Esther Saulle Simek met her husband, Stepan, thirty years ago in Switzerland. Since then, they’ve called Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle home before finally settling in Sullivan’s Gulch in 1999.
Though she does some property management work, Esther’s true passion is music, as evidenced by the variety of instruments she plays as well as the impressive collection of them in her home. The viola da gamba and other Renaissance wind instruments reside in her living room, where she also teaches the recorder to both children and adults. Stepan is a theatre professor at Lewis & Clark College, as well as a theatre director and professional translator.
We asked Esther to tell us about more about her home, how she and her family landed in the Gulch, and why the neighborhood continues to foster a spirit of connection:
My journey to America is closely tied to my now-husband’s. I'm Swiss, and I met my husband, Stepan, in a sort of divey music bar in Zurich more than thirty years ago. He was a political refugee from what was then Czechoslovakia. Eventually, he was granted political asylum in the US, and I decided to follow him to see what life had in store for me.
Our first stop was Boston, where we lived for about a year, and which wasn’t very agreeable to us. Our first house there was infested with cockroaches, with rats coming out of the toilet bowl, and things like that. Stepan got a job with an agency that helped Russian, Czech, and Vietnamese refugees settle in the US. By the end of the year, we’d had enough of Boston, and bought an old VW Bus. We drove it across the country, ending up in San Francisco.
Since I speak German, Italian, and French, I promptly got a job as a multilingual tour guide. Me, a new immigrant—at the time an illegal alien—barely speaking passable English, giving tours! It was a fun, strenuous job, guiding an out-of-town bus driver turn by turn and explaining the history of San Francisco in four different languages to a bus full of tourists from all around the world.
Later on, we had our first son, Sebastian, and my husband got accepted to an MFA program for theatre directing at the University of Washington in Seattle. We moved there, had our second son, Gabriel, and bought a little house. A few years after Stepan graduated, he got a job in Portland and after a few rentals, we finally bought our house in Sullivan's Gulch in 1999.
We chose the Gulch for its affordability, density, location, abundance of older homes, and its walking distance to stores. It’s just a great, tight-knit neighborhood. For years we had a weekly soup night on Sunday, where we gathered, ate soup, drank wine and exchanged news and pleasantries each Sunday in a different home. I have formed really close friendships with many neighbors, mostly quite quirky and interesting people.
The biggest change I have seen is the sharp increase in home prices in the neighborhood. It is becoming increasingly difficult to afford a house here, and if we were to try to buy one today, we probably couldn't afford it. I do like the infill approach to urban planning, and our own ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit), which we call the Alley House, speaks to that.
We have an oversized lot, 50' x 125', backed by an alley. Building the ADU seems to make the alley a lot safer. The space is used in an impactful, intentional way. When we decide to downsize someday, we have the option to move into the Alley House and rent out the main house. Planning and building the ADU was an exciting process. A few hiccups along the way, like any building process, but overall it was a very positive experience. I’d say that if people have the space, financing, and the gumption it takes to manage two properties, they should go for it.
The arts in Portland are quite underfunded, and it is very difficult to make even a semblance of living as a full-time artist. The vast majority of my musician friends need to have day jobs in order to survive. For the most part, the arts in the US rely on private giving, and there is a sense that it's extremely difficult to raise money for them here. Unlike some other American cities, there is really no culture of arts philanthropy and giving in Portland. It's a bit of a shame.
My husband has a teaching job at Lewis & Clark, and he's doing what most artists are trying to do—teaching his particular art form, which allows him to make a living pursuing his artistic vision in an academic setting, and allowing him the time to work professionally as well. But it is very difficult for the majority of artists here in Portland to have that opportunity, and so they struggle on underpaid, under-appreciated, and underused. But still, they persevere.
Last July, I hosted a fundraiser for Musica Maestrale, a Portland-based early music ensemble that brings together local musicians with national and international reputations to perform the repertoire of music made between the 16th and 18th centuries. Musicians use only historically accurate instruments to perform, which provides a more intimate musical experience than that of the modern orchestral concert. We were lucky enough to host Arwen Myers, a soprano, and Hideki Yamaya, theorbo and Baroque guitar player.
When we first moved into the house, we painted the upstairs bedrooms and the office, and refinished the softwood floors. Later on, we remodeled the kitchen, changed the layout of the back of the house, restored and repainted the first floor, completely redesigned and rebuilt the back and front yards, and restored the original wooden windows and the weight mechanism in them to make them operable again.
Thanks to a lot of water in the basement, we're planning to replace the foundation. In preparation for that project, we removed all the ductwork and the furnace from the basement, thinking that the project would have been completed this past fall. We were planning to replace the forced-air heating—an absurd, unsavory, unhealthy, and really antediluvian system—with radiant heat, with floor heating in the basement, and radiators on the first and second floors. For various reasons, the project wasn’t completed this fall, and so we’ve had no central heat this winter. We're heating with wood in a surprisingly effective fireplace insert stove instead. Also, I have re-discovered a lot of winter clothes that I hardly ever used, so I’m wearing them all in layers.
So far, over the span of eighteen years, we've touched every surface in our house and garden, and we tried to keep all the remodels in the original style of the house. We did much of it ourselves, but lately we're more inclined to hire people to do the work. We're a bit richer and much older and lazier now! To quote our neighbor Adam: "Did you have a good weekend, or are you a homeowner?"
My hope for Sullivan’s Gulch is that it stays an interactive and close-knit neighborhood populated by interesting people. I hope that it doesn’t focus on smaller, often petty things like the accidental taking of a parking space. Instead, because the neighborhood is so close to downtown and to so many shops, restaurants, coffee houses and other urban amenities, we should focus on what is really important: staying connected with our neighbors, local businesses, and walking, biking, and using public transportation to get most of our errands done. In general I hope that Sullivan's Gulch will continue to allow us to live an urban lifestyle in a neighborhood that feels like a little town within a big one.
D. Larson, Editor