Honoring the Past

A couple restores a midcentury marvel

By Lisa Radon August 19, 2009 Published in the September 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

MASTER BEDROOM With a passion for midcentury style and a boundless DIY spirit, Jenelle Isaacson and Zoltan Dubrawsky diligently restored their 1956 split-level. The bedroom’s built-in bed and side tables are all original. Out of sight is the dressing area: a wall of closets with original Pella wood accordion doors facing a dressing table and drawers that match those beside the bed.

It was a dream home for any lover of midcentury modern style: a split-level with floor-to-ceiling windows that nestled into its site as snugly as dovetail joinery. With a generous master suite at the end of the bedroom wing and an open living/dining room paneled in redwood anchoring the main space, the simplicity of the home’s design is matched by its livability. In the 50 years since it was built, nothing in the home had been upgraded except the refrigerator and the washer/dryer, which had both been replaced in the 1970s. The wallsstill bore their original coats of rose-tinted paint, matched perfectly to the mortar between the bricks of the fireplace. Even the ceiling tiles were original, each sporting a yellowed patina from five decades’ worth of cigarette smoke.

When real estate agent Jenelle Isaacson took some clients to see the Southwest Portland house, she quickly saw its potential. Fortunately for Isaacson, her clients did not. Although she and her handy husband, Zoltan Dubrawsky, had already remodeled two homes in the prior three years—and had had a new baby—they donned their tool belts to transform this house into a home for their family.

Cleaning, restoring, and refinishing was most of what had to be done. The work was time consuming and meticulous, but Isaacson and Dubrawsky wanted to pay homage to the home’s original owner, Gerald Nusbaum, so they stuck to their DIY plan. Nusbaum designed and built the home in 1956; he based it on one he’d spotted on a Sunset magazine tour in Vancouver, BC, and he even made several trips to Vancouver to take measurements. He built the basement first, and he and his wife lived there while he constructed the rest of the home around them.

ut one era’s fashion can be another’s headache, particularly when it comes to energy consumption. The home’s expansive use of glass, for instance, made upgrading the many windows to double-pane a top priority; the new windows reduced the home’s heating bills by 40 percent. When the couple discovered that the radiators in the original oil-powered heating system were failing, experts told them they wouldn’t even be able to find parts, so they installed a radiant floor system instead. They ordered the major components online and then hired Portland’s Premier Heating & Air Conditioning (1725 SE Franklin St, 503-233-6566) to install a gas water heater, which also supplies hot water to the house.

But other features became worthy of restoration projects. Dubrawsky himself fearlessly tackled the whole-house low-voltage relay electrical system, a project their electrician refused to touch. The system directs all of the home’s lights through a central transformer that reduces voltage, lowering electricity usage as a result. Details are what make a good home great, and the original owner/builder worried over every door pull and finish. Some of these details are integral, like the kitchen-cabinet interiors with their clever pullouts and lazy Susans. Some define the home with sculptural finesse, like the angled lighting soffits throughout the rooms. Some are hidden—each of the three exterior doors has a unique doorbell tone—and some are both so thoughtful and so intimate, like the redwood battened-cork ceiling in the master-bedroom dressing area, that it’s clear the home was its owner’s masterpiece.

“We were nervous about messing with the builder’s vision,” Isaacson says. “Wherever possible, we have tried to keep the original materials.” If something had to be replaced, the couple searched for matching materials. So far, the only major interior change they’ve made has been the addition of a Finnish sauna in the basement.

They now have a second child, but Isaacson and Dubrawsky aren’t planning to look for a bigger house anytime soon. Dubrawsky works on the landscaping, and Isaacson envisions finishing the basement with a guest room and a family room. It’s all part of the ongoing project of making this great midcentury house a home.

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