How to Modernize a Victorian

A window-filled tower helps an old Victorian house see the light

Sarah Latta
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Tower power

“Semidistressed” isn’t usually a term on a first-time homebuyer’s wish list, but for Daniel Thomas, it signified opportunity. When he purchased an 1888 Victorian in Portland, it was a run-down version of its former self. “Eleven-foot ceilings were hidden under low drywall. It was stripped of ornamentation, save for some windows and a few doors,” says Thomas. Worst of all, it still had the tiny, fractured rooms typical of the era, so it brought in almost no natural light.

Thomas, co-owner of green building firm Hammer & Hand (), decided to banish the shadows in an unconventional way—with a three-story tower that functions as a light well at the back of the house. He hired Leela Brightenburg and Alissa Pulcrano of Bright Designlab () to create the tower and to play up the then-and-now polarity in the interior decoration. Today, new additions mix with restored historical details to help the old home feel ahead of its time.

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The 10- by 10-foot tower occupies a small footprint, but its brightening effect is no small feat. Sunlight from 11 windows facing north and east travels through an open loft space above the kitchen to the main floor’s living spaces. The façade was constructed using leftover wood from a Hammer & Hand project. “The texture is beautiful, and the wood will age nicely over time,” says Brightenburg.

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Back patio

When Thomas purchased the house, it was a series of warrenlike rooms. “I wanted a strong connection between the kitchen, the backyard, and the rest of the house,” he says. The designers raised the patio, left, nearly 30 inches to meet the interior floor level, and installed a folding door to encourage movement between indoors and out.

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The designers borrowed the ethos of an unfitted kitchen, typical of old houses, and gave it a commercial-inspired reincarnation. “We love the juxtaposition of things that seemingly don’t go together,” says Brightenburg. Metal cabinets () and stainless steel appliances pair with reclaimed floorboards and marble counters.

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Back entry

A ladder in the tower was originally added for roof maintenance but regularly lures Thomas upward. “I gaze at treetops and catch a glimpse of downtown,” he says. He’ll build an exterior stair for easier access.

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Living room

To restore the living room to its former glory, Thomas added a tin ceiling, plaster walls, and mahogany trim and paneling.

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The designers pulled out drywall ceilings to make room for skylights and expose original rafters in the hallway. To fill the wall, Thomas enlisted a designer friend and collector of vintage mirrors to create the light-reflecting installation. The painted white frames echo the doorway trim.

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A large-scale thistle wallcovering by Timorous Beasties updates the ornate wallpaper that’s classic in Victorians. Thomas is a prolific artist, so the designers made choices that were “unusual and dramatic,” says Pulcrano. The vintage bed frame is powder-coated cyan blue. Thomas kept as much of the room’s original molding as he could.

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Metallic elements mingle with warm woods for contrast in the bathroom. The design team stripped away paint layers on the door to reveal original wood. Glazed porcelain tile, colored to look like metal, adds an industrial note, while the glass ceiling pulls in light and reveals the rafters above.

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Front exterior

The shingle siding was painted charcoal to modernize the house, a task made easier by the neon numbers.