Hilltop home and hearth


The Chinese kitchen’s wall-length cooking area and ample counter space provide the family the space to prepare their favorite cuisine. // Photos by Lincoln Barbour

When Julie O’Toole and Steve Nemirow built their house that sits near the top of Bald Peak in Yamhill County, they wanted a space where they could cook nonya, a style of Chinese Indonesian cooking that mixes Chinese ingredients with Indonesian spices, creating a spicy, aromatic cuisine. “We wanted a great room, so people wouldn’t cram into the kitchen,” says O’Toole. “You can’t cook Chinese food, which we do about half the time, and have an open kitchen. The food is wonderful when it’s done, but it’s greasy and smelly when you’re making it.” Their solution was to design two kitchens — a traditional kitchen as part of the great room and a smaller, separate kitchen for Chinese cooking.

While in medical school in Germany in the 1970s, O’Toole also learned to cook Chinese food. “German medical school takes six years, and I lived in foreign student housing,” she says. “There were no other Americans, and most of the foreign students were Chinese Indonesian. For socializing, we cooked together. They taught me everything.” 

O’Toole, a pediatrician specializing in childhood onset eating disorders, founded the Kartini Clinic, an eating disorders clinic, after returning to Oregon. She and Nemirow, an attorney and artist, originally met when they were students at Reed College.

O’Toole and Nemirow, both 62, hired Portland architect Richard Brown, the principal at Richard Brown Architect, to design a 3,700-square-foot home that would incorporate not only the two kitchens but also a Chinese-style courtyard, a library, large garden, an art studio and spacious views. “I was intrigued by their plans,” says Brown. “I liked the setting and the Chinese influence in the design ideas.”




Above: Ingredients are lined up for meal prep. “In Chinese cooking, you learn to make something from nothing- some tomatoes, a few greens, a small piece of pork or some shrimp,” says O’Toole. Below: The island in the open kitchen separates the cooking area from the great room’s socializing area. “People can still be in the kitchen, but they’re not getting in the way of the cook,” says Nemirow. // Photos by Lincoln Barbour

After losing out on two other properties, they purchased 10 acres in 2005. “We wanted to live in wine country with a Mount Hood view,” says Nemirow. “When the weather is clear, we see the mountain and a narrow ribbon that forms the Gorge.” The property’s existing three-car garage with a studio apartment above was incorporated into the home’s four-bath, two-bedroom design. 

The center of the home, completed in 2006, is the great room with a wood-burning fireplace and a wall of windows framing the view. The traditional kitchen has honed granite countertops, a chalkboard refrigerator covered with notes about plants and books, Ikea cabinets faced with local fir, an eating bar, and a red Aga range. “An Aga is a different way of cooking,” says O’Toole. “You start your food on one of the large burners but finish it in one of the ovens. An Aga always stays on, but it’s insulated, so it’s not hot to the touch.”

A sliding door leads to the Chinese kitchen, which has a stainless steel work area and sink and a commercial dishwasher with a three-minute cycle. “With the concrete floor and stainless steel, this area is almost bombproof,” says Nemirow. “It makes cleanup easy. It can get sopping wet in here without doing damage.” A cooking area along a wall has a gas burner for preparing stocks, an induction burner and an induction wok, which make the kitchen safer. “In traditional Chinese kitchens, you’re cooking with oil over an open flame, so it’s easy to get burned,” says O’Toole. “With the induction burners, that doesn’t happen.” 

A 19th century Chinese cupboard holds utensils and spices, and the space under the work areas stores ceramic cooking pots, serving dishes and woven steam baskets. Large windows provide ventilation, and the kitchen opens onto a white-walled Chinese courtyard with Chinese plants that provides a sheltered, sunny area. 




Above: O’Toole reads from her collection of books on Charles Darwin in the 316-square-foot library. The library also contains family pieces, including a desk that belonged to O’Toole’s father. Below” The German-inspired stucco open fireplace is a popular spot in the great room. The statues on the mantel were collected during trips to Asia. // Photos by Lincoln Barbour

Nemirow and O’Toole often spend the early morning in their library, which has a gas fireplace, is painted dark red and holds an eclectic collection of books on topics such as Mahatma Gandhi, the Beat Poets and early 20th century adventure fiction. “Having this darker room is a contrast to the light in rest of the house,” says O’Toole. “It reinforces the quiet feel of the room.”

A door off the library leads to the home’s more private areas, including the master suite with his-and-her bathrooms connected by the shower. A sewing room, where O’Toole, who made the home’s drapes, stores fabric also doubles as a bedroom for visiting grandchildren. The guest room opens onto the courtyard, and Nemirow’s studio, filled with his colorful canvases, takes up the northwest corner. “I like having my own studio,” he says. “In our Portland house, there wasn’t a place to paint. I had to use the garage.”

Sustainable features compensate for the home’s footprint. “We wanted to do more than just drive a Prius,” says O’Toole. The home is built from rastra blocks, which are made from recycled polystyrene and cement and provide soundproofing and insulation.

A residential wind turbine produces 50 percent of the electricity, and a geothermal heat pump generates radiant heat under concrete floors. “The pump uses copper tubes buried in our field,” says Nemirow. “When it’s on, it takes the heat directly from the ground to our house.”A mudroom, easily accessible from the front and back doors, has a dog bath, where their dog, Cleo, can be cleaned off with a handheld nozzle before running through the house. 




Above: Nemirow designed the entrance to the garden, and O’Toole’s son-in-law hand-built its waffle fencing. Below: The walls of the Chinese courtyard absorb heat and reflect it back to the house, creating a protected area away from the wind. // Photos by Lincoln Barbour

Outside, most of the acreage is leased to a wheat farmer, but above the house a gate with llanwenlys written above it, Welsh for “herb of gladness,” leads to the garden with a lawn and recirculating-water pond. A small orchard includes cherry, hazelnut, plum and apple trees. Raised beds hold vegetables and herbs for cooking, and a chicken coop houses five chickens. A seating area with a pergola made by Nemirow provides a space to enjoy the garden and the view toward Mount Hood. 

Before building their home, O’Toole and Nemirow lived in established Portland neighborhoods, such as Irvington. “At first, we weren’t sure about designing a contemporary home because we’d always loved older homes,” says O’Toole. “Now we wonder what took us so long. We have space for everything indoors and out, and the light and layout create a comfortable, aesthetic home that we love living in.”