Breathing New Life into Old Homes

Photos by David Papazian

Ben Waechter’s renovated 1910 home achieves a striking presence without demolition.

In recent years, as the real estate economy has rebounded from years of recession, an increasing number of historic homes in Portland and other Oregon cities have been torn down, often to make room for newer structures. At the same time, modern architecture has become increasingly popular, with buyers drawn to open plans and simple, clean-lined designs. But for those who seek modern design without demolition, Portland architect Ben Waechter’s portfolio may indicate a third way: breathing new life and a contemporary feel into old homes.

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Waechter’s latest project is a house in Southeast Portland’s Clinton neighborhood dating to 1910 that feels both of its time and, now with its renovation, ours, too. Nothing was changed on the exterior except the windows and the paint, and yet, as the architect says, “it feels half modern. And that was the idea. It’s a balance between the memory of the original 1900 form of the house and this new aesthetic.” It starts with the paint, which creates a contemporary monochromatic look that unifies the siding, roof and windows as part of one sculptural object. Waechter’s design also streamlines the old house’s look by tucking the windowsills into the interior, eliminating any exterior trim. Inside, he created whole walls of bookshelves and cabinets to not only provide storage but extend that sense of elegant simplicity. “It’s about creating spaces with a strong atmosphere or sense of place through refinement,” he says, “so that your memory of the space is directly tied to those few materials that the room is made of.”

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The mix of old with new, interior design creates a perfect statement for the artfully updated home.

A native who studied architecture at the University of Oregon, Waechter’s deep affection for local architecture and traditions is infused by his early career under the influence of some of the world’s top architects. After completing a fellowship in Switzerland, he worked in Italy for legendary architect Renzo Piano, responsible for landmarks like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the “New York Times” headquarters in New York City. Returning home, he later worked for Portland’s most acclaimed architect, Brad Cloepfil, before establishing his own practice in 2008. Waechter quickly gained notice a year later for his innovative Z-Haus, which arranged rooms on either side of an interior stairway at half-level intervals, allowing residents to look across the stairway and interact with rooms both above and below. But he has been equally creative working with existing homes, sometimes transforming them into something entirely contemporary and other times, as with this project, crafting a balance that retains the design DNA of both.