A Townhouse of One's Own

Words By Debra Spark | Photos by Myriam Babin

An eclectic Portland home devoted to art, antiques, repurposed materials, and all things Italian.

As they rest on their living room’s espresso leather couch, Montanaro and Saiber are surrounded by bookshelves built by Montanaro. They call the wall behind them and to the left “The Dads’ Wall,” because the top print was made by Kavi’s father, Tony Montanaro, and the bottom painting by Saiber’s biological father, Robert Saiber, who died when she was just 19 months. The wood drawers are from Asia West.

As they rest on their living room’s espresso leather couch, Montanaro and Saiber are surrounded by bookshelves built by Montanaro. They call the wall behind them and to the left “The Dads’ Wall,” because the top print was made by Kavi’s father, Tony Montanaro, and the bottom painting by Saiber’s biological father, Robert Saiber, who died when she was just 19 months. The wood drawers are from Asia West.

“We both grew up in communes,” says Kavi Montanaro. His wife, Arielle Saiber, spent her preteen years in a New York ashram and her teen years in an ashram in India, as her mother and stepfather were interested in yoga and meditation. Montanaro lived with his parents, five siblings, and 20 mimes at Celebration Barn in South Paris, the horse barn turned theater with dormitories for performers that his father (renowned mime Tony Montanaro) founded in 1972. Communal living made Montanaro and Saiber cherish quiet and private space. Even so, in 2015, when they bought an 1833–1836 brick Federal-style town house in Portland, they had other people in mind. The ground floor, with its flow-through living room, dining room, and kitchen, seemed perfect for hosting events. The second floor has one bedroom (which Saiber uses as an office) and a separate apartment. Currently rented, the latter space is intended for Saiber’s mother, should she someday want it. The third floor had two bedrooms, one of which the couple now uses, the other for guests. Since the purchase, Montanaro and Saiber’s parties have included a Celebration Barn fundraiser and gatherings in which the couple take art off the walls to hang the work of a local or visiting artist. One such event featured sculpture and extended to their urban, bluestone-paved back patio.

A recent day found Saiber wearing black cat-eye glasses, a red empire-waist, A-line cotton dress, acrylic red pendant earrings, and black suede clogs with wool trim. The distinctive dress and earrings were from Italy, where she goes annually, as she is a professor of medieval and Renaissance Italian literature at Bowdoin. What Saiber presents in person—ebullient warmth and an enthusiasm for red and black, as well as a fondness for unusual, stylish, and/or Italian goods—is played out in the residence, as is Saiber’s family history. The townhouse is full of items she inherited from her grandmother, her biological father (who died when she was an infant), and her stepfather, collectors all.

Saiber also stores her clothes in an open area of her bedroom. Just like the bathroom, she likes keeping her belongings visible to stay organized.

Saiber also stores her clothes in an open area of her bedroom. Just like the bathroom, she likes keeping her belongings visible to stay organized.

The interior and patio palette are black and white with red accents, alternatively warmed and cooled with wood furniture, much of which was sourced at Portland’s Asia West, and cast-iron pieces, including an 18th-century outdoor cafe table from Como, Italy. Fortuitously, pieces inherited from the home’s previous owners (including a large rectangular patio table and an elegant dining set with high-backed leather chairs and wood table) were already black, as were the brick fireplace interiors. Fireplace surrounds, moldings, and built-ins, including glass-door dining room cabinets with iron mullions in a diamond pattern, are all painted white. Montanaro and Saiber have painted select walls and ceilings a dark gray. The stairwell has a black-and-white modified houndstooth runner. The guest bedroom has a black floral graphic on a white-background duvet. Even the wrappers for soap, stored in a glass jar, (Formulary 55 from Portland’s Blanche + Mimi) continue the theme. Red touches include the crimson satin guest room drapes and a red patio umbrella.

Montanaro and Saiber found frames in antique stores for the hand-stamped collages made from vintage dictionary pages that line the stair well between the second and third floors.

Montanaro and Saiber found frames in antique stores for the hand-stamped collages made from vintage dictionary pages that line the stair well between the second and third floors.

Italy’s importance is everywhere apparent. Books relevant to Saiber’s work fill the shelves and lie on the surfaces of her office. Wallpaper featuring medieval monsters lines a small back hall, and a map of Venice, broken into eight framed prints, hangs in the guest room. Saiber’s Venetian handmade silk-velvet wedding shoes sit on the living room mantel.

Saiber typed “medieval or Renaissance wallpaper” into a search engine and discovered Spoonflower, which produces custom wallpaper. They picked a design for their back hallway that incorporates monsters from medieval manuscripts. The red bag is from Spain, and the hat is one of several Saiber inherited from her grandmother.

Saiber typed “medieval or Renaissance wallpaper” into a search engine and discovered Spoonflower, which produces custom wallpaper. They picked a design for their back hallway that incorporates monsters from medieval manuscripts. The red bag is from Spain, and the hat is one of several Saiber inherited from her grandmother.

The list of family treasures is long and includes a green velvet wood-framed piece that “looks like a Renaissance chair,” says Saiber, as well as her grandfather’s cloverleaf-edged Italian wood chess table, a dresser that her grandmother decoupaged with magazine images of stained glass, and a bust of Dante that her stepfather gave her because she is a Dante scholar. A guest bedroom shelf holds silver Sabbath candles from Saiber’s immigrant great-grandparents, as well as a private dinner party menu by the great French chef Escoffier, which is dated November 5, 1930, the day (though not the year) of Saiber’s birth. Saiber also inherited a Dalí print of one face exhaling another face from her grandmother and a Jean-François Millet charcoal of a woman standing in the forest from her stepfather.

To inherited pieces, Montanaro and Saiber have added the work of local artists, including two who use bug parts (Lauren Fenterstock) or depict bugs (Stephen Burt) in their work, as Saiber likes insects.

“We like to use material and objects that were intended to be something else in different ways,” says Saiber, referencing the barn door that she placed under glass for her office desk and vintage flip-up theater seats from Portland Architectural Salvage that now provide seating in the closet alcove of the master bedroom. She and Montanaro joke that they also like things others don’t, given superclearance purchases like a large iron-framed, glass-shelved etagere that stands next to the living room couch (from Portland’s Home Remedies), a black living room rug (from Portland’s Bradford’s Rug Gallery), and a dining room lamp with a black shade and a chartreuse glass base with black stripes (from Scarborough’s House of Lights.) The two aren’t averse to online venues, though, with Etsy being a favorite for items including a metal dining room Sputnik chandelier with Edison bulbs, and Chairish, where they found original early-1970s New York subway car roll signs designed by Massimo Vignelli. These have been covered with plexiglass and hung on the walls of the central staircase. Whatever the source, the impulse toward the reclaimed for two people with fascinating personal and family histories seems aesthetic as well as spiritual: “We like to see things that have lived,” says Saiber.

Debra Spark