Sustainability Meets Idiosyncrasy in a Modern Spin on the Mom & Pop Shop

Inside Will Emery and Bonnie Serkin's SE Clinton home and business, both built for the long haul.

By Randy Gragg November 3, 2014 Published in the November 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Bruce Wolf

When Will Emery and Bonnie Serkin decided their three-story Dunthorpe house might not be a good fit for their seventh decade and beyond, they opted to start with a clean sheet of paper, an old piece of land, and their deepest values. They wanted a more sustainable lifestyle, and to contribute to a neighborhood. But as Bonnie matter-of-factly puts it, “Will and I are quirky. Not in a normal eccentric way, but really quirky.” 

To meet Cyrk’s sustainability standards, everything had to be sourced from within 500 miles. Lighting came from Bocci in British Columbia, and wall panels were made from sustainably harvested, clear vertical-grain fir.

Image: Bruce Wolf

The two 65-year-olds are, by any standard, a pair of classic Oregon-transplant outliers. Will calls himself “the product of three generations of manufacturers” in Chicago. His family’s company evolved from tanning leather to making industrial belts and then automobile parts and gaskets for the vehicles of World War II. He moved to Oregon in 1974 as a “back-to-the-land hippie.” A Massachusetts native, Bonnie rode her bike to Eugene from Boston in 1971, wound up working in civil service in Salem, and then became a real estate and transactions attorney.

In the 1980s, Will bought a house on the Willamette River designed by Oregon architect Ellis Lawrence (also responsible for, among other things, the governor’s mansion), and put solar panels on it. They met on a blind date in 1994. Together, they are currently developing Wilder, an ambitious, ecologically sensitive village in Newport. 

The first moves toward a future home for this idiosyncratic duo came easy. The graffiti-covered, burned-out ruins of Red’s Electric on SE Clinton Street and 21st Avenue offered a great site. Bonnie’s increasingly challenging back condition made future wheelchair accessibility a given. The couple entertains—a lot. Bonnie is a fleet-footed conversationalist, social connector, and impulsive collector of midcentury art and contemporary photography. Will prefers vintage guitars, his ancestors’ mismatched heirloom Chippendale furniture, gardening, cigarettes, and privacy. His attitude toward his wife’s art collection? Bonnie’s word: “unenthusiastic.”

Will Emery’s studio features a collection of heirloom Chippendale furniture and paneling milled from spruce trees from the property he and Serkin are developing in Newport.

Image: Bruce Wolf

“We frequently don’t agree with each other,” she says. “So we’re a challenge for any professional, particularly an architect.” 

Sallee Humphrey and David Hyman of Deca Architects have designed everything from schools in Korea to the interiors of the Arlington Club. But they’re also familiar with the couple’s distinct desires: they first met the couple 15 years ago, hired by Bonnie to begin what became a methodical, room-by-room redo of Will’s Ellis Lawrence house. For the new home, architects and clients spent 14 months pondering issues big and small: They examined energy self-sufficiency and strategized the perfect place for a painting by Clyfford Still. They weighed the needs of two cats and one dog. At last, clients and architects emerged with a building they call “Cyrk,” named for the 1960s Polish circus posters Bonnie has collected since college. 

On paper, the building, completed in 2011, is a 15,000-square-foot, LEED Platinum, carbon-neutral, mixed-use structure. (The ground floor contains a PR firm and the couple’s real estate company, Landwaves.) But in its low-key ambience, the residence feels more like Bonnie and Will’s mom-and-pop shop than a trophy loft. 

Humphrey and Hyman worked to balance the couple’s offbeat personalities with their shared interest in practical, even cutting-edge, technical ambition—a priority also informed by what Hyman pegs as “Will’s deep sense of independence.” The team tapped an artesian aquifer 23 feet beneath the building to supply water for everything but the faucets, including a heat pump for heating and cooling. The home is powered by a 27-kilowatt photovoltaic array, with the daily excess of electricity fed back into the grid. But in an innovation rare for a Portland residence, the solar panels charge batteries first. “Even if the grid goes down,” says Will, “the lights—and refrigerators—will be on in this building.” 

Image: Bruce Wolf

Cyrk features an elevator, wide doors, and low appliances and counters, so Bonnie and Will can age in place. The layout, plumbing, and electrical configurations also allow the space to be easily subdivided into four apartments—an idea Will and Bonnie dub “the exit plan.” For now, there’s flexibility: a single ocean-blue glass partition slides down a long railing and, depending on where it stops, can provide privacy for guests or can shield dining adults from the grandchildren at the kids’ table. At the center of everything, the dining room/art gallery seems always ready for a reception.  

Stucco “clamshells” give the dining room a sense of enclosure without impeding the flow of prints by Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, and Wayne Thiebaud, and glass by Dante Marioni

Image: Bruce Wolf

The larger living/entertaining space showcases Bonnie’s art collection: paintings, nearly all by midcentury masters like Adolph Gottlieb, Arshile Gorky, and Robert Motherwell; an eclectic array of photography, from social documentarian Nan Goldin to minimalist Vija Celmins; and a smattering of glass art which she admits she has a habit of breaking. A pair of curved, floating walls dubbed “the clamshells,” hand-finished in gray-blue plaster, provides additional space for a Franz Kline painting and some Dante Marioni blown-glass vessels. Bonnie commissioned photographer Isaac Layman to create a piece from their former home. Will imagined a view of the river. But after a weeklong residency there, the artist produced a painstakingly rendered image of a wire-mesh heating grate. It hangs in Cyrk’s entry.

Bonnie’s den features a resin sliding door for privacy when she needs it.

Image: Bruce Wolf

Will’s retreat stands apart. Paneled in spruce trees harvested from their coastal property, Wilder, it is heated by a stove filled with wood he chops himself in the corner of their otherwise pristine basement parking garage. He has a separate door opening into an outdoor space, fitted with deep planters and an ashtray.  

A painting by Clyfford Still anchors the modest master suite.

Image: Bruce Wolf

Cyrk relies on exactingly sourced and crafted materials, orchestrated by contractor Carrington Barrs. To meet LEED Platinum requirements for sourcing most materials within 500 miles, the team salvaged the tropical ipe used for siding from a 1908 Northern California sawmill, and the large exposed beams came from a freighter that sunk in Willapa Bay in 1921, the sea worm holes and rust offering historical testament. After a long search, they finally found regionally manufactured lighting: the glass-globed chandeliers hanging over the entry stairs and dining table were designed by Bocci, made in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Humphrey and Hyman say that the 14-month design process helped to temper both the quirks and the disagreements. “We’ve been working for them for so long,” says Humphrey, “that it’s just a dialogue.” Bonnie quickly admits that Humphrey is adept at challenging her eclectic ideas. Hyman adds that the greatest challenge working with Will was getting him to realize, “You know, not everything has to match.”

Cyrk’s namesake posters hang in the hallway leading to the ground-floor offices for Landwaves. Bonnie explains that the playful imagery, bold graphics, and bright colors were the designers’ underhanded protest of Poland’s communist oppression. The ironies are historic, she notes, but the offbeat imagery still sums up the new surrounds. “Sometimes,” she says, “it gets pretty circusy around here.”

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Cyrk’s photovoltaic system charges batteries in case the power grid goes down; 1960s-era Polish circus posters gave Cyrk its name; Bonnie and Ranger enjoy one of Cyrk’s three decks; Will’s 18th-century grandfather clock greets visitors; self-sealing foam seats from Quince & Milan anchor the entry; ethereal natural light falls on an elegant tub by Hydro System Inc in the master bath.

Image: Bruce Wolf

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