Paul Designs Project Updates an 1840s Townhouse in Portland’s East End
New windows, a reimagined floor plan, and a fresh interior make this old home fit for a modern family
“If you’d asked me ten years ago where I’d be living, I would probably have said I didn’t know, but definitely not Maine,” says Zach Bouzan-Kaloustian, a native Mainer who left the state to pursue opportunities in the tech customer experience field and who, with his wife Samantha Taube, recently purchased a circa-1840 brick townhouse in Portland’s East End.
Taube, a marketing professional, elaborates: “We thought we were coming for the summer a couple of years ago and realized our jobs didn’t require us to return to New York City. So we started bidding on houses.”
Real estate prices were climbing by 2020, when they spotted the listing for the 2,600-square-foot half of a side-by-side that had probably functioned as a boarding house. By 1924 it had been divided into a two-family building. One of its subsequent owners split it further, into three floor-through apartments. “Nobody wanted it,” says Bouzan-Kaloustian. “The day we looked at it, there was a guy here from New Jersey who left with a disgusted look on his face, so we thought, ‘Okay, we have a chance!’”
You can’t blame the New Jersey buyer. The building’s potential had been obscured over the years. “They wanted to make it their home, not an investment property,” says architect Paul Lewandowski of Paul Designs Project, who was initially hired to help revert the building to a single-family residence, though the couple eventually retained a second-floor apartment for a fully equipped family suite and possible short-term rental. “It was very much a puzzle,” Lewandowski recalls. “It had gone through multiple renovations. The former residents had done a number on the architecture. I knew it was a total gut.”
Getting more light into rooms was one primary goal. The kitchen was at the back of the house, but rather than opening onto the backyard, there was a bathroom and a pantry against that wall, with only a little window offering meager light. The most drastic—and ultimately attractive—solution was to relocate the bathroom and the pantry so Lewandowski could cut out an eight-foot-square window overlooking the green space.
The bathroom was reimagined as a powder room in a passageway between the front hall and kitchen, while food storage offered by the pantry was absorbed into new cabinetry and a kitchen island. Lewandowski also tucked a coffee bar into the passageway across from the new powder room. “Now, when you walk in the front door,” he notes, “you look down the hall and through the house all the way to the light and the outdoors.” Through meticulous mathematical calculations, he adds with pride, the large window perfectly squares with the front door.
This maneuver, explains builder Asa Gorman, was no walk in the park. “You have to support the weight of the brick above the hole temporarily while inserting an iron lintel above the opening,” he explains. Like other walls they cut into, this one was load bearing, so shoring it up from below and bracing it had to be done before any cutting could begin.
Now that the kitchen felt open and bright and connected to the outdoors, Lewandowski deployed some clever sleights of hand to enhance the sense of expanded space. Taube points out, “We wanted things that would bring texture and interest to the room but wouldn’t clutter it.” Wide-plank oak floors went a long way toward accomplishing this. Lewandowski also suspended an oak panel from the ceiling, from which he hung a Volo pendant by WAC Lighting. He also designed an oak box with chamfered edges for the appliance wall to make it appear to be “floating” within the space like the light above.
Another tactic for increasing light flow was opening spaces up and enlarging doorways. The wall separating the dining room and living room, for instance, was moved back, enabling a more generously proportioned living room and making the dining room feel more intimate. Inspired by the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, Massachusetts, Lewandowski swathed the dining room in two shades of deeply saturated green (a slightly lighter one overhead), painting all the trim “to give it a tweak on traditional.”
This might seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to lighten things up. But, Lewandowski explains, “Making the dining room dark makes the living room and kitchen feel lighter, and it also keeps the dining room cozy and provides a little more drama.” Shimmery silver mesh curtains subtly ramp up the theatricality, as do the Oro Gold chairs from CB2 set around a Room and Board Ventura table. In the living room the vibe is easy, with a free midcentury chair gifted to Bouzan-Kaloustian in the elevator of his New York apartment house, a CB2 Strato sectional sofa, and a Puffy Lounge armchair and ottoman from Hem.
It helped, says Gorman, that the house “was fundamentally a solid building. Once you strip a building like that to its core elements, it doesn’t really matter what’s been done to it over the years. It matters what the building is. You have to redo all the plumbing and electric anyway because it was likely not up to code. We were resetting and updating an old house for another 150 years.”
Still, the “puzzle” aspect Lewandowski refers to came with adapting the house to the modern needs of a family (his clients have just had their first child). The biggest challenge was the largely uninsulated third floor, which needed considerable functionality. Namely, that meant accommodating an en suite bath, a home office, a nursery, plenty of closet space, and a laundry space—all of it under a mansard roof that angles inward.
Lewandowski accommodated the laundry appliances in the hall closet and also removed subflooring to make the thresholds from the hall into rooms flush. The nursery is a small space at the top of the stairs to the left of this, opposite Bouzan-Kaloustian’s home office. The rest of the floor is the primary suite, its bathroom replacing the third-floor unit’s kitchen in the building’s former multifamily iteration.
“We wanted to keep everything that was unique, like the slant of the mansard,” says Bouzan-Kaloustian. This presented Gorman—or, more accurately, his tiling subcontractor Wicked Tile—with another challenge. Positioned at the corner of the building, the perpendicular walls angle inward, requiring some intricate mathematics and tile slicing at the corners. “It required a lot of coordination among the tiler, the plumber, and the framer,” Gorman says. “It was pretty technically complex.”
There was also a lot of repurposing of materials. Bricks removed for the large kitchen window were redeployed as patio materials in the backyard, and trims from another part of the house were used, for instance, to frame the wall of closet doors in the primary suite.
The project ran smoothly because everyone collaborated so well, say Lewandowski and Gorman. “They really had sweat equity in it,” says the architect of his clients. “We had weekly walk-through meetings. Samantha was an excellent organizer, and Zach handled everything that had to do with measuring.”
“On a job like this, none of us has the whole picture,” adds Gorman. “So you really have to listen to each other.”