Originally published © the Portland Press Herald 2012, photos by Derek Davis
Intrepid homesteaders ascend Portland’s Munjoy Hill reviving once-neglected neighborhoods with creative housing concepts.
Sometimes it’s co-housing. Sometimes it’s a condominium. It’s often collaborative living, but doesn’t quite conform to that definition. And it’s not an “intentional community,” a term that Portland architect Dick Reed would eschew as too precious, anyway.
Separate But Equal
When Dick Reed and his wife, Gunnel Larsdotter, decided it was time to consolidate their Peaks Island summer place, in-town home and architectural offices, their journey took them to Cumberland Avenue on Munjoy Hill. Part of the quest was a parking spot for their beloved yellow motorcycle.
Reed’s friend Chris Roberts was seeking a site for an art studio, workshop and garden with his wife, Mere. Reed describes the goal as “do-it-yourself condo – you preselect the company and make your own rules.”
When Mere and Gunnel found a hidden green space with antique brick wall behind the run-down urban property, the “secret garden,” they declared the site perfect. With their enthusiastic stamp of approval, the two couples purchased the property together.
Original cinderblock walls from 1945 are recycled from the building’s humble origins as a cement one-story garage. “I like the cinder block,” says Reed. “I was told it was made right here on Munjoy Hill.”
The families appreciated the urban setting midway up Munjoy Hill, a working-class neighborhood of modest homes, apartments and tenements. The Hill’s legendary rough and gritty reputation persisted until gentrification began its relentless creep up the Eastern Prom in the 1980s and 1990s.
Reed rebuilt the existing five-bay cinderblock garage into a three-story residential space with office and guest quarters. Chris and Mere rebuilt the former “carriage house” as an artist studio with living space overlooking the garden. The Reed home has ground floor entry, studio-office, guest quarters and garage. It opens onto a beautiful brick-walled courtyard with elegant Asian-style garden – an urban oasis.
Urban Tree House
The soaring, multidimensional space has salvaged walls of original cinderblock from the former garage, echoing the structure’s original use. On the exterior, the home is a warm shade of salmon, nearly identical to the historic Portland Observatory, combined with slate shingles in soft gray-green.
Inside, abundant windows give an open, loft-like feel. The Reeds’ living/working space is a soaring 2,200 square feet, with open living room, dining room, and small but very efficient European kitchen, much of which was sourced at IKEA. Upstairs, their 3rd floor bedroom feels like an urban treehouse. Bath, laundry and exercise spaces flow seamlessly. The stairway features graceful wooden hand-rails for safety – smooth and round – each with a hand-finished ball at the end. Low lights illuminate the steps at night for safety.
Reed installed the glowing floors of recycled bleacher-seats himself, a Herculean effort. Reed’s DIY sensibility and elbow grease created both room in the budget and a feeling of accomplishment — the best combination of savvy, sweat equity and sustainability.
The couples incorporated sustainable building concepts like highly insulated SIP panels to minimize heat loss, LED lighting, and recycled flooring and original cinder block in the garage. The couples future plans include a green roof.
The views from the home are enviable — the soaring triple-decker has dramatic vistas on three sides. The Reeds enjoy the Munjoy Hill Observatory from the living room, plus twinkling lights of Back Cove from the lofty 3rd floor bedroom. On clear days, they have a stellar view of Mt. Washington. “It’s beautiful up here at night,” Gunnel says.
Although they laugh at being in their “Golden Years,” the Reeds have thoughtfully installed a residential elevator to enjoy the vertical life they have created. I’m impressed — this romantic couple has done some serious forward-thinking. “Two couples together make it work — we couldn’t have done it on our own.”
The Reeds are not alone in seeking alternative forms of sustainable urbanism. Others on the Hill are making similar choices.
Developer Peter Bass and two architects, David Lloyd of Archetype and Jenny Scheu of Redhouse Architects, plus builder John Ryan of Wright-Ryan Construction, teamed up to build a three-unit on a vacant lot at on Waterville Street in the East End. “We can do this — we can downsize to a single story,” said Jenny Scheu, who with her husband John Ryan, downsized-up on the top floor.
Architect David Lloyd, left, and his wife Nancy Adams took the ground floor, and Peter Bass and his wife, artist Lin Lisberger, took the second. Now the “Waterville Triad” occupies three stacked modern condo units. “We knew it was a group that was fun and good humored. Everybody was on the same page. None of us wanted fancy place, we wanted the building to be practical – not an ‘Architectural Statement.’”
With architects, developer and builder in the mix, the building was an obvious “go.” Scheu says the vacant urban property was love at first sight. “I love the way the Hill falls away, overlooking the city. We love to watch the boats in the harbor coming and going.”
This accomplished, cooperative design-build group has common sense to spare. After careful consideration, a condo-model seemed the best way to go. The trio drew up documents and scheduled an annual condo meeting. Common spaces include hallways that also function as informal art galleries. There is an elevator, and below, a handy multi-car garage. Outdoor common gardens are left up to artists Adams and Lisberger.
“The design process was a nice balance,” says Scheu.“shaping the overall vision of what the space would be – a lot of back and forth.”
Part of the goal was protecting the environment. The result is a tight building with thoughtful insulation and smart details that minimize heat loss, like triple glazed widows. “Wright Ryan gets the credit for knowing that these details don’t have to be too expensive,” said Scheu. The Waterville Triad also walks the walk – literally. “We love being able to walk everywhere,” and there are 12 bicycles in the basement. “Our heating bill is less than our cable bill – by quite a bit!”says Scheu. “It feels great to have a lighter footprint. It’s resoundingly pleasant for all of us.”
Housing costs, a struggling economy and aging parents have inspired some urban homesteaders to join forces across generations. Studies show the number of multi-generational households has recently risen dramatically. Some urban homesteaders find that creating separate-but-equal multigenerational households under the same roof can both bring rewards and create new bonds.
Pam and Peter Macomber on share their building on St Lawrence St. with Pam’s mother. With separate apartments in the same building, there is both privacy and closeness. “It’s a delicate balance with Mom’s space on the first floor and our space on the second and third – but we all make it work. Boundaries!” says Pam.
Co-housing with an aging parent can have unexpected benefits. “Mom always knew we were looking out for her best interests,” says Pam, “now I she really believes it. She even offers to dog-sit!”
The upscale renovation features all new windows, decks, private parking and a residential elevator. A small outdoor green space admits light, but with nothing to mow. “Maybe a few potted plants.” says Pam. “We want Mom to be able to come and go, and not struggle with stairs, snow or parking. She has nice views and no fuss.”
Upstairs, the Macombers enjoy private panoramic views of Portland Harbor from two levels, with lots of glass and multiple decks facing the water. “We loved our home in Deering, but this is a lot more convenient to our work and downtown,” says Peter.
“And a lot more fun,” says Pam.
Walk The Walk
Walkability is key to sustainable urbanism, and a major factor in all the couples’ housing choices. You will see Peter Macomber rollerblading along Fore Street; Lisberger and Bass dog-walking on the Eastern Prom; and run into Scheu at Rosemont Market. The Reeds enjoy walking to films and exhibitions at Portland Museum of Art. It’s a chorus: “From here, we can walk anywhere – we love it!”
Something wondrous is happening as urban homesteaders create old-fashioned communities using sustainable building concepts, upcycling, and contemporary design ideas, one unpolished gem at a time. •