Milwaukie’s Best

A fussy vacation home becomes a stylish family hangout in Portland's most undersung riverside 'burb.

By Camela Raymond August 17, 2012 Published in the June 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

Strangers to Milwaukie, that unprepossessing East Side suburb, may regard it as a mere blur of scraggly buildings glimpsed while barreling down Highway 99E—or an indistinct golf-ball graveyard somewhere beyond the backside of the Waverley Country Club. But veer off the highway and away from the links, travel down one of the windy side streets bordering the Willamette River, and you’ll see that this oft-overlooked community is also misunderstood, for here thrive neighborhoods that relish both gorgeous waterfront views and urban proximity.

That’s a rare quality around these parts. Whereas most of the waterfront property on Portland proper’s East Side is zoned for industrial use or preserved in a quasi-natural state for public use, Milwaukie glories in an abundance of private riverside lots. Roger Thompson and Laure Redmond enjoy one of the more prime spreads, a one-acre plot that hugs 300 feet of Willamette River beachfront. Their home’s tall rear windows look across this mellow ribbon of water to the gilded hills of Dunthorpe, and Redmond quips that, compared to the residents of that coveted West Side neighborhood, “We have the better view.”

The 1935 two-level Cape Cod-meets-ranch house was for many years a vacation retreat for a well-heeled East Coast executive who ultimately made it his permanent home. Redmond and Thompson admired the house’s casually classy exterior—and, after buying the property in 2001, they eventually warmed up to its rambling plan. (“We were concerned it was disjointed; we called it ‘the Winchester’ at first,” Thompson admits with a laugh.) But they were less taken with the interior, which straddled a thin line between uncomfortably formal and awfully gaudy (think lemon-yellow flocked wallpaper). They remodeled, reconfigured, and redecorated every inch of the roughly 3,800-square-foot house, transforming it into a comfortably stylish family flop for themselves and Thompson’s teenage sons, Chris, 17, and Tyler, 13.

Redmond, who took charge of the makeover, made sure to consider the practical needs of each family member. For instance, Thompson, a commercial film director and partner with the Portland-based production company Group Mojo, needed a studio where he could review and edit footage at home. Redmond, a writer, wellness advice guru (her monthly TV segment, “Feel Good Friday,” airs on KATU’s AM Northwest), and teen counselor specializing in issues of female self-esteem, wanted a home office with a lot of natural light. And the boys required space to study, hang out with friends, and, well, just be teenagers.

“I loved the idea of having one room that had extreme color, while everything else was muted,” Redmond says, stepping into a room whose walls are painted an intense midnight blue. What was once a formal dining room (complete with ornate chandelier) is now an ideal casual gathering spot for family members and the boys’ friends. Its simple décor includes a quartet of comfy slipcovered lounge chairs and a wall of family photos.

To reach Thompson’s studio, we walk through the kitchen, where stainless steel and honed granite have replaced the original yellow ceramic tile countertops. Next to the kitchen, an unusually large utility room is the perfect place to stash the washer and dryer—and Thompson’s video-editing suite. A bank of shelving smartly divides the room in half, giving Thompson a spacious and private (if not always quiet) creative retreat.

Redmond, preferring the river as her backdrop, claimed a room at the opposite corner of the main floor as her office. Now that she’s stripped the dark-brown leather wall coverings from this former gloomy den and added a coat of fresh taupe paint, her self-described “sanctuary” is a study in airiness and light, where a bank of tall, west-facing windows looks out on the softly lapping river. On one wall, a sultry vintage photo of Marilyn Monroe seems fitting inspiration for Redmond’s writings, which have included Feel Good Naked, a 2001 advice book for women about building a beautiful body without dieting.

“I don’t like lots of stuff and tchotchkes,” says the curvaceously fit 46-year-old as we enter the adjacent living room. Here, Oriental rugs, simple contemporary furnishings, and a few well-placed artworks and objets express Redmond’s easygoing sense of style. The room is large and deep-proportioned, such that it easily fits not only a cozy seating area but also, at the room’s opposite end, a dining table from which guests have a view of the lushly landscaped back lawn.  Adjacent to the dining area is that most essential of Oregon amenities: a sunroom. With tile floors that soak up solar heat, this “solarium,” as the family refers to it, basks in afternoon light, creating an ideal place to curl up with a book or just to sit and watch the sun settle over the West Hills.

It’s also one of many nooks and crannies where residents of the house can easily spend some quality time alone (always useful in preserving domestic tranquility). Indeed, separation between parents and teens is another element of the sanity-preserving floor plan: The master bedroom is on the ground floor, apart from the boys’ bedrooms, which are situated on the opposite side of the house and up a flight of stairs. A small sitting area on the upper stair landing even gives Tyler and Chris a place all their own to read or watch a movie with friends. (“The upstairs is our version of a basement,” Redmond explains.)

With multitasking now an ordinary feature of contemporary life, it seems that the pressure is on our homes to adapt in kind. The good news, as this family’s experience shows, is that you can teach an old house new tricks: Once a vacation home for two, the Thompson-Redmond residence is, today, a place where four family members find space to work, to play, to come together, and to seek solitude.

So let’s hear it for Milwaukie. Cocktails on the patio, pronto, darling.