It’s a sunny weekday afternoon, and Linda Hutchins and John Montague’s house in the Northwest District of Portland, Oregon is teeming with life. As Hutchins serves slices of homemade rhubarb pie to friends gathered around their long kitchen island, Montague is watching percussionists from a local classical music ensemble, Third Angle New Music, rehearse. The dining area has been cleared of its table and filled with rows of temporary seating, facing the musicians. “It’s not a concert hall, but it’s not a bad house concert,” says Montague, a retired software engineer and entrepreneur who sits on Third Angle’s board.
Though sunset will arrive soon, this former warehouse remains full of natural light, thanks to 11 skylights and a glass atrium in the center of the space, where a hammock and a vine maple tree sway in the breeze. “Once, when there was a full moon, I remember I couldn’t see the moon itself over the atrium, but I could see its reflection four or six times in the panes of glass,” says Hutchins, an acclaimed visual artist.
Known as the Bowstring Truss House, the building had a long gestation. Hutchins and Montague first came across the 5,000-square-foot warehouse and former auto repair shop in 2006, when she was looking for a new studio. But after walking through the wide-open space and admiring its exposed roof trusses, Hutchins told her husband, “I don’t want my studio here. I want to live here.” With the real estate market booming, their architects recommended tearing down the warehouse, building a new multistory condominium building, and living in the penthouse. While they were at it, Hutchins and Montague could also demolish an unoccupied former gas station next door to create a buffer from the traffic on 19th Avenue. “But that really wasn’t why we bought the building,” Montague says. The warehouse had to stay.
The couple hired a new firm, Works Partnership Architecture, to reimagine the warehouse and design a new mixed-use space in the former gas station. Then the recession hit, putting everything on hold. Eventually, the adjoining projects were restarted in stripped-down form, which may have been the best move for the warehouse anyway; several concrete walls were penciled out, leaving the kitchen, living, and dining areas, as well as an office, in a large, open volume with the atrium. “I think a lot about how much of my aesthetic as an artist has to do with editing things out, paring things, until some kind of essence is revealed,” Hutchins says. “That also applies to the way the design of the house evolved.”
The architects also took inspiration from an exhibit that William Neburka, a partner at Works Partnership Architecture, had seen at the former home of the Dia Art Foundation in New York City, another raw space with a bowstring-truss roof. Richard Serra’s giant steel Torqued Ellipses filled the middle of the space, creating a series of smaller volumes around them. “Yet you always had a sense of the overall space,” Neburka says. So while walled-off bedrooms occupy the front and back of the Bowstring Truss House, the majority of the home is devoted to a single open volume, arranged around the atrium. Maintaining the openness of the original warehouse also meant that the couple, who are active supporters of Portland’s arts scene, could easily convert the living-dining area into a small performance venue, with seating for up to 50.
Several rooms—the master bedroom, bathrooms, laundry room, and garage—are enclosed in “boxes,” while others are set off by walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling, leaving the trusses visible. To temper the industrial feel and match the more pristine, gallery-like ambiance of the interiors, the trusses were painted white rather than stained. “We really sweated that decision,” Neburka says, “but after they had painted them, the light was ethereal. The whole thing glowed.” The clear Douglas fir doors on the kitchen cabinets were whitewashed to allow the grain to show through while maintaining a consistent sense of unified space. “You just kind of flow through the whole thing,” says Neburka’s partner, Carrie Strickland. “It becomes more about what happens between the program elements.”
The Overton 19 building, also by Works Partnership, sits next door where the gas station and a parking lot used to be. Its three stories house a series of live-work apartments and ground-floor retail. With the Bowstring Truss House, it forms a small courtyard, where long strings of ornamental hops clamber up two walls, and where Hutchins grows rhubarb to use in the pies she serves when company calls. This doesn’t always involve a living-room performance by a percussion ensemble, but Hutchins and Montague seem to enjoy and look forward to every opportunity to share their space beneath the trusses.Below, watch a time-lapse video of light filtering through the home.