Taking Cues from the Columbia
By Veronica Russell
Published: 09/07/2009  Updated: 08/14/2019
The open beams in the vaulted ceiling create a perfect balance with the warm woods in the room's lower levels. A painting by Darren Orange and a vintage French bowl chandelier are highlighted in the dining area.
The open beams in the vaulted ceiling create a perfect balance with the warm woods in the room's lower levels. A painting by Darren Orange and a vintage French bowl chandelier are highlighted in the dining area.  Gary Hayes

Inspired by the Columbia River and the beauty of our Pacific Northwest, an Astoria couple embarked on a two-year journey to build a rustic cabin, and ended up creating an instant classic home.

Growing up on an Astoria hillside overlooking the Columbia, Russ Farmer must have been influenced by the river his entire life. The curves of hillsides leading down to water's edge, the texture of rocky banks that outline area jetties, the colorful wildlife that inhabit the waters are all elements that, not surprisingly, show up in Farmer's latest inspired work the custom home he just completed with his wife, Sue.

On an Astoria hilltop, a curving set of lighted stairs guide you from street level, past a dramatic wall of boulders that mimics the texture of an area jetty, to the sturdy front porch and entry to the home. Copper accents in the lighting, the porch railing and the custom gutters are introduced here, foreshadowing the Farmers' metal of choice for the entire home. The two-tone wood and textured glass front door is impressive, flanked by matching sidelights and topped off by a door handle modeled after a distinct Pacific Northwest native, a colorful salmon whose fin you depress to open the door. Another salmon, this one more life-sized and carved from wood by sculptor Bill Bishop, is perched high up above the entry, showcased on a gable along a wave of cedar shingles.

A dramatic slate tile floor greets you on the porch and leads you into the foyer, meeting up with the warm wood floors of the great room. The expansive, but cozy main living space features a soaring vault with open beams that adds drama and warmth to the airy space. An inviting nook on the edge of the living room offers swivel chairs, ­binoculars and place to relax and take in the view from above Astoria's waterfront district, the Washington coastline and the ships passing by on the Columbia River.

African mahogany cabinetry with Maidu burl accents is a staple in the home, the custom work of Astoria's own Ed Overbay. In the kitchen, this warm combination of wood grains is paired with a Blue Luisa granite slab backsplash, chosen because of a bird seen in the ­pattern by the couple's young granddaughter, Mackensie. Countertops made from an unusual Matrix granite from Brazil feature shades of charcoal and a texture resembling the dark, choppy waters of the Columbia on a winter day.

Off the kitchen and great room is a quaint dining deck dotted with pots of Japanese maples, offering great opportunities for riverview dining al fresco.

Down the hall, the Master suite echoes the warm woodwork and contrasts with the bright Master bath with a white marble slab shower. Coppery accents in the granite countertops match perfectly with the copper sink, fixtures and a vintage copper mirror frame that was once a window in a New York apartment building.

There are lots of vintage touches like this in the Farmer's house. "We've chosen to blend new and old," said Russ, "to give it the very warm and comfortable feel of a house that can actually be used." Larry Shifrin from Lumen Essence Lighting in Portland helped the Farmers achieve a look of timelessness with the use of vintage lighting throughout the home. Originally from the 1920s and 1930s, charming little pieces of history, like the buttery glass chandelier in the foyer and the unique sconces scattered on the walls, are truly the jewelry of this home.

At the bottom of the grand staircase, another carving of salmon by Bishop, this time in the form of a detailed grab bar. The lower level of the home is the official guest quarters Russ and Sue Farmer affectionately call "The Columbia Bed & Breakfast." A colorful slate tiled floor with French doors out to the hot tub patio, a custom kitchenette, a gas fireplace, rich red leather furniture and a big screen television make up the main room of the guest quarters. Down the hall, a guest sauna, laundry facilities and two separate bedrooms are set aside for lucky visitors at the Farmer house.

The furnishings for the home were, in large part, brought in from the Farmers' previous home, save for a few holes in the decor that needed to be filled. The work of painter, Darren Orange, whose work is largely industrial abstracts depicting familiar icons to the area, was a perfect fit. Three large-scale paintings by Orange were purchased for some key walls. "The Jetty" is a dramatic sweeping panorama of what could be Warrenton's South Jetty and "The Obelisk" depicts a large portion of a familiar bridge support.

The same attention to detail paid inside the home is also paid outside this home. The large boulders that line the front walk are continued en masse around the house, (651 in all, according to the Farmers' eight-year-old grandson, Reese), creating functional terraces and offering texture and contrast to the lush green flora and smooth pigmented concrete pathways. A hot tub on the private patio offers evening relaxation no matter the season.

"We didn't know we were building all this," said Russ Farmer, his sweeping gesture including both the home and the view. In fact, the Farmers' original plan was to build what they called a rustic cabin. "I suppose we just didn't understand the scope of the project we were taking on," he continued. What started out in the imaginations of the Farmers as a simple cabin on the treed lot neighboring Russ' childhood home, grew and grew, (as projects sometimes do), into something larger. Larger in scale, yes. More engineering, time and materials, yes. But, more than the sum of the sticks and stones that make up the place, it became an artistic expression of what has run through Russ Farmer since he can remember. This river, this Pacific ­Northwest, this deep sense of place is what he was hoping to capture. It took far longer than they thought it would, and cost far more than they had originally planned. "In hindsight," said Russ, "we would have done different things, but then," he paused before contining, "I suppose we would not have this house, would we?"

The open beams in the vaulted ceiling create a perfect balance with the warm woods in the room's lower levels. A painting by Darren Orange and a vintage French bowl chandelier are highlighted in the dining area.

The custom woodwork of Astoria contractor Ed Overbay in the Farmer's kitchen brings out the coppery highlights in the Blue Luisa slab granite used in the eating bar and backsplash. Countertops honed from slabs of Matrix granite bring even more inspired texture and interest to the space.

The home's landscaping, done in large part by Russ Farmer himself, flows around the house connecting through the use of texture, contrast and color. Mike Abrams and Joel Bergman provided assistance with rock and concrete work, and Brim's Farm & Garden provided much of the flora. (left) Copper, the metal of choice for this home, shows up in the shiny basin and fixtures of the Master bath, as well as on the front porch. Resham slate from India, expertly installed by Tom Schmitz from Clatsop Tile, complements the coppery tones.
Taking Cues from the Columbia