Restauranteurs revive a midcentury-modern home in Oakdale.
Andrew and Briana Volk know the virtue of smart siting. Three and a half years ago, they opened a craft cocktail bar with a menu of Scandinavian- inspired small plates in the center of the Old Port. The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club quickly received accolades from Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, and the James Beard Awards, among other culinary heavyweights. The Volks’ newest venture is Little Giant, which they describe as a “curated” neighborhood grocery store, located in the West End. The store features general items, wine, and beer, along with surprise finds like tinned fish, Jacobsen sea salt, and charcuterie from Olympia Provisions in Portland, Oregon. This spring, Little Giant will also refer to a restaurant, in the same building as the store and conceived as a neighborhood gathering spot. For the Volks, clearly, place is the thing.
The couple were living with their five-month- old daughter, Oona, in a rental above the restaurant Duckfat on Middle Street when they decided they needed more room. Their first priority was to find a midcentury-modern house, and they were willing to go outside of Portland to find it. “We looked all the way out to Gorham,” Briana says. Both Andrew and Briana are drawn to functional and minimal design. Witness Hunt and Alpine Club’s décor, with its galvanized metal bar, George Nelson bubble lamps, and long tables with rows of white Eames shell chairs for seating. For Briana, a second-generation Finnish-American, the style’s appeal goes even deeper. She grew up on the West Coast surrounded by the furniture and dishes of Eero Saarinen and Alvar Aalto, two Finnish avatars of midcentury-modern design.
Eventually, the Volks found a two-story rectangular home with a one-story ground floor wing on a charming street of small family houses just off Brighton Avenue in Oakdale. The house was designed by John Calvin Stevens—not the architect whose name is synonymous with the grand shingle-style homes that you see on the West End and farther afield in Maine, but by his grandson, John Calvin Stevens II, who planned the house in
1948. That this third-generation architect—his father was also an architect—should be drawn to postwar modernism, despite the family tradition, is not the surprise it might seem, says Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., the Maine State Historian. Shettleworth explains that Stevens II was exposed to the prevailing aesthetic while studying at the University of Pennsylvania. When Stevens II returned from the Second World War (where he was a naval officer), he continued to design Colonial Revival homes, but he was ready to use the new idiom. His design for King Middle School in Portland is one early example of his efforts. His own 1951 stone and glass home in Cape Elizabeth is another, and the Volks’ is a third.
Though once cutting-edge, by 2014, the house off Brighton Avenue was hurting: foreclosed on and left vacant for several years, its copper wires had been stripped, its doors were swollen shut, and its roof leaked. Still, Andrew says, Briana had a clear vision for what the house could be, and they were intrigued by its quirks, which included radiant heat in the ceiling—installed long before radiant heat became popular for floors—and a brass door that opens on a dumbwaiter that brings wood up from the basement.
The Volks closed on the house on a Thursday. It rained over the weekend. On Monday, demolition workers started gutting the basement, which had been fashioned into an apartment. They took the rooms down to the studs and “found mushrooms growing everywhere,” Briana says.
To update the house, much was removed— old carpeting, wallpaper, walls—and much added—new heat and electric systems, windows, cork floors, and fresh carpet. The ground floor now consists of a living room/ dining room/kitchen off of a small TV room and a large guest room/office, which likely once served as the owners’ bedroom. Some built-ins, like a corner shelving unit under the living room’s long horizontal windows, were retained, as was a black slate hearth. The couple completely overhauled the kitchen, designing a horseshoe-shaped space with new flat-panel cherry cabinets with nickel pulls, open shelving, and a Cambria quartz countertop. The bathrooms got makeovers with Ikea products; there are more ambitious plans for later. Oona’s bedroom—full of stuffed animals, a tall giraffe, a bird mobile, and a rocking stuffed polar bear (instead of a rocking horse)—will also evolve as she grows. The interior and exterior walls are painted white or gray with black as an occasional accent color, as with the large brick chimney wall in the living room.
The Volks’ furnishings are completely of a piece with midcentury-modern design sensibilities. They include a Gus Modern couch (from Furniturea, a store adjacent to their Old Port bar), an Eames black lounge chair in the living room, a George Nelson bubble lamp over the dining room table, and George Nelson cigar lamps (used as a pendant in the stairwell and as a standing lamp in the toy room). A teak shelving and cabinet unit in the dining room is from Cumberland’s Vintage Modern Maine. These classic pieces are coupled with an occasional online purchase (a lamp from BluDot in the living room, a dresser from CB2), and pieces with more personal stories—an Argentinian cowhide rug in the living room is a gift from Briana’s mother; Briana bought a small wooden living room cabinet for $30 when she was 16; and two framed posters in the TV room are from a historic strip club in Portland, Oregon, the city where the couple met when Briana was in advertising and Andrew (a Vermont native and Colby graduate) was tending bar.
Food and drink are not just the couple’s business, but their primary pleasure and favorite family activity. Oona has learned a bit of her mother’s Finnish—she can recite “The Itsy- Bitsy Spider” in the language—and likes to play with her small pots and pans at the countertop where her parents engage in their more serious efforts. The new kitchen allows cooking, in the way their old apartment did not, which is helpful given that one of the couple’s upcoming projects is a Hunt and Alpine cookbook.
One might think that restaurateurs would be hesitant to share the secrets of their recipes, but the Volks are not concerned. Their philosophy is that one goes out less for food and drink—although both are important— than for community and to be in a space that makes conversation possible. Andrew observes that it is an honor for bartenders to find their cocktail creations in another bar. For the past three years, Briana has organized a regional conference that celebrates bartenders and spirits.
Creating conversations is the theme that runs through all the Volks’ endeavors. “My background is as a writer, and one of the things I like to do is to let people tell stories, to create a place where they can have a good memory,” says Briana. Now, with a toddler and a new baby at home, they are focusing on creating
a domestic space for the making and sharing of family stories. “Yeah,” muses Andrew, who used to need to stay at his bar until 1 a.m. every day, “neither of us is staying out late after work anymore.”