Living the American Dream – Memphis magazine

The house was a wreck when Hector Portillo found it in 2016. The Binghampton bungalow was built a hundred years ago, as the city of Memphis experienced its first major expansion. At some point, it was converted from a single-family home to a duplex. Later, as the neighborhood fell into poverty during the post-1968 hollowing out of the city, it was abandoned. Gashes marred the walls where copper thieves had stripped out the wiring. A limb had fallen from the big tree in the yard, piercing the roof so the rain came in freely, rotting the hardwood floors and undermining the foundation.

“It was really bad,” says Portillo. “I think it was for sale on the market for like three years, maybe longer.”

But where others saw hopeless blight, Portillo saw his potential dream home. He came to Memphis from a small town on the northern coast of Honduras more than two decades ago. The quiet, polite young man initially found work as a bricklayer, but after a few months, he was unsatisfied. “I didn’t have any opportunity to grow. I was just doing labor,” he recalls.

He switched to painting houses, both interiors and exteriors, and began a long and fruitful career as a contractor. “I like what I do,” he says, “because you have the opportunity to go to everybody’s houses and see how they live, what they have, and how they put things together. And sometimes you learn from those experiences.”

While working on hundreds of homes, he developed an eye for color and composition. “Sometimes I go to houses and they have like 20 samples of paint on the walls, and they get confused,” he says. “So you start looking around at what they have, what goes with the floor and furniture and the artwork, and say, ‘Let’s just narrow the choices, pick three or five.’ And we find the color that they want.”

“All the houses are different — we have bungalows, Victorians, and new houses, So it’s very mixed, and you can also paint the color of the house the way that you want it, and nobody’s going to complain. You can look pretty here.” — Hector Portillo

As his skills expanded into carpentry, upholstering, and faux finishing, he cultivated a loyal clientele of designers, contractors, and homeowners. Eventually, the young man who had come to America with nothing bought a condominium in Bartlett, and, as his business and savings continued to grow, he started looking for something bigger, and more permanent, where he could fully exercise his skills and creativity.

“I would drive through the neighborhood,” he says. “I actually wanted to live in Cooper-Young, but it was too late for me to get a house there. I wanted to live over here because it’s kind of artistic, and it’s close to [Overton] Park and Midtown. With the theaters and stuff, it’s more fun.”

Portillo was also searching for a diverse community, and found it in Binghampton. “That’s what I like about here,” he says. “It’s a small pocket, but we have a lot of different people from different countries, like Mexicans and Asians and, you know, I’m from Honduras. I feel more accepted here than other places.”

The area’s architecture can be as diverse as its residents. “All the houses are different — we have bungalows, Victorians, and new houses,” he says. “So it’s very mixed, and you can also paint the color of the house the way that you want it, and nobody’s going to complain. You can look pretty here. In other places, you can just be beige or shades of gray — not like here.”

A Radical Transformation

When Portillo first bought the tumbledown bungalow, his friends thought he was crazy. “I had a lot of negative comments, because I was putting a lot of my time and investment here,” he says. “They don’t have the vision. But I don’t listen. I just follow my instincts.”

For four years, he spent his weekends in Binghampton, almost single-handedly transforming the condemned house. “I didn’t do the electrical, the HVAC, the plumbing,” he says, but everything else was restored and built by his hand.

The first order of business was repairing the giant hole in the roof. Then, he took out the wall dividing the two halves of the duplex and installed a single front door. “I made it into one living room and I added the beams,” he says. “I did a faux finish on them to make them look old. … All the floors in the living room were rotted. I think I spent four months just working on the foundation.”

He reinforced the floors, tore out all the rotten hardwood, and replaced it with new wood which he sanded and stained. “I started in front, and worked my way back to the kitchen.”

While he was working on the front porch awning, he looked out over the small patch of trees across the street. “When I got to the roof,” he says, “I saw the view and I said, ‘What if I put a balcony on here and added a second floor so I can have a studio for projects and painting?’”

He did just that, expanding the home’s interior space to about 2,800 square feet with the addition of a guest bedroom, a studio, and a media room. The new balcony, which spans the width of the house, proved to be the project’s biggest lift. “The [front] porch was original, but it had these stone columns that were falling apart,” he says. “I tried to save them, but it was just too bad, and I didn’t know how to do that kind of stone work.”

He dismantled the columns and saved the brick and stone to create new garden beds in the front yard. The columns are wood, but retain the basic shape of the old supports. The awning features a vaulted roof with beams in a triangular arrangement that recalls the exterior details found on some of the neighborhood’s Craftsman bungalows.

The centerpiece of the balcony is an ornate metal chandelier. Portillo thought he had lost the bidding for the light fixture on eBay, but when the higher bidder saw the shipping cost, they balked and withdrew their bid. Luckily for Portillo, the chandelier’s maker agreed to drive it to Memphis. “The person who made it only made two. So I got one, and the other one is in Dallas,” he says.

The second story needed a new staircase. Portillo says he’s not fond of layouts where stairs are the first thing you see when you walk in, so he created a dedicated space for his. He found the pair of globed light fixtures that hang above the stairs at Sheffield Antiques Mall, and “I had to have them!”

For a while, Portillo pondered what to do about the original exterior. “It was brick, but it wasn’t pretty brick,” he says.

He thought about adding a few layers of paint, but instead decided to cover the brick with two layers of a concrete slurry that resembles stucco. Inside, he managed to save the original brick fireplace in the living room by adding layers of the same material. Portions of the rear of the house were originally covered in cedar shingles, so Portillo cut cedar planks to match the pattern and installed them on the balcony exterior. “I didn’t want to do something new that didn’t match,” he says. “But a lot of these new houses, they don’t match anything.”

Buying, Selling, and Trading

Once the major construction was complete, it was time to furnish the new house. Since it was much bigger than his Bartlett condo, that meant a lot of visits to estate sales and auction houses. But the experienced contractor had another way to find furnishings. “My clients, some of them have been in Memphis for a long time, and they’re trying to downsize,” he says. “Sometimes, they give me things.”

Rugs in the living room were gifts of a downsizing client. While painting another house, he discovered the owner was removing and discarding some old shutters. With a layer of paint, they became an architectural detail behind a living room couch. A designer friend saw him eyeing an antique mirror, so they offered to trade it to Portillo if he would paint their hallway. One wall of Portillo’s bedroom is a row of glass doors that lead to his spacious walk-in closet. They once opened onto a client’s patio, but when they were replaced with newer models, Portillo rehabbed and repurposed them. “They’re soundproof!” he says.

Ask about a random table or chair, and Portillo might say he found it by the side of the road. “Before I got into this renovation, I started painting furniture and upholstering,” he says. “A lot of things, I restore them and paint them or find a way to make it look good.”

Portillo’s faux finishing skills are truly impressive. Take the living room lamp based on a classical sculpture he found in a thrift store. He mixed together copper-based pigments and an oxidizer to create a patina that looks vintage while bringing out the figure’s details. “I like to work in layers,” he says.

That goes for his design sense as well as his painting technique. The home is full of the fruits of his relentless shopping and scavenging, but everything is carefully arranged and never feels cluttered. Portillo brings the same fastidiousness to his own space that makes him an in-demand painter. “To me, it’s not just how you make things,” he says, “it’s how you put them together. That’s an art, too.”

A Great Location

After four years of work, Portillo moved into his dream house in 2020, accompanied by his longtime companion, a dog named Duke. Some renovation work is still ongoing — a project like this is never really “done” — like the upstairs room that will one day be a bar and lounge.

Last February, Duke passed away after a bout with kidney cancer. “I think every dog, like people, has different personalities. My dog, he spoke Spanish. You learn their personality, and they learn your personality,” Portillo says.

Duke’s dog bed sits empty in Portillo’s bedroom. “One of my clients did a painting of him for me. I feel like he’s still here.”

Six years ago, some folks scoffed at this long-shot project of rehabilitating a classic Memphis home in the historically disinvested neighborhood off East Parkway. But no one is laughing now. In an email that neighbor Anne Edgar sent informing Memphis magazine of this unique home, she wrote, “Hector’s a Honduran immigrant who arrived here 23 years ago with no money, no English, no car, no job training, nor any family to rely on. Fast forward to today, and he’s not only living in his dream house in Binghampton, but serving as one of the leading stakeholders in the up-and-coming neighborhood.”

Portillo’s heroic efforts have not gone unnoticed. The two houses next door to Chez Hector were also falling down. Now, they have been replaced with new construction. During the demolition, Portillo saved a beautiful vintage glass door from the bulldozer. It now serves as the entrance to his studio. Where there was once blight, now there is a bustling, diverse community.

“I didn’t know all this was going to happen,” Portillo says. “Once people see that it’s a great location, they invest in the neighborhood. But somebody has to start. I think it’s good and bad. The neighborhood is looking cleaner, but it’s also kind of changing, because of all the investors. The part that I don’t like is that they take everything and don’t let opportunities for people like me to be part of the neighborhood.”

For those feeling inspired by this epic DIY project, Portillo offers some advice: “Just finish one room, then move on to the next one. Don’t be jumping around everywhere, because you’re not going to finish that way.”

Don’t be afraid to adapt your plans when the going gets rough—and it will get rough. “I changed the layout a couple of times on this one, because it wasn’t what I wanted,” he says. “Sometimes, if you realize you are not going to be happy at the end, it’s better to start over.”

And if you can’t find exactly what you want, he says, don’t let that stop you. “There are some things I can’t afford to buy, but if I buy the materials, I can make it myself. I just have to put in my time.”

Above all, Portillo says, “You have to be determined and don’t give up. Just keep going, because sometimes, you get stressed out and overwhelmed. I’m like that about everything, you know? When I start something, I finish.”

While working on his new home, he discovered he was part of a new community. “I want to say that I am an outsider,” he says, “but people say, ‘We are very glad you are here.’ That makes me feel proud. I feel very comfortable. I’m enjoying the American dream.”

Find Hector Portillo on Instagram @hejportillo.

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