I’M ASCENDING A CONCRETE PATH that switchbacks up a flank of Northeast Portland’s Alameda Ridge, but I’m not sure exactly what awaits me at the top. Given the steep incline and the thick foliage in front of me—acacias, orange trees, California lilacs—I can only barely make out the upper portion of a stucco exterior wall and a wrought-iron balconette spilling with red geranium blossoms. But what really matters to me at this moment, in this near-vertical landscape, is what’s at eye level, nose level, and ear level. Palm fronds rustle in the late-spring breeze, and the resiny scent of eucalyptus spices the air as flights of exotic plants plummet languorously toward the street below: cacti with leaves as thick as pancakes, yellow-budded sedums trailing over rocks, cypresses pointing at the sky like spears, peonies bursting with pink hues.
I feel as though I’ve been transported out of Portland into some warm-climate paradise. When at last I reach the top of the stairs and turn around to behold the view, the rest of the city takes on a different cast, too. Rather than the conventional postcard shot of the Portland skyline cowering under Mount Hood’s frozen stare, the view looks to the southwest, out over a placid sea of pearly buildings offset against the lush, green West Hills.
John Posey, a vivacious 42-year-old hairstylist wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, and his partner, Dennis Laird, a 45-year-old real estate agent, greet me at the door. They offer me a seat on an overstuffed camel-colored velvet sofa in their antique-embellished living room, where a large bay window faces the cityscape below. As soon as I sink into the cushion, I feel as if I’m a guest in a posh hotel.
Posey, who is responsible for the décor as well as the landscaping of the garden, jokes that he “willed the house into being.” Five years ago, the couple was living in a “storybook” Rose City bungalow, which Laird had originally purchased and fixed up, and which Posey had endowed with a garden. It was a fairly ideal home, but the two occasionally thought about trading up to a place with a view. “We’d walk along the [Alameda] Ridge and say, God, if anything comes up …” Laird recalls. If they ever did move, Posey knew what sort of house he wanted: a Mediterranean-style abode like one that he often made a point of passing, its stuccoed walls and leaded windows lending it an air of Hollywood Hills glamour.
As soon as I sink into their velvet sofa, I feel as if I’m a guest in a posh hotel.
In 2003, a friend drew the couple’s attention to a fixer-upper that had gone on the market in the Alameda neighborhood. From years of experience selling houses, Dennis knew this was a rare occurrence in the highly prized area. The owner, a 93-year-old widow, advertised the two-story, 3,000-square-foot house as an “English stucco” residence, but to Posey, the home’s wrought-iron accents and bright white exterior embodied just the Mediterranean feel he’d always sought. Moreover, he saw how the terraced yard (then planted with a fusty assortment of hardy rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, and juniper bushes) might soon complete the particular vision he wished to achieve. After all, the rocky, southwest-facing slope got so much sun that a vine maple would scorch—but it was an ideal place to grow agaves, palms, and other heat-loving plants.