Birds, Bunnies, and Backstory at the Gloriously Restored Isam White House
hen Richard and Anne De Wolf put in an offer for the Isam White House in 2016, they knew what they were getting themselves into—the two-and-a-half story, originally four bedroom house in Northwest Portland is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The De Wolfs co-own the design company Arciform, which specializes in historic preservation and renovation, and they had done this dance already.
“We lived in a historic home before this, but it was not on the National Register,” says Richard, who founded Arciform in 1997, with his wife Anne joining as principal designer a year later. “And we kind of felt like we’ve been talking the talk all these years. So, we figured we’d better walk the walk.”
Anne, who is originally from Germany, met Richard 29 years ago while they were both living on boats in South Carolina. They took a road trip together just a month after they met, wound up in Oregon, and got married. It wasn’t long before they began a new love affair—with restoring and preserving old houses. While Arciform specializes in restoring and remodeling pre-1930s homes, other restoration projects in Portland include Union Station, the Hollywood Theatre, and the Old Church Concert Hall. When a real estate agent they knew informed them that the Isam White House was on the market, the De Wolfs jumped at the chance.
“Our house we were living in at the time was beautiful, nice and done—done to the point where we were kind of bored. We like projects. So, we said, ‘OK, let’s go check it out,’” recalls Richard. “We didn’t look at any other homes, or do comparative analysis or anything like that. We just said, ‘We’re going to buy this place.’ And so we wrote a nice letter, and they took our offer.”
Anchored on a leafy street corner in Northwest Portland’s Nob Hill area, the Isam White House has its own story, too. Built in 1904, the blue Colonial Revival–style mansion is named after its first resident, Isam White, a wealthy merchant who moved in with his wife, Rose, that same year. It was designed by Whidden & Lewis, the same firm that brought us historical centerpieces like Portland City Hall and the old Multnomah County Courthouse. After her husband’s death in 1909, Rose White owned the property until 1923. Things took a strange turn when the next owners purchased the house with the reported intent to use it as a mortuary—but those plans fell through due to zoning regulations. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the place had a stint as a boardinghouse.
In classic Portland fashion, the Isam White House was also a gathering place for foodies. Starting in the 1940s, homeowner Hilma Carlson operated a restaurant on the first floor called the Cape Cod Tea Room, where Portlanders feasted on $1.75 “De Luxe” dinners of roast leg of lamb with mint jelly. The Cape Cod Tea Room was also said to have served rose princesses and other dignitaries.
Jack Hilyard moved in in the 1970s. A reverend active with the neighboring Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, who was scorned by his family when he came out as gay, Hilyard lived there with partner David Druse. Both have since passed on, but they were known for throwing great parties at the historic home, according to Hilyard’s obituary.
“There’s been [some] great, interesting families that have made this house a home for the community through charity events and things like that, so Anne and I are keeping on in that tradition,” says Richard. Though large gatherings were on pause during the pandemic, the couple is looking forward to welcoming the community back into their home.
“We love old houses because they have so much personality that’s not necessarily trendy and current but kind of opens your eyes to the way people thought 100 or more years ago,” says Anne. “It just makes it a bit more of an exploration and that is
really fun for us.”
Though preserving their new old home’s inherent quirkiness has been a focal point for the De Wolfs over the past six years, they’ve also added their own personal accents. Case in point: a colony of lifesize rabbit statues guarding the rosebushes in the front yard. “It doesn’t take a lot to have fun,” says Anne. “The bunnies are the one thing that people take pictures of the most. They’re a huge hit with the neighborhood.”
When incorporating modern touches into their home, the De Wolfs made sure to do it in a way that respects the house’s bones and particular architecture. “You can do that with furniture, you don’t have to rip walls out,” says Richard of some of the updates. “Rather, you can bring in modern pieces like this,” he says as he waves his arm toward the lime green living room sofas. Contrasting with deep sea blue walls that dominate the room along with dark wood trimming, the sofas contribute to a playful mix of old and new. From the ceiling hang crystal chandeliers that once lit up the Georgian Room, a restaurant and popular spot for well-to-do “ladies who lunch” on the 10th floor of the former Meier & Frank department store, now the Nines Hotel.
But there’s not a whole lot that the De Wolfs want to drastically alter, and due to the home’s listing on the National Register they are limited to what they can change as far as the exterior goes. “A lot of the home was in really good shape already. We feel more like caretakers here, so we’re going to do a lot more preservation-type work,” says Richard. One of the other benefits of living in a historic home? The house has a functioning dumbwaiter that can be used to carry heavy items or bags upstairs. Richard’s 83-year-old mother, who moved in after the death of her husband, “uses this all the time,” he says.
One of the major projects was the kitchen, which had been covered up by cheap cabinets and appliances temporarily mounted to the surface—a product of the 1970s.
“We took all that back out and uncovered the original kitchen,” says Anne. Beneath the ’70s-era additions was original white, hexagonal floor tiling and green, brick-set, crackle-glazed tiles along the walls.
“Instead of tearing up the whole kitchen floor, we decided to just leave it since it’s a part of the house’s story. And for the little cracks and such I am going to do some gold leafing, which is a Japanese technique that celebrates the imperfections in life instead of hiding it,” Richard explains.
If on walking through this house you pick up on an animal theme, however—that’s all the De Wolfs, including the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wallpaper featuring bunnies boxing. “Unless I pointed it out, you would be like, ‘Oh, that’s just charming wallpaper.’ But then you stare at it and say, ‘Wait a minute, those rabbits are fighting each other,’” Richard reveals.
There’s one animal motif that could never go unnoticed: birds, lots of them. From a peacock table base to living room wallpaper covered with flowers and cranes to a wrought-iron swan faucet as well as the blue wallpaper with egrets that runs up the staircase to the second floor, it’s safe to say the De Wolfs have quite literally put a bird on it. It’s “sophisticated-goofy,” says Anne.
While their biggest project so far was making three rooms on the fourth floor Airbnb ready (the house is, admittedly, a little big for just three people), the couple’s favorite change is the library they’ve added to the area at the top of the staircase, complete with an old-fashioned sliding ladder. “There was nothing up here before, just a ton of doors really,” says Richard of the newly added shelves filled with (in his words) trashy romance novels. “We’re not trying to be pretentious in any way with our books.” Anne, a self-proclaimed bookworm, adds, “It’s the most lowbrow library that you’ve ever seen.”
Yet it’s this very juxtaposition between classic and “goofy” that has made the Isam White House a place the De Wolfs can call home. “We try to have a sort of impulsive nature to our decision-making,” says Anne. “Whenever we feel like, ‘Oh, this is getting to be too conventional,’ we turn around and go the other way.”