Four-Door Beige Ones


The main reason I have been so distracted from blogging, aside from the imminent move to CHNN’s new World headquarters, is that I was busy painting the 1905 bungalow equivalent of a stripped 1972 Chevrolet Impala.  I often attempt to recreate in my mind how a house came into being, and this time, I have a pretty plausible scenario.  Some guy bought two lots in the soon-to-be quite wealthy, but as yet sparsely developed, neighborhood of Irvington in Northeast Portland.

The program was quite ambitious: six bedrooms, three fireplaces, 7000 square feet over four floors, two staircases, double garage, three bathrooms, and a spacious butler’s pantry connecting the entry, living room, and kitchen.  Then the estimate came in, and the guy said, “What can I get for half that?”

Well, you get gigantic, minimally adorned rooms with the thinnest, sloppiest plaster I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something.  “Three hundred bucks for plaster?  My brother-in-law can do it for $85.”   You get plain brick fireplaces and hearths with just a wooden lid on them, you get a dining room with five windows, spanning eighteen by twenty four feet, and although it does have a lovely, weighty box beam ceiling, has nary a built-in, and even what looks like a plate rail is too thin to, well, hold plates.

What you also get is exercise.  It takes most people a day or so to stop getting lost, personally, but even once you know the lay of the land, you will inevitably spend an inordinate amount of time looking for things, because you simply never run out of places they could be hiding, two or even three floors away.

Worse, the dump was roughly in the condition of the Sigma Nu house.  One family that lived there had 15 (!) kids (they belonged to my own Catholic Parish, natch, St. Mary Magdalene, two blocks away; the hooker church), and in the white flight era of the late 1960′s, it even served as some sort of hippie co-op.  This joint knows tough love, and worse.  The tiny flourish of half-timber over the front porch had even been painted over in white, and the porch a dark green, making the top step not match those below, and needlessly suppressing bounced light into the interior.  I fixed both of those things.

The current owner, an architect and family friend, bought it about twenty years ago for a relative song and made a master bath and dressing room out of one surplus bedroom, which was sensible enough because he only had two kids and the “master” was the 20 x 20 box with nothing but two windows near the top of the post.  He also remodeled all the bathrooms, and added a powder room on the main floor.  I was particularly impressed with a bunch of really cool things he did to brighten the house; opening a closet off the entry to the stairwell below to let light in through a frosted french door, and changing all the bedroom doors to frosted glass in fir frames to match the stairway as well.

Best of all, he tore out the ceiling on the third (above ground) floor, and  added structural support to do so, so if you wanted, you could have a basketball court up there.  He also remodeled the basement, which has a fireplace and (why not?) another kitchen and bath.  A Mormon could have three wives and families in the joint, and keep them conveniently separate.

At the outset, we both decided that I would only work on the two main floors, since I did have to paint (and before that, brutally sand and lavishly putty), every surface in an area with about fifty windows, six french doors,  four doors leading outside, and gigantic crown moulding and box beams with eight or so pieces each.  Except for the high stuff, all this woodwork looked as though it had been beaten with chains.  The bad plaster here and there also had layers of wallpaper over it, and I ended up skim coating it to fool people; I hope it works.  They are asking a million dollars.

The colors, as well as the tile and marble on this fireplace, were all chosen by the owner’s Real Estate Lady, who inadvertently supplied endless entertainment for us all, since right down to the costumes, she was a character straight out of The Simpsons.  As I finished up today, I kissed the ground that I would, heaven help me, never lay eyes on one of her fabulous outfits, nor her bitchy, pretentious, and occasionally racist text messages ever again.

Although we clashed on many things and I generally just did what she wanted to make her leave sooner, one thing I stood firm on was the stairway, where she wanted the treads to be light but I insisted that they be darkened to match the railings, the last remaining dark woodwork in the house.  This wasn’t really a color preference; it was based on the fact that the stairs were not only cheap fir to begin with, but they had been thoroughly perforated with nail holes from carpets long gone, and needed to be glued, nailed, and whatever else was available get rid of their haunted house creakiness.  We cut out a wall in the entry closet so my floor guy could crawl under them and bind them together with nails, glue and even pieces of plywood for the split ones.  They still make a noise here and there, but it no longer drowns out airplanes flying above.

Those stairs seem to be about the only fancy detail that (barely) survived the original owner’s, well, thriftiness, and they are something else, as you can see.  Besides the flashy lights, the paneled newel posts are small at the bottom and subtly bigger at the top, giving them a neat Bugs Bunny quality, and the owner quite cleverly copied them to make a better mantel in the living room.

Throughout the project, I’ve been keeping myself sane, as usual, by listening to Madison, Wisconsin’s progressive talk radio station on I Heart Radio, which endlessly replays a catchy commercial about “choice” in health care.  It pretends to be an ad for a used car lot that only has beige, four-door 1972 sedans.   “We’ve got beige ones!  We’ve got four-door ones!  We’ve got FOUR DOOR Beige ones!  What color are you looking for?  Maybe BEIGE?”  My nephew Henry and I, who have spent a lot of not always quality time slaving over this biggest of all four-door beige ones, laugh at it every time it comes on.

Today I all but  bade farewell to this project, leaving me a luxurious two weeks to completely remodel my new place, which, thankfully, is about about an eighth the size. I will post pictures of that as they come.





  1. dirigo says:

    Do they need a butler? I’m really good at opening luxury car doors and I pick up ladies’ trains with a flourish. Got my own tux.

  2. cocktailhag says:

    Whoever buys the place will definitely be in need of servants.

  3. Ché Pasa says:

    What a dump, indeed…

    That’s an amazing project that looks really nice, probably — or rather certainly — better than it did when Mr. Mingy had it put up as the new family pile. When the well-to-do in those days — well, nowadays, too — didn’t want to pay the Lower Orders for skilled work and custom finish they got… bulked up Sears kit houses. Like that one.

    It reminds me of so many of the vast “bungalows” that started littering parts of Northern California around the time of the Progressive Revolution; big, big houses, finished very, very sparely, inside and out, in some ways, not really finished at all, as if their owners and/or builders didn’t intend to stick around… but that’s my theory, I don’t know what they were thinking. Or why they thought they needed so much space or why these places were so damned dark inside…

    Still, your renovation of this one is stunning. If the Real Estate Lady doesn’t get full price, it’s on her, no?

    Can’t wait to see the pics of the New And Improved CHNN World HQ.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I’m more familiar with the bungalows of Southern California, which like all housing types there, compete with each other for attention.
      They don’t do four-door beige anything in the Southland.
      It does look quite nice, but I think people in that price range would want a little more pizazz. Time will tell.

      • Ché Pasa says:

        I was misconceiving these places according to an architect friend…

        Apparently big old bungalows like the one in question were not (so much) the result of their owners not wanting to pay the Lower Orders to actually finish them properly, they were — indeed — a very conscious effort to avoid any hint of luxury and ostentation, just like those who would only buy the stripped-down beige four-doors later on — though they could obviously afford an Escalade.

        Think Jerry Brown in his 1974 blue Plymouth phase.

        Of course, the avoidance of ostentation itself could turn into its own form of ostentation.

        Thus, the houses are huge but plain. And they probably had no comfortable furniture, rugs or drapes. Mission oak in its most back-challenging models, oil cloth on the floors — or even nothing — and plain muslin curtains.

        There were servants, of course, but they were probably not called servants but “staff.” The staff man took care of the place, making any repairs necessary, moving the heavy furniture, driving the Mister around in the Chandler, and so on. The staff women did the cooking and cleaning and sewing and laundry, as they were supposed to; they took care of the ankle-biters, and they might have taken care of the Missus’ social engagements and answered the phone for Herself, too. She (Herself) probably wore Reform Dress, some of which she made herself, and she marched in Suffragette Parades. I’ll bet she stenciled the muslin window hangings, too. Quite likely, she had her own car, one of those high topped electrics, which she drove herself when she went calling.

        I’ll bet she smoked. Fatimas.

        If this place was in fairly original condition when you started on it — no granite or stainless steel in the kitchen, pedestal sinks in the baths, iron tubs on feet, that sort of thing — it would actually be quite a find, and there are those bungalow addicts who would pay dearly for it.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Well, to my considerable chagrin, the current owner got it in almost that condition, and screwed up the bathrooms and kitchens (It was the early 90′s, and he is famously cheap; you can imagine….) A lot of the woodwork was still natural, and he painted it all, except the railings.
          The third floor had obviously been servant’s quarters; a warren of dark, low-ceilinged rooms and its own bathroom; perhaps a rudimentary kitchenette.
          I served Mass with a kid whose mother grew up in that house when it had 15 brats; probably the second owners.
          Funny you should mention cars; unlike houses built even 20 years later, this one has a cavernous two-car worthy of a McMansion; original.
          And judging by the way the paint utterly failed to stick to the woodwork, I’m guessing some smoking occurred, too, and made it a bit greasy.

  4. nswfm says:

    That bungalow looks like quite the palace. I just fired a friend’s Realtor. She had the listing for 90+ days, and I got more traffic by making him have a garage sale. He had 3 interested buyers that one day. She had 1 in 100 days. Realtors always make me think of Annette Benning in American Beauty.

    • cocktailhag says:

      I never saw that movie; now I’ll have to (after a suitable decompression period, of course….).
      She really deserves a post of her own, but I’m waiting until after closing, or termination of the listing agreement.

      • nswfm says:

        That movie was horrifying to me on a number of levels. Supposed to be satire, but when you see it, you might think otherwise. I thought it was too close to being truth instead of fiction when I saw it on the UES of Manhattan.

        • RUKidding says:

          I liked “American Beauty” a lot and highly recommend it. It is satire, but like most good satire, a lot of the points hit VERY close to home and can be quite uncomfortable.

          • nswfm says:

            I hate plastic bags. I love satire, but that looked scarily like a documentary.

            On another note, the FDL with Chicago was a masterwork, Cocktailhag.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Thanks…. I always loved that song, and it just popped into my head as I was writing. (Thankfully, not on my iPhone like last week…)

  5. RUKidding says:

    Thanks for the photos & description. As always, you do such lovely work, and it’s a pleasure to see the finished product. Eagerly awaiting an amusing post about Real Estate Lady; I’m sure that’ll be a hoot. Hope things are going well for you on your own home remodel efforts.

    BTW, compared to prices down here in Cal-leeee-fornia, a cool $1mill sounds like a STEAL for a place like that, esp that size. Even in funky Sacramento, something like – in even just a semi-decent neighborhood – would go for well over $1million these days. In the SF Bay area?? Talking about at least $3mill.

    And we’re not at the top of the rapidly re-forming real estate bubble down here yet. Gawd help us.

  6. Cocktailhag says:

    Thanks, it was a lot of miserable work; I’m in the best shape I’ve been in for years, on the up side.
    As for the new place, since Monday when I started, the shag carpet, tack strips, popcorn ceiling, grass cloth and foil wallpaper, as well as a few walls, are all gone.
    As soon as I finish this beer, I’m yarding the hideous heating unit in the living room that looks like a men’s room paper towel dispenser. The flooring will be delivered on the morning.

    • RUKidding says:

      Fast worker! Hope you took some “before” photos to display with your handywork afterwards. Good luck.

  7. dirigo says:

    2000: Republicans steal election.

    2012: Democrats steal election.

    All square.