By Cat Wurdack
In 1859, at the same time a modest, stick-frame house was being built on a hill in Portland, Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities and Abraham Lincoln campaigned to become President of the United States.
The three-story wooden house that stands tall today behind an 80-foot laurel hedge at 6246 SE Scott St. has a long and colorful history stretching back seven generations.
The house has the original French doors that were shipped around the Horn on a freighter, a fireplace that was built with rocks quarried at Mount Tabor, and cobblestones salvaged from Front St. that border its garden paths.
Nick Vasilieff grew up in this house, raised his children there, and has been a good steward of the property for many years. He is getting ready to sell it now, and is hopeful that another family will open their hearts to it and create their own lasting memories.
“I think I’m ready,” Vasilieff says. “I think the house is done with me. It’s a family house; it likes laughter.”
If the house could talk, it would tell of a birthing room, grain and milk that were produced on the farm and delivered through a trapdoor in the root cellar, and chilly rooms that sent Vasileff and his sister racing downstairs on winter mornings for a spot on top of the heat register of the old gas furnace. The house wasn’t insulated so it was very drafty,” he recalls. “You could see light through the walls.”
In 1874, his great-great grandfather, Samuel Dexter Francis, bought 10 acres with a house and barn on Mount Tabor. His great-great grandmother, who died in 1958 when Vasilieff was 12, was from Penzance, England.
He remembers her as a very proper lady who wore high-neck, lace-topped dresses and made cookies and tea for the minister after church on Sundays.
His grandmother, Helen Rogers, was born in 1886 in the birthing room and nursery that is now the dining room.
Vasilieff remembers being raised by loving women in the old house and extended family picnics in the side-yard with his grandmother and great-great grandmother when the rural farm community spread out from house to house with fruit orchards and acres of open field.
The mountain felt like a private park where the boy and his friends roamed freely, dug bunkers and tunnels, played army, and hiked down to Montavilla.
His father was a competitive gymnast and a Russian dancer classically-trained in ballet. He had been raised in Harbin, China and worked as an engineer for the czar. When the Soviets attacked Japan in 1945, Vasilieff’s father caught a boat to San Francisco where he auditioned and was chosen for a new ballet school.
His mother had studied classical ballet in Portland, also auditioned and was chosen for the company. When she met his father as members of the original San Francisco Ballet in 1932, they toured the world, fell in love and married, and opened a dance school in Portland.
They rented the old wood house from 1941 through 1977 from Vasilieff’s grandmother who eventually sold it to Vasilieff.
“One of my memories about the old house is the sound of parties,” he says. “Many dancers would visit my parents as guest instructors from around the world. I used to sit at the top of the steps as a child and watch beautiful people holding martinis or other drinks, probably filled with what my father called Buffalo Grass Vodka. Smoke curled up from their elegant cigarettes amidst a din of voices and laughter mixed with English, Russian, and other languages.”
Mount Tabor Presbyterian Church at SE 61st and Stark had a huge steeple and Vasilieff would go up and ring the bells sometimes. His grandmother installed a church-sized pipe organ in the old birthing room.
The room slopes a little now between the living room and dining room where huge concrete pillars were required to support the organ and its two-story high pipes. His grandmother later donated it to the Presbyterian church.
“Of course I’m sad to break the tradition,” Vasilieff says about moving on. “The house needs a young family. It’s alive with a warm, sweet energy because it’s been filled with children’s voices and parties.”
Nick Vasileff will miss the comfort of the mountain, the warmth of those familiar rooms, and the charming view of downtown he enjoyed as a child from his bedroom, but there is often a silver lining to these matters:
Vasilieff will not miss trimming the 80’ long laurel hedge he has managed for more than 50 years.