History buffs buy a cherished Mid-century and give it a new backyard that syncs with the house
written by Melissa Dalton | photos by Jonathan House
It’s hard to say what appealed most to Leslie Dunlap and Seth Cotlar when they visited their Mid-century home for the first time a decade ago. Of course, there’s the incredible view. Built in 1966 and perched atop a hill in a West Salem neighborhood, the house possesses a striking facade composed of an angular roofline, expansive windows and a jutting front deck that recalls the prow of a ship. From that vantage point, there’s a breathtaking panorama of neighborhoods and trees that stretches all the way to the distant Cascades. For these two professors—who both teach in the history department at Willamette University—the house has proved to be equally charming for its minutiae as its drama.
“We lived in a 1909 Craftsman before,” Dunlap said. “As a historian, I thought of that as historical and the ’60s seemed not as much.” So what attracted them to buying a newer vintage? “Definitely the view,” Dunlap said, “but then just the originality and the funkiness of the house.” Prior owners had taken great care to maintain iconic Mid-century traits, like post-and-beam construction and the blue and green dimpled glass surrounding the front door, as well as the quirks. “There were a lot of artifacts from the first owners,” Dunlap said. “They saved everything.” That includes things like the foyer’s swag chandeliers that match the entry glass, the Nutone intercom system that still works and rolls of the architect’s hand-lettered construction drawings. The detailed cardboard architectural model, complete with the exterior rockwork drawn in pencil, even sat on display during the couple’s first visit. “That was probably what sold us on the house,” Dunlap said.
Since purchasing, the couple has worked with Kraft Custom Construction to complete several sensitive interior updates to modernize the home without compromising its character. While the prized architectural features were easy enough to preserve, the backyard was another matter. “I think at one point it had been really majestic,” Dunlap said. There were clues, like a pond and curved concrete footbridge, that indicated it had once been an elaborate Japanese-inspired tableau, but now the water feature leaked and broken rock paths pricked under bare feet. “The outside was really lacking in connectivity to the inside,” contractor Robert Kraft said. He teamed up with landscape architect Laura Canfield and DeSantis Landscapes for a backyard overhaul that would better fit with the cherished Mid-century vibe.
The site’s steep slope and angular boundaries were a challenge, so Canfield started her design process with research into distinctive source material: the abstract art of the 1960s. “I thought, let’s look at what the art was like back then,” she said. She found a painting that was completed the same year the house was built, of a minimalist composition of exaggerated shapes and colors from Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygon series. “The angles of it inspired me,” Canfield said. “I turned it at a 45-degree angle to the building and it ended up working great with the site.”
Using the painting as rough inspiration, Canfield plotted out a covered outdoor kitchen, lounge area and dining room, all delineated by a generous patio and bordered by cascading retaining walls and planters. She chose a popular Mid-century material, cast-in-place concrete, for many of the scheme’s elements, in order to ensure flow between the different areas and nod to the house’s time period. “I felt that was really in keeping with the Mid-century modern aesthetic,” she said. “During that period, especially in California gardens, they were just going crazy with clean concrete patios and walls.”
Key to the arrangement was giving each area the right amount of space for maneuvering, as Dunlap and Cotlar wanted to be able to host parties for up to two dozen people at a time. “Our number one thing is that people are well-fed,” Cotlar said. Now the kitchen is up to the task. It hosts a pizza oven imported from Italy, a grill and smoker, a propane-fueled wok and several feet of polished concrete countertops. “I wanted to make sure that you could have a couple of people in there working and they wouldn’t be on top of one another,” Canfield said. The streamlined, covered pergola guarantees the kitchen can be used in the rain, and its cedar frame warms up the concrete palette. “That makes the kitchen more inviting as a place to gather,” Canfield said. Nearby, she wrapped a wood-burning firepit with a generous built-in sofa, its red-orange color a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite hue. “It really makes that corner pop,” Canfield said.
Double-duty elements keep the design functional and seamless. For instance, the counter that extends from the kitchen stores firewood, holds back the slope as a retaining wall, and serves as a buffet for guests to assemble their pizzas. The armrests on the couch are wide enough to rest a dinner plate, while the dining table becomes a full-sized ping pong table when the meal is done. “I got out the safety regulations for ping pong tables and what the dimensions needed to be,” Canfield said. “So someone diving for the ball wasn’t going to fall down steps or into the firepit.”
For the plantings, DeSantis Landscapes installed large swaths of similar plants, or “drifts,” for cohesion, with the occasional show-stopper nestled in their midst to break up the repetition. “When I looked at photos of gardens from the ’60s and early ’70s, there was a lot of that going on, and there’s a lot of that going on now,” Canfield said. “It’s just very fresh and dramatic and looks good all year.”
Ten years after touring the house and falling in love, Dunlap, Cotlar and their teenage son are enjoying the backyard just as much, or “three-and-a-half seasons” to be exact. That means finding Cotlar in the kitchen experimenting with his wok, the couple’s son playing ping pong with his friends on New Year’s Day, or Dunlap taking a nap on the sofa on a summer afternoon, although impromptu gatherings are also plentiful thanks to the new space. Dunlap said, “There’s an ease and a casualness to it.”