cod and toro Chris prepares for his famous sushi dinners. Other nights, neighborhood kids pile onto the couches downstairs, munching on popcorn and watching a movie projected onto the wall. “We’ve surrounded ourselves with things that make us happy and interested and inspired,” says Gretchen. “It finally feels like our home.”