Inside a ’70s-Style River Island Home Outside Portland, Oregon

Sauvie Island—a river island 10 miles northwest of downtown Portland, Oregon—is a gem of a place to live. Cradled by the Columbia River to the east and the Multnomah Channel to the west, the island is a nature lover’s paradise, replete with farms full of berry patches, roughly 11,500 acres of wildlife reserve, and several stretches of white sandy beaches. Its charming scenery is the reason a family of four chose it as the location for their second home, finding a 1979 fixer-upper to make their own.

“You got to one bedroom through the garage,” designer Jessica Helgerson notes of the preexisting structure’s flaws. (Other absurdities included a toilet bowl built on a plinth to avoid digging into the ground to lay pipes and a fully carpeted kitchen.) And yet, Helgerson, a fellow Sauvie Island resident, saw possibilities, gut-renovating her way out of the labyrinth and reconfiguring the space within the original footprint in the process. All the bedrooms are now on the first floor and the entryway runs from the foyer to the backyard, exposing the interiors to natural light and views of the outdoors: “Opening up that space cleared up all the circulation,” she observes.

A commitment to paneling was one of the first design decisions Helgerson made, in light of her focus on the home’s 1970s style. “We were always trying to listen to what the house wanted, and let it be itself, let it be of its era,” she says. Executed with precision and care by TaylorSmith Sustainable Construction, rooms are sheathed in individual strips of fir that contemporize the paneling trend of 50 years ago. “This was really put together by craftspeople who are super exacting,” says the wife. “The way the wood moves up the wall and onto the ceiling feels like a full wrap…both where the ceiling meets the walls and the built-in cabinetry.”

Now “upstairs is like living in a tree house with a view of a major waterway,” the client says. The main living areas were placed on the second floor in order to maximize sightlines. “We have huge barges and enormous ships in the most insane color palette that come past hourly. It’s really a delightful place to live.”

Color is something the wife had been craving since the pandemic. Helgerson had beautifully decorated the family’s prior home on the other side of the island years before, but the palette had been neutral. After finding a place close to the beach during the summer of 2020, the family decided to replant their roots there, this time embracing a change in aesthetics. “I’m a different person than I was the last time around,” the client relays. I wanted different things around me. I wanted to live in a colorful and patterned house. And I wanted it to feel fun and cozy, and lively but not overwhelming.”

Helgerson satisfied the color craving by blending warm, muted tones throughout the home. For one, there is the playful use of earthy-hued encaustic tiles by Zia Tile in the foyer, family room, and primary bathroom that collectively bring to mind a disco’s dance floor. “They’re colors that all look really nice with the wood. I just don’t see hot pink and fluorescent yellow [going] with the fir,” Helgerson says of the vivid yet gentle palette.

Today, the homeowners are ecstatic with their new forever home. “We do a really good job of living in this house; there is not any dead space in it. We use all of the rooms and use them regularly and thoroughly,” says the wife.

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