American Foursquare in Portland

Converted to commercial use and finally left vacant, this 1900 American Foursquare is once again an asset to the streetscape, its restored façade painted a jaunty mallard green.

Despite good bones, the house built in 1900 “was in very poor condition,” says Aaron Pempel, who’d long wanted to restore a rundown house. “The first floor had been used as commercial office space without a kitchen or bath; the second floor was residential.” Indeed, the interior was a forlorn mash-up, made worse by the building sitting vacant. The Nike executive had discovered the abandoned house in the same Northwest Portland (Oregon) neighborhood where he and his wife, Kristen, and their son live.

‘Mallard Green’ paint by Benjamin Moore (same hue, different sheen for body and trim) made the house the neighborhood jewel.

Blackstone Edge Studios

By coincidence, interior designer Midori Karasawa—a family friend and former Nike colleague—saw Aaron’s Facebook post about buying the property. She contacted the family to offer her own talents and to recommend her studio mate, architect Mary Valeant. “The minute Midori offered to help, we said yes!” Aaron says. “Kristen had already found Alan Iboshi of A.K.I Builders to be general contractor.”

Collaboration was easy, given that Aaron and Midori both had been trained by Nike to present briefs on new designs. “I knew that Midori’s design aesthetic is bolder and more modern [than mine],” Aaron explains, “while I like things classic and timeless. But we pulled together toward the middle. It’s not a pure vanilla design, yet it’s accessible to a large number of people—because we planned to make this a rental property, at least initially.”

“I remember the first time Alan, Kristen, and I walked through,” Midori says, “and saw the abuse the house had withstood over a century.”

The open dining room is intimate due to paper-lined bookshelves, a window seat, and a handmade rug.

Blackstone Edge Studios

“It was really disgusting,” Kristen agrees; “it appeared as if people had broken in and used the abandoned facilities.” But “we never contemplated tearing it down,” Aaron adds, “even though we had to take the interior to the studs.”

Midori Karasawa explains that the intention was to restore, not alter, the exterior, and to maintain the historical integrity of the house. Because the house had been used commercially, they felt confident doing a modern interior without compunction. “We had to update windows, gutters, and porch floor,” Karasawa says. “We replaced the lattice beneath the porch with horizontal wood elements to match the line of the original siding, which we patched in places on the more exposed south side. We retained the leaded-glass window and the original front door.”

“The only thing we removed,” Kristen says, “was an ugly, purple, metal balcony at the center window upstairs, which was accessible only through a window—it was not original.” The house required new roofing and repair of rot caused by runoff from a neighboring tree.

Karasawa’s suggestion that the exterior be done in one color, body and trim, distinguishes it from those in the neighborhood. “Since green is a traditional, historical color,” explains Midori, whose first name means green in Japanese, “we decided to stick with it, but we chose Benjamin Moore ‘Mallard Green’ for a more modern look.”

Karasawa worked in concert with architect Mary Valeant to fix the strangely reconfigured interior plan, creating an open floor plan by eliminating doors that had separated the main floor into a warren of small rooms. To create visual flow, she chose white oak for floors throughout, naturally finished. Rooms that retain Craftsman-era trim take on a modern, ethereal feeling amidst leaded glass and fine architectural elements.

“Window seats and built-in cabinets in the living and dining rooms are set against warm-white walls,” Midori adds. The kitchen, a brand-new addition to the space, is frankly contemporary. The open galley kitchen features lower Shaker-style cabinets painted warm light grey and studded with antique-brass hardware. A downdraft range eliminates the need for a view-obstructing range hood.

For the island countertop, the designer had selected a beautiful quartz slab with two-inch-wide veins. “My concern was that it might look outdated in 10 or 15 years, “ Aaron explains, “so I suggested something more conservative. I call it timeless, she might have called it boring,” he laughs.

“Their decision to go with white [instead of veined] quartz made me change direction on the tile, to add more pattern. The hexagon-shaped wall tile has a hint of green border, which picks up the green wallpaper in the bookcase—it feels like the perfect compromise and I really like the result,” Karasawa says.

No range hood clutters the view between dining room and kitchen.

Blackstone Edge Studios

After much deliberation, the group decided to turn the basement into an ADU, an accessory dwelling unit, which required digging down two to three feet to create a light-filled basement apartment. Extra insulation and a plywood layer form a sound barrier between the two residences.

The house became an asset in the neighborhood. “Our intention,” owner Kristen Pempel says, “was to make the house the jewel on the street. What I didn’t expect, given the months of work and dust, was that when the gorgeous materials and finishes came together, we’d regret the decision to rent it out—instead of living here ourselves!” 


 Matching the hardware, the brass kitchen faucet is jewel-like.

Blackstone Edge Studios

Texture as Visual Interest

The Foursquare was built in 1900, but the designers’ intention was to create a timeless modern interior to appeal to a broad range of potential renters. Midori Karasawa says that adding texture to the mostly white interior helped create architectural and visual interest.

KITCHEN Simple white countertops that risked being boring became the perfect ballast for the ‘Hive’ wall tile by Ann Sacks, which enlivens the otherwise plain, linear design.

PENDANTS The fluting detail found in the Cedar and Moss ceiling pendants and flush-mount fixtures is another example of subtle texture.

MILLWORK Additional interest is provided by bungalow-era doors with five horizontal panels, and butt-jointed casings capped with a small crown moulding.


Mary Valeant, Valeant Architecture, Portland, OR:

Midori Karasawa, Style Guide Interior Design, Portland, OR:

ext. paint
‘Mallard Green’, ‘Country Redwood’ (accent) Benjamin Moore

radiant heat
cable system NuHeat

brass hardware


Design Within Reach

handmade rugs
Christiane Millinger

wallpaper Cole and Son

kitchen backsplash ‘Hive’ tile Ann Sacks
apron sink Kohler
pendant lights Cedar and Moss

chandelier Schoolhouse

Tags: foursquare OHJ February 2020 oregon Portland

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