Rebuilt West Hills fixer-upper with ‘defund the police’ and graffiti on crumbling walls is for sale at $2 million
Updated: Jun. 15, 2022, 9:19 a.m. | Published: Jun. 15, 2022, 8:39 a.m.
A Colonial Revival house for sale in Southwest Portland could easily be mistaken for others built in one of the city’s most popular styles. Yet this century-old structure, now vibrant after decades of neglect, reflects economic ups and downs, and the high cost to save a historic building, one door at a time.
The residence at 2955 S.W. Fairview Blvd. in the Arlington Heights neighborhood was listed for sale as a teardown in November 2020. Vacant and vandalized, “defund the police” and graffiti were spray-painted on crumbling walls. Windows were boarded up and moss and saplings grew on the soggy old roof.
After six days on the market, an offer was accepted and the property sold for $627,500, 57% over its discounted $400,000 asking price.
The buyer, longtime restorer John McCulloch of Portland-based McCulloch Construction, promised not to demolish the decomposing home.
Unlike skeptics, McCulloch can see the hidden jewels in architectural eyesores. During his three-decade career, he has completed 1,040 restorations and remodels, and has saved more than 30 historic Portland houses from the wrecking ball.
After two years and $1.2 million invested in labor and materials, the once blighted property is back on the market. The asking price: $1,997,000.
The labor-of-love project, said McCulloch, “was to prevent the loss of another critical piece of the fabric of our city.”
The style of the house is also significant. Colonial Revival architecture celebrates the American revolution and the dream of pioneering greater freedom and self-governance, said McCulloch.
“Colonials represent details modeled after ancient Greek democracy, traditions of 18th-century New England and the great American experiment of inclusion, equity, liberty and justice for all,” he said. “Neglect and graffiti are a sign of the times, but here we are, returning this versatile house to a high level of craftsmanship and exceptionally livable design.”
McCulloch wants the once forlorn Colonial, almost lost forever, to be seen as “a bulwark of hope and beauty.”
In the owners’ care
During the rebuild, McCulloch met Jaime McFarlane of Beaverton, whose grandparents, Ray and Audrey Lesher, were the home’s original owners.
McFarlane recounted that the Leshers bought the house new in 1927 and lived there for about 60 years, raising their children, Eloise, Gereldine (Jeri) and Jack.
This home, affordable to Ray Lesher, a self-taught certified public accountant who arrived by covered wagon in Oregon as a kid, was less than a mile from Washington Park.
During the Depression, the Leshers fed the homeless on the porch outside the kitchen.
In 1947, McFarlane’s mother, Jeri Lesher, was married in the house to Robert L. McFarlane, a classmate of Jeri’s at Portland’s Lincoln High School. They reunited after he served in the U.S. Naval Air Corps during World War II.
The Leshers sold the property to another family in the 1980s, and retired to an acre farm in Raleigh Hills where they grew apples, walnuts and rhododendrons.
The second owner was the widow of a former U.S. Marine who died in 1980. The property was difficult for her to keep up. Decades of deterioration and abandonment left neighbors calling it “Halloween House” and worse.
The widow died in 2015.
In 2020, the house was in foreclosure for nonpayment of property taxes as well as unpaid fines to the City of Portland for boarding up the home and evicting people with no legal right to live there, according to public records.
After selling two other properties that were also part of the widow’s trust, $330,000 paid off the debt and the property was listed for sale by real estate broker Tim Shannon of Tim Shannon Realty.
He marketed the property in November 2020 with this description: “Rare Arlington Heights fixer. Sold together with additional vacant building lot. Upside potential for builder/investor/rehabber.”
“I drove by and wanted to cry,” said McFarlane of the state of her grandparents’ former home. It was almost unrecognizable to her.
Upon acquiring it, McCulloch called the house “derelict” and posted on his blog that his company could “take this dilapidated place and elevate it far beyond what it had ever been, to lift it to the level of art.”
Colonial Revival homes
“Without question, one of the greatest architectural treasure-troves in Portland is the impressive collection of houses designed in the Colonial Revival style,” state architect William J. Hawkins and historian William F. Willingham in their authoritative book, “Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon, 1850-1950.”
The authors devoted two chapters to the Colonial Revival style, compared to one chapter on Craftsman bungalows. Compared to overly ornamental Queen Anne and most other Victorian-era homes at the turn of the last century, Colonial and Craftsman styles were seen as cutting edge.
The city’s population boom caused by the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Expositionsaw these two sought-after styles spread east and west of the Willamette River.
At the time, Portland’s most prestigious architectural firm, Whidden & Lewis, designed mostly Colonial Revival houses for its clients. The style is classic, formal and symmetrical, with the front door in the center, dormer windows on a sloped roof, andtwo- or three levels covered in horizontal lap siding.
Across the U.S. between 1910 and 1930, historians estimate 40% of U.S. homes showcased Colonial Revival hallmarks such as dentil molding and other timeless adornments.
“The wonderful era of the Colonial Revival lasted from 1888 until eclipsed in the 1950s, when the Northwest style came to dominate housing design,” wrote Hawkins and Willingham.
Colonials dip in and out of favor, but always endure.
“The style borrows from Greco-Roman architecture, because the founders [of the United States] hoped that their republic would be worthy of the ancient Greek invention of democracy,” said McCulloch. “[George] Washington emphasized simple symmetry as a sign of our good character, with enough well-made detail to be proud of.”
Saved from being razed
McFarlane walks through her grandparents’ former home and points out the changes made during McCulloch’s extensive renovation: The sunroom is now an open kitchen with large windows and the former kitchen and the old dining room are home offices.
“The dining room, now an office, has restored, built-in china cabinets where grandma kept her glassware,” said McFarlane.
The combined new living and dining room has a two-sided fireplace facing the kitchen and glass doors to the wraparound deck.
White oak stairs to the second level lead to the primary suite on the right, and to the left, new bedrooms made from the former sewing room, bedroom and upstairs sunroom.
The ground-level basement, where Ray Lesher had his workshop off the garage, is now an entertainment area and an in-law suite to house multi-generations of a family, said McCulloch.
And the original, narrow carriage house that barely fit Ray Lesher’s Cadillac has been replaced with a four-car garage with a mudroom and rooftop deck.
“Grandma would have to get out of the car before Grandpa Ray drove into the garage, and we kids would have to slither out on his side,” recalled McFarlane.
She also remembers her grandmother’s rose garden in the front of the house and her grandfather picking a red rosebud, in spring and summer, and tucking it into the lapel of his suit on his way to work.
“The new landscape of four-season color is beautiful,” McFarlane said. “And John [McCulloch] did put roses back by the walkway.”
Also comfortingly familiar to McFarlane is the original front door under a classic Colonial-style pediment. The single door, flanked by sidelights, is painted blue, against white siding. A period-looking lantern light fixture illuminates the custom railing and bifurcated stairs.
“John did an amazing job, saving as many original parts as he could of this beautiful home,” said McFarlane, who grew up in a ranch-style house in Raleigh Hills.
The expanded house has 2,960 square feet of living space, said listing agent Erin Schwartzof John L. Scott with amenities people need today: An open floor plan, eat-in kitchen, space to work remotely and well-positioned windows and skylights that draw in natural light.
Outside are decks for outdoor entertaining and a standalone garden studio with arched French doors and windows. The building, down to its railing in the Chinese Chippendale pattern, is modeled after a pavilion Thomas Jefferson installed at his Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The 6,969-square-foot lot with a landscaped hillside is offered with the option to add an adjacent 7,400-square-foot view lot, Schwartz said.
McCulloch‘s team worked up to 16-hour days and often seven days a week, transforming the property. The team dug out blackberry brambles, ivy and laurel hedges that overran the lot enough to obscure the house.
“It was like Sleeping Beauty’s castle,” surrounded by thorns, McCulloch said.
McCulloch and his McCulloch Foundation have been credited with saving significant landmarks such as the 1911 Markham House,a Spanish Mission-style structure in Portland’s Laurelhurst neighborhood, and the 1912 Giltner Mansion, a Dutch Colonial Revival in Northeast Portland’s Irvington neighborhood.
“Portland is changing so fast we are losing our sense of place and history,” said McCulloch, who was honored by the Lake Oswego Preservation Society for his restoration of a 1910 Arts and Crafts bungalow designed by architect Joseph Jacobberger.
McCulloch has a tradition of inviting neighbors and previous owners to see a house after he’s completed a renovation. He held a family reunion at the Giltner Mansion and hosted a reception for a woman who grew up in a 1901 Queen Anne in Sellwood as well as a 105th birthday party for her friend.
On June 4 and 5, McCulloch met about 300 Arlington Heights residents as they walked through the newly completed Colonial Revival house.
“Everyone had a story to tell or they shared the name they called the house, and they all thanked us for saving it,” said McCulloch.
Schwartz said people, incredulous until seeing the transformation, were taking photos at the open houses.
“Everyone knew the house after its grander days had long faded and appreciated that John restored the grandeur,” said Schwartz. “He doesn’t do it for profits, but for his passion for saving places, one home at a time.”