By Midge Pierce

A once grand, century-old house at 5631 SE Belmont is being meticulously restored by a tour de force with the skill and determination to save historically significant architecture from the wrecking ball.

Lyrin Murphy, a realtor with a self-described “really expensive passion,” narrowly outbid developers seeking to demolish the venerable Whidden and Lewis-designed structure dating from the early 1900s. “We want to celebrate this wonderful house and honor the neighborhood’s history and character.”

Her financial partner, Steve Day, adds, “This house is a true work of art. You don’t tear down art.”  He credits Murphy’s dedication, enthusiasm and eye for detail for his confidence in investing in the project. “Lyrin is a master. When she falls in love with a house, she’s unstoppable.”

She and Day have worked together on several local projects. The Belmont house is Murphy’s eleventh restoration. With luck born of positive thinking and a loyal construction crew, Murphy is rescuing Portland one house at a time.

The handsome Jacob H. Cook House, known by locals as the Christmas House for its past profusion of holiday lights, lay abandoned for nearly a decade as squatters, graffiti, rodents and trash piled in. One auction morning, she said “I sat on the porch at the crack of dawn and pleaded, ‘If you want to be saved you will help me get you’.”

Since then she and her team have hit the ground running, roughing in updated wiring and plumbing, preserving original wall tapestries and turn-of-the-last-century tubs, tuck-pointing foot thick rock walls, and straightening the original columns on the wrap around porch wherever possible.

Every item is being salvaged. Materials that need to be replaced such as outdoor banisters on the upper balcony will be repurposed as new balustrades are milled to meet code. Some days twenty or more workers are on the project.

At each step, Murphy undertakes careful forensics to ensure work reflects authenticity. “I love going to work,” she says as the house reveals secrets like writings from 1909 beneath peeling bedroom wallpaper. Despite construction and boarded up windows, the house is a solid “treasure,” according to a local architect who says Murphy is doing everything right to maintain the home’s integrity.

Murphy, who names all the houses she restores, calls this one Walter, perhaps because of rumored ties to Walt Disney’s Portland family.

“Walter never disappoints,” she says pointing out 115-year-old arts and crafts fruit-sculptures that still adorn a mantel; dining room pocket doors with oak on one side and mahogany on the other; leaded glass in perfect condition; earth-toned tapestry beneath box beams; hand-carved newel posts. The original parquet floors and elaborate woodwork is largely untouched by vandals.

In the massive rec room, spray paint points out the craftsmanship of the wainscoting. Murphy credits “squatters with a conscience.”

Rescuing old houses requires recouping expenses. The City is not making it easy, according to Day who says in Portland’s “rush to create density,” it ignores preservation.

Specific uses may depend on the City’s convoluted permitting process, but one option is adaptive re-use as a traditional bed ‘n breakfast and event venue.

“Our goal is to create shared space that is a source of community pride,” says Murphy. “But it seems like it’s easier to tear a house down than to save it.”

As work progresses, streams of neighbors and curiosity-seekers visit daily.

She’s heard from a family that has some of the home’s monogrammed silver. Even police stopped by with encouragement because the abandoned house had become such a problem. Despite distractions, she says Walter handles it well. “It’s strange to go from dark years to constant activity,” she writes on her #saving walter account.

Lyrin Murphy and Steve Day outside the Whidden and Lewis-designed structure on upper Belmont St.

A few passers-by have shared horror stories of cost-overruns and jousting with the City to get approvals and permits. On frustrating days, Murphy says,  “I sit back down and say, ‘Walter, I need your help. Please help me bring you in under budget and on time’.”

If her timelines and positivity prevail, holiday lights will sparkle again on the grand house this December.