When you get past the front stoop, it’s hard to believe these conjoined homes in Portland’s West End share a nearly identical outer shell. Through one set of doors is a whitewashed, modern-Scandinavian haven, where not even crown molding disrupts the clean-lined flow. Through the other, layers of color, pattern, and texture enliven the building’s original tin ceilings, ornate woodwork, and marble fireplaces.
This tale of two townhomes, designed as mirror images in 1873, began when Catherine and Todd Alexander purchased their place in 2011. Untouched for decades, the windows cloaked with vines, it was a gem the couple was well prepared to polish up: Todd is a real-estate developer and Catherine negotiates with contractors daily as head of mortgages and real estate for Portland insurance company Unum. “The place was in rough condition, which presented an opportunity to open up the floor plan and go in a more modern direction,” Todd says. During a year-plus revamp with Robert van Wert, of Portland Renovations, they stripped the interior and made updates — from noise-reducing QuietRock drywall to rooftop solar panels. Todd, who Catherine says missed his calling as an architect, also incorporated clever features that facilitate life with three daughters, such as shallow closets camouflaged into walls, an under-stairs cutout for backpacks, and radiant heating that uses pipes from the original radiators to dry wet shoes beneath a mudroom bench.
“I always say we’re the reason the Malins bought their place, because who would have moved small kids next to our former haunted house?” Catherine says. Kate and Ian Malin’s unit was in decent shape when they found it in 2013 — good thing, because relocating from Hong Kong just before the birth of their second child, they weren’t up for an overhaul. Instead, the couple, who opened the neighborhood’s former Little Giant restaurant, has been tackling projects one at a time, replacing windows, renovating the kitchen and baths, and finishing the dirt-floored basement. Kate, who honed an eye for design while working at Christie’s in New York and overseas, takes a maximalist approach to decorating, intermingling contemporary art, vintage finds, and mass-market pieces.
The families’ lifestyles are about as different as their abodes — the Alexanders are homebodies, the Malins social butterflies. But they share more than a common wall. “We all love to hang out together on the stoop,” Catherine says.
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There’s exactly one original interior detail both homes still share: A swooping front staircase with a stained Victorian newel post. The Alexanders accented theirs with a white-painted brick wall that mimics the original exposed brick, which wasn’t salvageable. Ebony porcelain flooring creates a striking contrast. In lieu of a runner, carpet treads buffer footsteps and protect the paint from paws. At the Malins, the welcome is warm with a touch of whimsy, with walls finished in Benjamin Moore’s Antique White picking up the honey tones in the original wood floors, a graphic stair runner from Port City Flooring, and a sputnik sconce from Design Within Reach. A smart new feature in both spots: micro powder rooms tucked beneath the stairs.
The Alexanders repainted their walls five times before arriving at Sherwin Williams’s Simply White, which they feel is neither too bright nor too stark. Portland designers Tracy Davis and Heidi Lachapelle both weighed in on the furnishings, which include PK31 and Eames chairs that read as visual exclamation points against the clean backdrop, composed of trimless windows, built-in bookshelves, and white-maple floors. Meantime, it’s always the golden hour in the Malins’ living room, but they can’t take full credit: Benjamin Moore’s Stuart Gold shade was here when they moved in. “We were sure it was the first thing we’d change, but after we hung our art, we loved it,” says Kate, who mixed custom (two sets of mid-century–style chairs), old (a vintage trunk from Portland Flea-for-All), and off-the-shelf (a West Elm bookcase) pieces.
Kate and Catherine’s tastes converged in their choice of dining chairs: Kate found her classic Eames-style seats for a great price online, inspiring Catherine, who bought armed versions. At the Alexanders’, they surround a Restoration Hardware elm table crowned with a chandelier, also from Restoration Hardware, that allows for clear views of the family’s ever-present guests, depicted in a work artist Doug Sampson painted for Todd’s father of his New York catalog-industry colleagues. Removing a wall integrated the dining and living areas, allowing light to beam through. “Since we’re a middle unit in a block of row houses, there were some dark areas,” Todd says. At the Malins’, a separate formal dining room with large windows — a perk of being the corner house — remains intact. A bleached-oak table by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte that Kate lucked into at Christie’s pops against the room’s near-complementary palette, rendered in a ruddy Oriental rug, Schumacher grasscloth wallpaper, floral twill curtains from Overstock, and a favorite painting by Indonesian artist Dikdik Sayahdikmullah. New wainscoting, designed to look original, conceals the radiator. “With so many gorgeous original features, it feels right to mix traditional elements with elevated modern pieces that are comfortable and family friendly,” Kate says.
In the Alexanders’ living room, a low-profile bioethanol fireplace with an integrated walnut bench and Anita Dore painting works with the home’s airtight construction to provide efficient heat. Tall Modloft mirrors mimic windows, amplifying the abundant light. The Malins converted their elegant black-marble fireplace to gas and paired it with colorful pieces, including a seascape by Waterville’s Matthew Russ and abstract work by Sophie Dunlop. Of the fireplace’s era: a 19th-century velvet sofa scored at My Sister’s Garage, in Windham.
Renovated when they moved in and again a couple years ago, the Alexanders’ kitchen was initially chopped up into four rooms. After opening up the space, they installed a massive island wrapped in a solid-surface waterfall countertop. Walnut cabinet doors add a warm note reiterated in a Stokke chair, Marimekko print, and colorful cookware on recessed shelves. Next door, the Malins employed architect and neighbor John Whipple to reconfigure their quirky space, which had a full bath where tall pantry cabinets are now. Bar seating — consisting of acrylic CB2 stools sidled up to a quartz countertop — for homework and quick meals was a must-have. “They’ve achieved such a great modern aesthetic while maintaining historic features — we’re big fans of their place,” Todd says of his neighbors. On the other side of the wall, the design admiration is mutual. “I love how we have made our spaces so uniquely our own,” Kate says.
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