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Carpenter restores Oregon's historic homes
Photos and Story by James Hill
Amy McAuley, who owns Oculus Fine Carpentry Inc., has developed a purposeful niche through her love of historic homes, and in particular, the windows that grace these buildings.
“To think of all the people who have filled these houses, put in the windows, and past generations who have looked through these windows … I am pretty satisfied with the choice I made,” said McAuley, a seventh-generation Oregonian.
Through her Southeast Portland business, she uses an antique planer to prepare the wood for windows that likely come from a home listed on the National Register. The detached garage of her Sellwood home serves as the shop for Oculus; curls of cedar shavings blanket the workbench and floor. McAuley is repairing windows built by Oregon’s pioneers, many of them framed in when the land was still a territory.
The houses include the A.T. Smith home in Forest Grove, an 1856 Greek Revival; the Delaney-Edwards home, a vernacular farmhouse built in 1845 in Turner; and the Stauffer-Will home in Aurora, an 1867 farmhouse of clapboard and hand-hewn logs.
“Older structures have a sense of history and character,” she said. “Historic windows draw me in … to peel back the layers to get to the original work.”
In addition to the historic houses, she also restores windows for older homes throughout the Portland metro area and is working on a 1926 Gothic Revival style home in Alameda. Like many small business owners, however, the business of running the business was running her ragged.
The Portland Community College Small Business Development Center helped refine and nurture her fascination for older structures. In February of 2006, she contacted the SBDC and soon thereafter enrolled in the one-year Small Business Management Program to “get ahead of the paperwork and better organize Oculus,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was making a profit or not. I had no business plan.”
One piece of paperwork, she discovered, needed spotlighting. McAuley had developed a unique document to assess the condition of antique windows and estimate the costs of restoration. The detailed form, which includes photographs and drawings, serves as a road map for repair and is an architectural resource to help in fundraising for historic renovation. Many of the homes she’s worked on are owned by nonprofit historic preservation organizations.
SBDC counselor and instructor Jacqueline Babicky-Peterson encouraged her to copyright the assessment document, and to charge clients for its preparation. Babicky-Peterson also steered her to a patent attorney and online information about copyrighting.
McAuley has country roots, growing up on a farm in Eastern Oregon. She graduated from the University of Oregon in 1993 with a degree in fine art and moved to Portland the following year. Trying to make it in the city, she stumbled upon a job restoring historic windows in St. Johns in 1996. The contractor hired five women and said he’d bring one carpenter on full time at the end of the project. She got the job. Five years went by and in 2001, she went out on her own, founding Oculus, which means circular opening.
The SBDC has encouraged her to take her fine-carpentry skills and passion for the craft “narrow and deep,” said Babicky-Peterson. “Creating a narrow focus for her business like McAuley has done, positions her as the expert in her field. As the expert, she is in greater demand and can charge more money for her work. Everyone wins.”
For more information on window restoration, McAuley recommends “Saving America’s Windows” by John Leek, which will be published this spring. One of the featured homes in Leek’s book, and McAuley’s next window project, is the McCarver House, a kit home that traveled around the tip of South America in 1850 and then was pulled up the bluff to the Mount Pleasant area of Oregon City.
For more information on PCC’s Small Business Development Center, call (503) 978-5080, or visit http://www.pcc.edu/business/small-business-development/.