I’M ASCENDING A CONCRETE PATH that switchbacks up a flank of Northeast Portland’s Alameda Ridge, but I’m not sure exactly what awaits me at the top. Given the steep incline and the thick foliage in front of me—acacias, orange trees, California lilacs—I can only barely make out the upper portion of a stucco exterior wall and a wrought-iron balconette spilling with red geranium blossoms. But what really matters to me at this moment, in this near-vertical landscape, is what’s at eye level, nose level, and ear level. Palm fronds rustle in the late-spring breeze, and the resiny scent of eucalyptus spices the air as flights of exotic plants plummet languorously toward the street below: cacti with leaves as thick as pancakes, yellow-budded sedums trailing over rocks, cypresses pointing at the sky like spears, peonies bursting with pink hues.
I feel as though I’ve been transported out of Portland into some warm-climate paradise. When at last I reach the top of the stairs and turn around to behold the view, the rest of the city takes on a different cast, too. Rather than the conventional postcard shot of the Portland skyline cowering under Mount Hood’s frozen stare, the view looks to the southwest, out over a placid sea of pearly buildings offset against the lush, green West Hills.
John Posey, a vivacious 42-year-old hairstylist wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, and his partner, Dennis Laird, a 45-year-old real estate agent, greet me at the door. They offer me a seat on an overstuffed camel-colored velvet sofa in their antique-embellished living room, where a large bay window faces the cityscape below. As soon as I sink into the cushion, I feel as if I’m a guest in a posh hotel.
Posey, who is responsible for the décor as well as the landscaping of the garden, jokes that he “willed the house into being.” Five years ago, the couple was living in a “storybook” Rose City bungalow, which Laird had originally purchased and fixed up, and which Posey had endowed with a garden. It was a fairly ideal home, but the two occasionally thought about trading up to a place with a view. “We’d walk along the [Alameda] Ridge and say, God, if anything comes up …” Laird recalls. If they ever did move, Posey knew what sort of house he wanted: a Mediterranean-style abode like one that he often made a point of passing, its stuccoed walls and leaded windows lending it an air of Hollywood Hills glamour.
In 2003, a friend drew the couple’s attention to a fixer-upper that had gone on the market in the Alameda neighborhood. From years of experience selling houses, Dennis knew this was a rare occurrence in the highly prized area. The owner, a 93-year-old widow, advertised the two-story, 3,000-square-foot house as an “English stucco” residence, but to Posey, the home’s wrought-iron accents and bright white exterior embodied just the Mediterranean feel he’d always sought. Moreover, he saw how the terraced yard (then planted with a fusty assortment of hardy rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, and juniper bushes) might soon complete the particular vision he wished to achieve. After all, the rocky, southwest-facing slope got so much sun that a vine maple would scorch—but it was an ideal place to grow agaves, palms, and other heat-loving plants.
The three-bedroom, three-bath house had fallen into serious disrepair, which was a good thing: It meant the couple could afford the asking price. “Dennis was like, ‘Woo-hoo! We can take care of that,’” Posey says, referring to the bay window in the living room, which, at the time, was sinking into the ground. Soon the home was theirs, and they commenced ripping out the wall-to-wall carpeting and peeling off three layers of floral wallpaper (five in the master bedroom). Their plan to delay major improvements held out until the shower pan in an upstairs bath broke, sending water through the downstairs ceiling; that repair snowballed into an overhaul of the entire house.
With the help of local home-remodeling company Top Hammer, Posey and Laird jacked up the entire structure to install new sill plates on top of the foundation (the old ones had rotted through). Then they tore out and replaced dry-rotted walls surrounding the west-facing windows; excised the pink and black tiles from the upstairs bathroom; and obliterated the kitchen, with its 1970s-era scallop-edged wood cabinets, curling brown-and-cream linoleum, and green-and-gold appliances.
Now the kitchen is a vision of gleaming marble; polished nickel hardware on the bright white drawers and cupboards bring the clean yet luxurious French contemporary look together. Light streaming in from the back patio adds to the room’s glow. Beyond the kitchen’s single-pane French doors, afternoon rays ricochet off the surfaces of a narrow saltwater soaking pool and a Jacuzzi. Previously a lawn bordered by a four-foot-wide hedge, this private retreat is now a favorite spot for Posey and Laird to entertain friends—and for their Hungarian vizsla, Darby, to cool off in the summer. Against the poured concrete perimeter wall, a white-lacquered bench and bamboo lounge furniture alternate with potted orange, lemon, kumquat, grapefruit, and pomelo trees that bud with early fruit. “We keep the citrus out all year,” explains Posey, who seems to have mastered the art of coaxing semitropical plants into surviving Oregon’s notoriously cool and rainy winters.
Before continuing the tour upstairs—where the three bedrooms have exchanged their old wallpaper for coats of warm blue and brown paint, and the two bathrooms have received fresh tile and fixtures—we pass through a back gate into Posey and Laird’s driveway. A path leads into the side yard, where beds are beginning to overflow with tomatoes, basil, arugula, chiles, Vietnamese herbs (Posey was born in Vietnam and still cooks his mother’s recipes), and a row of space-saving columnar apple trees. “We’ll get enough apples for a pie this year,” Posey says, delicately fingering one of the stalks. An avid cook, Posey likes to invite small groups of friends over for dinner every Monday—there were nine guests last week—and meals are often made from fresh produce plucked straight from the garden.
Sometimes that produce might include pomegranates, pink lemons, or pawpaw fruits, all of which are among the exotic edibles that grow in Posey and Laird’s terraced front yard. In the five years they’ve lived here, Posey has saturated the slope with new plants while keeping the original switchbacking concrete path, and most of the rock walls that edge the terraces, intact. Over time, different sections of the hill have gained distinct identities—at the base of the incline, for example, Posey planted hardy olive trees and lavender bushes that blow in the wind, as if waving at passers-by. But everywhere, heterogeneous plants freely intermingle: fruit trees, flowers, and trees and shrubs often chosen for their blue-tinged foliage.
We idle in the garden, and Posey and Laird express a sense of contentment at having found—and created—this hillside idyll. “I put my heart and soul into everything I do, so it was hard to let go of the old house,” Laird admits. “But after six months of working on this place, finally it was our house.” Posey concurs. “Every morning when I run down those stairs,” he says, gesturing inside, “I’m just as excited as I was the first time we saw this place."