We recently had the opportunity to talk with Marisa Swenson, a Portland, Oregon based Real Estate Broker with an affinity for mid-century modern homes. With over a decade of experience as a Realtor, and through her continued involvement with the Portland modernist community, Marisa is uniquely qualified to offer her perspective on the current state of things with Portland’s modern home market. Through her website, Modern Homes Portland, Marisa shares her love for mid-century modern homes, in addition to a hand-curated list of modern & mid-century modern homes on the market in Portland and the surrounding areas.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Marisa! Please tell us a little bit about your professional background. How did you get into real estate?
Before getting into real estate, I worked for a home services company in their commercial division. We were in charge of running contractors. The company was a preferred vendor for a real estate company, which meant that I worked closely with brokers. Through this experience, I got to understand some of their duties, as far as home inspections and repairs were concerned. This insight got me interested in pursuing a career in real estate. I had always loved homes and had a strong customer service background. Now that I knew how homes functioned, I thought real estate could be a great fit. After some life changes, I made the change from an office job to a part-time realtor, but it became full time pretty quickly.
I feel like working with contractors was such a valuable experience. In hindsight, it was the best crash course in how homes function. Understanding how homes work helps me to be able to communicate with homeowners. I can tell them what is or is not efficient, and help them find ways to save money. Being able to layer that into what I do, with the added interest of mid-century modern, makes the job for me.
How did you start focusing in on Mid Century Modern homes as your niche?
I have been a fan of mid-century modern design and architecture for a long time, and I got into blogging shortly after becoming a broker. This was right around 2007-2008, and there weren’t too many people in the industry writing blogs. If you’ll recall, 2008 was a bizarre time in real estate. The market dipped, and things started moving at a slower pace. This gave me the time to start developing my marketing plan. At the time, I was reading so many blogs about the market and the industry, and they just weren’t very inspiring to me, so I thought it would be more fun just to start talking about houses that I liked. And that is really how my blog and website were created. It was just me thinking; I don’t want to only talk about numbers and market data (because it wasn’t a sunny picture at the time) I want to talk about what I am interested in and love.
Through this, I realized that I kept gravitating to the style of mid-century modern, so that is what I started talking about. There was a very positive response, not just from people buying and selling, but from just enthusiasts within the community reaching out. People started saying, ‘hey we are all into this too, let’s all get into it together.”
Where does your love for Mid Century Modern Architecture come from?
I grew up spending a lot of time around mid-century modern architecture, like the school/church that I grew up in. It was a fascinating brutalist 70’s structure mostly made up of concrete, walls of windows, floating stairs. And then there was the local dental office that had a circular design with a sawtooth roofline. It is still standing and still fascinates me. Plus, my grandparents had the typical mcm ‘granny ranch,’ and we were surrounded by all sorts of mid-century modern stuff there like furniture, décor, and housewares.
So, when I go into and tour mid-century modern homes, it evokes an emotional response within me. There is an element of nostalgic excitement, and respect for the creativity put into a well-designed space. And because of the familiarity, it’s a space I feel comfortable in.
One of my favorite things to do is research the stories of the architects who designed the homes and buildings. The architects and contractors had a lot to work within the mid-century era and had a little more freedom to experiment and be creative. They had access to less expensive land to build on, access to quality materials (timber in our area), and then they also had new materials to work with and case study. The future thinking optimistic environment of the time lent to some very interesting, sometimes head-scratching designs, but also some mind-blowing architecture. It’s always great to hear (when possible) what their concepts and theories were behind choosing to use specific materials. I see current active architects still using a lot of those same ideas and concepts, and it is fun to connect the details.
What is the current state of the Portland real estate market?
We have low inventory levels in Portland at the moment, so it is considered a seller’s market. Over the past few years we have seen double-digit increases year over year but this year that has slowed down a little bit. The late summer early fall season has slowed a little as well. This is typical seasonal behavior, but this year is a little slower than last. Our spring market is typically more robust. At the moment, we are seeing homes spend more time on the market, with less of the multiple offer situations that we saw last spring.
What factors have been driving the growth in Portland?
Portland is a popular city on multiple levels. We have a lot of industry and companies that are hiring like Nike, Intel, Adidas, and Under Armour (which just opened a campus here). We also have a lot of small tech startups, and some larger, firms. This all encourages job growth, which has been pretty steady.
There are also a lot of people relocating here right now. In the past, there were quite a few people coming from the East Coast, but more recently a lot of the growth we’re seeing is California driven. The show Portlandia is always a great advertisement for the relocation crowd. The New Yorker has featured Portland heavily in their publication promoting what an incredible city we live in. I think this raised a lot of national awareness and has contributed to the growth.
How has Portland changed since the time you were growing up here?
I grew up in the NE core of Portland, which back then felt like the outskirts, but now would probably be considered a part of downtown. Growing up my mom always used to say that Portland was the perfect place, you have the ocean, mountains, the Gorge for access to great hiking trails. ‘I don’t understand why more people don’t move here!’ She would say (it was a much lower population at the time). Well, the secret is out, and we are usually in the top 5 for fastest growing and most popular cities lists.
There was not a whole lot to do growing up here, for teens the city would shut down at 7:00 pm. Now there are so many options of things to do it is hard to choose! It is exciting to see new people come here and appreciate all the great things there are to do now. The population growth in Portland has brought a lot of things to the city we that didn’t have before, like really good food, creatives, fashion, boutiques.
What are the benefits of living in Portland?
In Portland, we have access to so many things. You can get to the beach, mountains, desert, the Gorge, and wine country in under two hours. We also have access to great farms that I love visiting with my kids. It is fun to show them where their food comes from and the flavors are incredible. We have great art, museums, theater, and are now a touring destination for performers, so we don’t have to travel to Seattle as much. The people of Portland are pretty friendly, too. You can walk into a coffee shop and strike up a conversation with a stranger. It has great small-town vibe still even with all of our recent growth.
Tell us a little about the Mid Century Modern home that you live in.
After spending my whole life living in the city core, we ended up moving out to the suburbs because we found this incredible 1960 Northwest Regional Style/mid-century modern time capsuled house on a lot that was much larger than a city lot.
When we found it, we were not planning on moving but I felt like I needed to protect this incredible home. It just felt like it was meant to be. That feeling proved to be true when shortly after we moved in, the city sent us a letter saying they had conducted a historic survey of homes in our area and that ours might be eligible to be placed on the cultural landmarks list as a historic home. We were thrilled at this prospect since I try to draw attention to the preservation of unique homes of this period. We were just officially placed on the historic registry a few months ago.
Moving to the outskirts of Portland has expanded my mind to what these areas offer. It’s like we just realized that there is this whole new world out here called the suburbs and we love it. We have great neighbors who we connect with regularly for special events and parties; it is a great community.
The city provided a historian to help us research the history of our home. Through that process, we discovered that our home was designed by Day W. Hilborn, who was a prominent architect in Vancouver, WA. He did a lot of commercial work in their downtown core and also hundreds of residential homes in that area. He had only a handful of Oregon projects.
The builder and original owner of the house were Paul Emerick, whose father had started Emerick Construction. Their firm also did a lot of commercial work, larger projects like churches and schools at the time our house was built. We think that Emerick and Hilborn worked together on a few projects and collaborated on the design of our home. We are one of his only Oregon projects, and perhaps the most modern design he had. His other residential projects were more of a traditional ranch style.
Most of our home is pretty time capsuled and has a lot of interior brickwork, mahogany wood paneling, concrete floors with a terrazzo entrance, and a built-in brick BBQ in the dining room. There are a lot of features in our home that you would normally see in a commercial space, but it is also homey and comfortable for our family. There was a kitchen update in 2003 that we are currently working on changing bringing in elements of the original homes design.
Where would you find some of the best Mid Century Modern & Rummer neighborhoods?
There are quite a few pockets of mid-century neighborhoods the tracts are mostly concentrated to the outskirts of Portland. Beaverton has the largest concentration of Rummer homes, along with a smaller pocket in Portland and a handful in Lake Oswego and Gresham.
One of the premier Rummer neighborhood is in Beaverton’s Oak Hills neighborhood. The area was a planned development and includes a church, elementary school and the recently renovated recreation center with a pool in the heart of the neighborhood, with a lot of the homes backing to green space with walking paths throughout. Just to drive that neighborhood is so cool. Another great one is Bohmann Park in the Southwest, which is a Portland address. It’s also called Vista Brook, and Garden Homes.
What is the allure of Rummer homes?
Rummer home designs are so unique to our area, and there were not very many built, so they are desirable because of this scarcity. The post and beam construction with tongue and groove ceilings, walls of windows, and the atriums bring a lot of light into the homes in a region that lacks light for a portion of the year. When buying a Rummer, you are also brought into a great community of Rummer owners who share tips, remedies, contractors, and resources, in addition to hosting gatherings to connect with each other. You buy into a unique lifestyle as well as home.
The Rummer designs typically appeal to creative types and designers, or people who want to make something their own. They are also appealing in a practical sense, to people looking for a one level home downsizing from two-story homes.
We saw a pretty big jump over the last few years in what people are willing to pay for these homes. I think that some of this is driven by people moving here from California areas, who know Eichler homes. The design is so similar yet a fraction of the cost of the Eichlers. In the Portland Metro area, however, unique mid-century modern homes are still getting premium pricing whether they have the name Rummer attached or not.
Right now we have two Rummers listed in a nice neighborhood, Highland Hills. Both are at the end of a cul-de-sac. The cul-de-sacs back to a green space called Taliesin Park. Back in 1966, Robert Rummer donated the land and named it Taliesin as a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us! If you’d like to learn more about Marisa’s home listings, please visit her website!