An astonishing balancing act of contemporary and Victorian elements runs through the multiple levels of Sandra and Greg Cost’s historic Portland house. Having survived the decades, the structure’s detailed crown moldings, inlaid wood floors, tall doors and high ceilings currently live in concert with modern furniture, bold, colorful artwork and touches of gold-toned metals. It is a harmony achieved by designer Jessica Helgerson, who calls the 1885 abode “one of the most beautiful, well-maintained old homes I have ever stepped inside.”
The designer’s inspiration came in no small part via Greg’s trove of vintage furniture. “Jessica knew we had a collection of midcentury modern chairs and we liked that look,” he says. Helgerson, working with senior designer Chelsie Lee, found that the simplicity of geometric shapes and vivid colors played neatly against the home’s more intricate original elements. “I think a love of modern design in general helped set the tone,” Lee comments. Sandra’s own glamorous vibe also proved pivotal. “We wanted to do something that felt right for her,” notes Helgerson.
As much as the designers focused on contemporary decoration, they preserved the abode’s traditional framework, thereby effectively sidestepping many of the restrictions for renovating a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The most significant thing is an old fireplace behind the breakfast nook,” Helgerson points out. “It’s attractive–and it’s probably for the best that we weren’t able to remove it.” The designer adds, “Things like windows were very carefully monitored. We had to replicate the existing details exactly.” For the parlor, the designer made a simple switch that completely transformed the formal space. “The antiqued mirrors were all added in,” Sandra says of the room, which previously featured a series of fabric panels.
By far, the most involved renovation concerned the kitchen. As with the rest of the house, it reflects a melding of old and new. But, unlike the home’s other rooms, the space was subject to a 1980s renovation characterized by daffodils and lots of yellow. Working with general contractor Gregor Mitchell, Helgerson took away the flower power and added tin ceilings and marble counters and set about recreating the wood floors as they appear through the rest of the house. “Each room on the first story had its own original inlay border detail on the floor,” Lee says, “so in the kitchen, we did a new one to mirror those.” Adds Helgerson, “We really worked hard to make sure the wood grain and the kind of detailing matched.”
There was also a healthy amount of structural work needed to re-organize and open up the kitchen, shares Mitchell. “It required a large beam across the ceiling, steel columns and new footings down at the basement level, but we were able to incorporate that seamlessly into the space, concealing those components within the design,” he says, noting that the kitchen had been remodeled a few times previously, which led to the discovery of boiler lines and drains and required wiring to be relocated. To brighten the space, Mitchell used marble for the counters and backsplash and maple for the custom-made cabinets. Also made-to-order were the casings for the nook archway. As a surprise element, the general contractor added a swinging door, concealed and built into the wall of cabinets, which leads to an adjacent pantry.
For the home’s palette, Helgerson chose colors that hold their own alongside the rich hues of the original woodwork. “We looked at a lot of colors in the house and thought about it a lot,” she says of the decidedly less-than-demure purples, blues and hot pinks. “It was intuitive. It wasn’t our usual go-to, but the woods were fairly orange-y and it turns out that lavender looked really lovely. That same color comes throughout the residence in various degrees,” pointing to the shade in kitchen as well the hue that appears in the entry, living room and master bedroom.
The furniture and artwork add similarly robust visual heft within the 19th-century shell. There are a few midcentury classics like the Saarinen Womb Chair, a Bertoia Diamond lounge chair and a Platner lounge chair, along with generously proportioned sofas and sectionals in jewel tones and a custom dining table with brass legs designed to accommodate big groups of people.
“We sourced all of the art,” Helgerson notes, “with the exception of one piece that Chelsie designed–the geometric one over the blue sofa in the darker room.” Great care was taken to ensure that the art was integral to the overall feel of each room, be it soft, calming colors for a bedroom, a painting that complements a light fixture, or items that tie in the magentas and fuchsias seen throughout the house. “We found pieces that felt reflective of the design,” Helgerson notes. “A nice juxtaposition to all that history.”
n the end, Helgerson, Lee and Mitchell created a beautiful salute to past and present that serves as a smart showcase for entertaining as well as a functional living space for the Costs and their children. “We were very respectful of the historic architecture with everything permanent we did,” Helgerson says, “and then everything that you can take off the ceiling or move out was modern. We don’t want to have our remodel look 2017, and then it’s outdated in 2021.”