The Giltner House

A historic remodel in the heart of Northeast Portland, Oregon.

Project Details




Irvington, Portland, Oregon

Built in 1912, the year of the Titanic, the Giltner Mansion too was a glittering statement of vision, artistry and taste. Spreading across three lots and standing three stories high, the mansion cut a majestic figure. It welcomed visitors with impressive stone work, leaded glass, fine Honduran mahogany interiors and indoor and outdoor fountains.

The mansion’s grandeur emanated also from its occupants and events. The Giltners, one of the city’s prominent wealthy and philanthropic families, kept the mansion busy with parties of up to four hundred people at once.  These events were used for elite networking to help the less fortunate, while spreading education, sharing other cultures, and music, all to help civilize Portland.

When the mansion was built, most Portlanders were lumberjacks aged 17 to 21, whom, Sophronia  Giltner thought, could stand civilizing.  She combined her love of music and philanthropy by exposing citizens of all classes to classical music, which she believed would elevate them. Literally some of the most famous musicians in the world at the time were guests at the mansion and performed there.  

Visitors to this bastion of culture might hear a concert played on a Stradivarius, enjoy an educational puppet show, or wear costumes from other cultures and places.  

A century later, however, the home had declined- water had seeped in through rusted pipes, the leaking roof, and from missing gutters to form a basement lake.  The grounds disappeared under masses of vines, posts and beams warped,  paint peeled, and a glorious piece of Portland’s history all but slipped away.

In the Giltner, McCulloch Design Build tackled perhaps the biggest remodel project on Portland’s East side, ever.  The project was extremely complex because it restored, replaced, reworked, or built new, every inch of a magnificently detailed 8,600 square foot mansion.

Within ten minutes of first seeing the house, John was verbally in contract to buy.  When he reached the third floor, on his first walk through, John’s heart began to race as he thought about the potential. We have never seen more home in such bad condition.

The intricate project began with intense research.  We photographed other works by the same builder, researched the former owners, and read endlessly about the best architectural ideas of 1912. “I read constantly of the era until I began insatiably craving period details that most people today have never heard of,” McCulloch says.

The piece de resistance was to acoustically design the library so that it could also serve as a music hall.  We added hundreds of period details to the restoration and expansion that are true to the house, but to take the original owner’s mission to help Portland through music and continue her tradition added a fifth dimension to the triumphant design.  John has used the music hall for fundraisers attended by five thousand people in the first year the home was completed.  Sophronia’s work of using the mansion and music to the betterment of Portland has been taken up again!

Perhaps the greatest feature of the home is what we could not make or fix: the amount of history we were able to discover about the house and its occupants.  This provenance simply does not exist for most homes, and gives it a depth that makes everything about it more interesting.  When we enter the third floor West bedroom, we remember that here is where Sophronia’s beloved niece held a desperate tete a tete with a burglar whom she awoke to discover purloining her jewels.

We love history which, at the local level, is community. Preserving, adapting and improving upon it, is a joy!  In saving the mansion, it became too beautiful not to share with the community.  We have put it to use for hundreds of charitable events. The once deeply decaying landmark home has been respectfully renewed in its entirety- it’s spirit and construction.  “Sophronia’s mission has been taken up again!”, has led to our formation of a foundation, so that the work can continue after John is gone.

Our study of relevant architectural history led us to create or restore a huge number of period correct details; the sum of which is unified by the theme of spot on period.

West Wing Addition- Library/Music hall and Kitchen:  

Adding onto a landmark home takes finesse. However, because the Giltner is Dutch Colonial, a style famous for rambling, we had a precedent. The kitchen is a one story addition, linking to the library two-story addition.  In the authentic Pennsylvania Dutch these sorts of additions were created to accommodate multi-generations who stayed under one roof, adding on as they expanded.  The way the house masses from three stories, to one story, to two stories makes it look like it was added to over a great number of years exactly as were the Dutch Ramblers of the 1600’s and 1700’s.

The library feature was right for John, a bibliophile and former teacher with multiple masters in literature.

The shape of the library is a great hall, almost a cube. This most traditional shape, (the sort in which Churchill wrote his speeches), was common in 1912 in ambitious homes.  Though there are several instances of great halls in the best homes on Portland’s West Side, ours may be the first example of it, a century later, on the East Side.

And though the West Wing is a century behind the times, it is super modern in that it creates a space for how we live today: a kitchen that flows into a breakfast room and family room/library.  The sink looks out over a private courtyard with outdoor dining  and access from the kitchen.  

We designed the ceiling acoustically for musical performances in the original tradition of the home. We also have access to the library balcony/music hall via a walkway from the second floor of the main house.  This makes it possible to add theatricality to performances by having entertainers make surprise entries from above.  We have had full choirs appear during our charity work to the delight of guest.

  • The Stair Window.  In 1912, Lutyens, the most imitated architect of his time, played with arches in a stair.  We improved upon the idea, turning those arches into beveled glass windows, bringing light through the house. The beveling served to visually reduce the size of the one thick metal handrail behind the window so that it would appear to be one eighth of an inch tall.  We carefully aligned that seemingly shrunken handrail to be hidden by the strip of led used to hold the pieces of beveled glass together. As if by Magic, the handrail is invisible!
  • The spiral stair and rail in the library are a simplified version of the railing in the Vanderbuilt library, a masterpiece of the second most imitated architectural firm of the era, McKim Mead and White.
  • Lighting is researched to be far better versions of what were originally in the house, for areas that we changed.
  • The barrel vaulted ceiling in the kitchen was a popular kitchen motif in 1912.  This is because architects in the United States were copying ideas from English architect Edwin Lutyens who was remodeling old palaces.  These palaces had all cooking done by staff in large basement kitchens which had vaulted ceilings of masonry to support monster stone palaces.
  • The up-lighting in the kitchen behind the cove molding is copied from that in the Pittock library, which was built the same year.
  • The wrought iron fence surrounding the property was taken from the court house at Oregon City after World War I.  It is extremely heavy.  Such heavy gauge fences were universally seized for scrap by zealous patriots during World War I, and were not made after the war. Ours only survived because it was part of an institution during the scrap drives.    
  • Egg and Dart molding: The Victorians were believers in symbolism to imbue their spaces with meaning.  The egg and dart represented the interplay of life and death, to remind us that life is the more to be savored because it is fleeting.  These delicate moldings, made of plaster had to cut into sections, and temporarily removed, so that we could prop up the main house with steel beams.  This nerve wracking business was successful  and with some restoration left things looking perfect.    
  • The Conservatory: for people who know about these, they understand that this is an unhealthy place for you if your name is Colonel Mustard.  We filled this room with plants, and kept the original fountain as it was in Sophronia’s day.  The idea of the conservatory was for the plants to manufacture fresh air to make a healthy environment.  This and the sleeping porch off the master were popularized by the national hero of the era, Teddy Roosevelt and his Strenuous Living lecture series about fresh air and exercise.

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