A Contemporary Retrofit for a Portland Mid-Century
written by Melissa Dalton
While mid-century modern houses are highly coveted for the good features they offer, including spacious floorplans and big picture windows, they can also present some unique design challenges. Such was the case with the 1961 house that Jean Roque and her husband bought in southwest Portland in 2015. As was common to homes built in that era, the house’s side and a detached carport faced the street, rather than the entry. “People would literally get confused when they tried to find the front door,” Roque said. One food delivery driver called from the driveway to ask for directions. Not only that, the home’s orientation made it so the entry sat right beside the couple’s main outdoor living space. “We needed to create better privacy, so that when people did walk up they’re not looking right into our backyard,” Roque said.
When the couple moved in, that same yard emanated a sad air of neglect. A hodgepodge of overgrown shrubbery and drab brown decking dominated much of the slope, while an enormous tulip tree rained sap on unsuspecting bystanders. An ugly lava rock fountain and makeshift arbor stuck out like a sore thumb. “It looked like we should be hosting weddings under it,” Roque joked of the arbor’s incongruity. None of it was conducive to entertaining or to the home’s vintage style, so Roque asked Patricia Acheff, landscape designer and owner of Visionscapes Northwest, to intervene.
Acheff’s to-dos were wide-ranging: create gathering areas and much-needed privacy, emphasize the front door, and make the overall tableau flow with the Mid-century architecture. Her solutions appear deceptively straightforward. First, she worked with contractor PGM Landscape to replace the ugly brown decking with a large patio bordered by a custom concrete retaining wall. The latter shores up the yard’s slope, provides extra spots for guests to sit and defines the planting beds behind it. “When you look at it now, it looks pretty simple and clean,” Acheff said. “But I don’t know how many truckloads of dirt they had to haul out to get there.” A tight-knot cedar screen does double-duty, highlighting the front entry and fostering privacy. “It directs you to the front door and also blocks off the living space behind it,” Acheff said.
Acheff played off the home’s vernacular by specifying the patio pavers in a tight grid and using horizontal slats for the screen. Then Roque picked out low-slung furniture from Restoration Hardware in one of her favorite colors and a popular Mid-century hue: orange. For a finishing touch, Acheff pared back the existing shrubbery and wove in architectural plants, as well as grasses and conifers.
Now, the Roques can use their backyard for relaxed weekend lounging or to host casual wine dinners with friends, as the new setup brings the best qualities of their house outside. “It’s nice to be able to move from inside to outside and have it feel like an extension of the home,” Roque said.