THERE ARE RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS IN Seattle where, in the space of a couple of blocks, you feel as though you’ve stumbled onto a world’s fair of architectural history. Porticos from ancient Greece, parapets from colonial Mexico, echoes of the Italian Renaissance and Georgian England, a swooping roofline off the American prairie and a Japanese-accented bungalow and a Bauhaus machine by way of Germany—it’s all there, testament both to glorious American individualism and a considerable degree of confusion over just what is the proper outfit for a home in the urban Pacific Northwest.
It’s exactly this raging eclecticism that gives so many Seattle neighborhoods—Capitol Hill, Ravenna, Madison Park, to cite just a few—their charming chemistry, a fact somehow lost on the late-twentieth-century developers who strewed the suburbs with endless moraines of near-identical houses. As far as residential architecture is concerned, Seattle has never established a single, well-defined direction, and this is its great strength. Seattle “is unusually indulgent to those of its citizens who prefer to live in dreams and memories,” observed Jonathan Raban, writing to make sense of the place as an immigrant. “If you want to bury yourself in a cottage in the trees, pretending that you’re living inside a nineteenth-century French novel, or that you’re back home in another decade and another country, Seattle will do astonishingly little to disturb your illusion.”
The reason, of course, is that we’re a relatively young city, weak on tradition and perpetually teeming with people newly arrived from somewhere else.
The earliest Seattle homes fostered no illusions. They were the simple, one-and-a-half-story gabled frame houses in the folk-vernacular tradition you would find everywhere in the Western world. But Seattle was a timber town, and fancy millwork was soon available for those who could afford it, even before the railroad arrived in 1883. After the railroad, and the arrival of the first professional architects, Seattle began to bloom with Victorian finery, then with the costume party of historical revival styles that were also sweeping the rest of the country.
Back then there wasn’t any effort to create a “Seattle” style tailored to the climate and landscape, but there wasn’t any such thing in most other cities, either. Until recently, the American home has always been a statement to the world about how well the occupants are doing, not about how their values are attuned to the hills and trees around them. Seattle’s residential architecture, at least until the Second World War, mainly expressed ambition, optimism, and especially a freedom from the constraints of “correctness.” When a 24-year-old architect named Ellsworth Storey slipped a pair of classical Doric columns under the porch roof of a Swiss chalet, all with a distant echo of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early Prairie houses, he showed he understood what his just-adopted city was about. Still, in his work you can spot the stirrings of regionalism—local materials, generous windows to scoop in the skinflint winter light. Yep, Storey understood.
After the war, modernism bloomed in Seattle, for better and worse. A number of architects began exploring a vocabulary of crisp modern forms executed largely in native materials—cedar and fir—and paying more attention to views and the integration of indoor and outdoor space than traditional architecture had. It helped that many of the architect-designed houses built here after 1950 had to be constructed on steep leftover lots that earlier homebuilders had passed up as being too difficult to bother with. Bad sites generate dramatic architecture. Something called the “Northwest contemporary” house arose, and although it’s too diverse to be called a coherent style it has a unifying ethic: respect for the land.
We’re a place blessed with magnificent landscapes. How could there be any better inspiration for architecture?
In the following pages, a jury of architects, architectural historians, and fierce enthusiasts has selected 10 “great houses” that speak volumes about what Seattle is (and was), and that illustrate design excellence in different ways. Before going there, though, we should take a moment to talk about what makes a house “great.” (Arguments will be sure to follow.)
In spite of the everlasting American obsession with size, it isn’t size. Nor the impression the house makes on the outside. Two of the residences we’re celebrating here are under 1,500 square feet. Three are invisible from the street, and two others present almost expressionless faces that barely hint at the dramatic qualities behind the facades. The idea of the house as manifestation of power and wealth is passe, even if not everyone has gotten the message yet.
Instead a great house is about a coherent idea: an intangible quality such as serenity (George Suyama’s Fauntleroy residence) or the material possibilities of concrete block (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Tracy residence). A great house is rich in expressive details that are more than mere decoration; details that speak about the nature of materials or structure (Ralph Anderson’s Alki Beach residence). A great house artfully considers its surroundings. Sit down on a strategically placed armchair in the Lake Union floating home designed by Barry Burgess, and the Seattle skyline—surprise!—clicks into view, perfectly framed, effectively becoming part of the space and culture of the house. A larger enclosed space wouldn’t have made it better, and it would have overwhelmed the neighborhood’s scale. Here’s one more thing: A great house is not selfish.
Nearly all these houses were designed by architects—the one exception is the Denny residence, apparently built from one of the pattern books popular in the late nineteenth century. Engaging an architect is, inevitably, a more expensive way to put a roof over the family’s head than buying a cloned builder’s house. But it’s an expression of values, and maybe even character.
Architect Tom Kundig puts it this way: “People who build their own homes tend to be very courageous.”
Alki Beach Residence
Architect: Ralph Anderson
Year Built: 1998
Ralph Anderson, who died in 2010, was the master of the Northwest contemporary aesthetic. His houses typically feature simple geometric forms with a faint Asian accent, big structural bones proudly in view, lavish glass, skins of native woods like fir and cedar, and a remarkable delicacy expressed in countless details. His son Ross Anderson, whose construction company built this 2,833-square-foot beach house in which the senior Andersons lived, confirms his father had “an obsession with how things join together.” Indeed. There’s pleasure simply in seeing how small cedar posts and beams supporting a lavatory bowl clasp each other with interlocking cross halving joints. It’s how nature herself would build a house, if she intended it to last for centuries.
This urban house, in fact, seems as though it’s all about nature—an unusual achievement considering its constricted 35-foot-wide lot. The two-story living room thrusts itself toward Elliott Bay with a three-sided glass extrusion that wants to gather in all of Puget Sound. When waves paw at the beach, the water music seems to come not merely from in front of the house, but from all around it.
Architect: George Suyama of Suyama Peterson Deguchi
Year Built: 2003
George Suyama’s own house, which won a Seattle AIA Honor award in 2003, is all about the creation of dramatic space with the least possible architecture. It’s a uniquely Northwestern example of minimalism, one that majors in sensory richness rather than deprivation.
Suyama orchestrated the house as a procession; it’s meant to reveal itself as a sequence. From an anonymous face to the street that reveals nothing, you proceed through a covered outdoor living room—usable even in January, the Suyamas report—into a long, narrow great room with a view of Puget Sound off the west end. Descending the stairs to bedroom, den, and finally wine cellar, the procession becomes a vertical Z, ending with the feeling of having arrived in a medieval catacomb. Cascading water channels flow outside the north, mostly glass walls, the constant burbling enhancing the sense of the house as a serene, self-contained world.
Apart from the garage and outdoor room, the house is a modest 2,600 square feet, and it demonstrates how much richness is possible through focus on one coherent idea. The 2003 AIA jury called it “a deeply personal, world-class achievement.” It’s a testimonial to how far Seattle architecture has come since the days of borrowing the rest of the world’s ideas.David Thomas Denny Residence
Queen Anne (Demolished)
Year Built: 1888
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Seattle skyline was a picturesque quiver of spiky turrets, finials, gables, and pediments. Nearly all these Victorian homes are gone now, victims of the frenzied hill shaving and apartment raising that came with the prosperity of the early 1900s. The David Thomas Denny mansion that once stood at 512 Queen Anne Avenue is a lovely example of the style that gave the hill its name.
Denny was among the small band of pioneers who founded the settlement of Seattle on a rainy fall day in 1851. He became a millionaire sawmill owner and developer, and built this Queen Anne–style mansion for his family in 1888. Its sizzling geometry and delicate, spindly ornaments were composed with immaculate grace, but the architect is unrecorded: The design apparently came from a pattern book.
The Dennys enjoyed their grand home for only five years. They lost most of their fortune, including the house, in the Panic of 1893. The fate of the house sadly paralleled the family’s. It was moved, then chopped into apartments, and finally demolished in 1938.
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Year Built: 1955
Frank Lloyd Wright remains conspicuously alone among A-list architects in addressing the issue of modest houses for people who might have vision and artistic impulse but not wealth. Although Wright had lavishly luxurious tastes himself and was chronically in debt, he rarely turned down a potential client who came in with an impossibly pinched budget. For such people, he would design a variation on his Usonian house concept—he sprinkled some 60 around the country between 1936 and 1959—and although they invariably soared in far over budget, they’re the real thing: deeply respectful of site, rich in texture and exquisitely tuned geometry, full of fascinating details. People who commissioned a Usonian house were not stuck with lower-drawer Wright.
There are two Usonian houses in the Seattle area: the Brandes House in Sammamish and the Tracy House in Normandy Park. Tracy is smaller, at 1,150 square feet, built with a preposterously complex system of 11 different kinds of custom concrete blocks. Some incorporate tiny windows or light fixtures. As Usonian clients often did, Bill and Elizabeth Tracy pitched a lot of their own labor into the house, casting every one of the 1,700 blocks themselves. The house cost $25,000 to build and went on the market in 2011 for $1,159,000.
The EcoHome Foundation will host scheduled tours of the Tracy residence the weekend of January 21. For information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.Lake Union Floating Home
Designer: Barry Burgess
Year Built: 2002
The classic floating homes ringing Lake Union and Portage Bay, relics of a simpler, less self-conscious Seattle, tend to be small, folk-artsy, and funky. Many of the newest additions to the west side of the waterfront are large, slick, and luxurious. Barry Burgess’s 2002 design skillfully charted a course between the two polar extremes. It might be the quintessential Seattle houseboat.
The dwelling looks like the considered marriage of a Craftsman bungalow and a classic wooden boat—two Seattle bloodlines coming together, appropriately, on Lake Union. The barrel-vault ceiling over the second-story den arcs across laminated fir beams, a scaled-up sailboat cabin. As in a boat, no possibility for storage space is wasted; even the cherry-faced Craftsman-style columns flanking the fireplace open to reveal shelves for DVDs. It’s only 1,400 square feet, but it doesn’t feel tight. Because it’s all so logically functional and carefully executed, it avoids the trap that ensnares so many designers working in popular historical styles. “I was searching for an honest expression of the materials,” Burgess says, “trying to get underneath the kitsch.”
Architect: Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects
The Studio House resides on a commanding bluff with a dramatic view of Puget Sound, and also at a watershed in Tom Kundig’s career. He’d served his apprenticeship, was simmering with heady ideas of form and a new vocabulary of materials, and here found a client who was herself an artist and had the courage to trust him.
The bones of the house are deceptively simple: a long, tall, narrow concrete box pierced with a steel I-beam grid that thrusts into the big living room, and an airfoil-like vault roof that shapes the wind rolling over the bluff. Outside, these elements create an elaborate geometric harmony of planes and curves, jostling and connecting. Inside, the concrete walls have an immense brute presence; they look eternal and would feel overpowering to some. But there are protective, intimate spaces in the house, too, and an endless parade of intriguing details. Kundig especially likes the industrial-strength black ceiling fans suspended from the I beams. “Dayton Fans,” he says, “used in chicken houses. Cost $250.” The point, he adds quickly, is not to create an artificial industrial aesthetic, but a coherent language.
Architect: Architect: Paul Hayden Kirk
Year Built: 1954
Modern architecture settled in Seattle largely through the work of four architects: Paul Thiry, Roland Terry, Victor Steinbrueck, and Paul Hayden Kirk. Kirk’s Dowell Residence, which Architectural Record magazine singled out as one of its “Record Houses” in 1957, was an effort to soften the severe International Style for the Northwest by executing it in fir and cedar instead of concrete and steel. Its deceptively simple form is actually a dazzlingly complex essay in boxes and rectangles and all the materials one might deploy for them. Inside are shoji screens crafted with panels of translucent resin and tawny horsehair, and it’s evident the craftsman even composed the flow of the hair from panel to panel as a kind of architectural melodic line. As Mies van der Rohe, the spiritual father of modernism, said, “God is in the details.”
The house’s current owners say the house has a kind of “serene energy” that they’ve fallen in love with. They’ve also learned an inconvenient truth: Midcentury modern homes demand a lot of maintenance; the slightest incursion of shabbiness stands out like an indictment. A few of those horsehair panels have broken, and the owners have been working for several years to find a craftsman who can fabricate replacements. The devil, too, is in the details.
Architect: Architect: Kirtland Cutter
1204 Minor Avenue, First Hill
Year Built: 1899–1901
Like most architects of his time, Kirtland Cutter maintained a wardrobe of picturesque styles that he rotated, project to project, and frequently mixed in the same building (with mixed results). For Seattle timber magnate C. D. Stimson, Cutter selected the half-timbered Tudor style that looked far back to medieval England, but was just beginning a popular revival in the United States. Outside, the 10,000-square-foot mansion’s bulk is broken down by the delicate geometry of porches, dormers, and window bays. Inside is a cavalcade of fine millwork and exotic theme decoration, all the way up to lions and dragons guarding the living room fireplace.
Its First Hill neighborhood was the first “suburban” retreat from downtown Seattle for the city’s wealthy, but its 40-odd mansions were razed surprisingly quickly in favor of hospitals and high-rise apartments. Stimson-Green is one of a bare handful to survive into the twenty-first century. The Joshua Green family kept it as a private residence until 1975, after which it passed through the hands of Historic Seattle and the Stimsons’ granddaughter Patsy Collins, then finally to the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation. Many rooms remain in near-original condition, and the house is open by appointment for tours and events.
Pierre Ferry Residence
Architects: John Graham Sr. and Alfred Bodley
Year Built: 1904–07
The Arts and Crafts movement arose in England in the late nineteenth century in reaction to anonymous, mass-produced goods of indifferent quality—sound familiar? It migrated to the Pacific Northwest in the early twentieth century, finding expression in a wide range of handcrafted home furnishings, decorations, and architecture. Seattle’s wealth of bungalows arose out of the Arts and Crafts movement, and so did a few of its mansions.
For the Pierre Ferry residence, British-born architect John Graham Sr. fashioned a stucco-clad exterior inspired by the English country manors of Charles Voysey and Baillie Scott. For the interior, Alfred Bodley, who briefly associated with Graham, commissioned a swarm of craftsmen to execute fine details such as an iridescent glass-mosaic fireplace surround and intricate hand-carved woodwork. Graham went on to bigger things, literally—he designed many of downtown Seattle’s most important commercial buildings. But the Ferry residence, still maintained as a private home, is considered the finest expression of the Arts and Crafts philosophy in the city.
Ellsworth Storey Houses
Architect: Ellsworth Storey
Year Built: 1903–05
Very little architecture in early-twentieth-century Seattle wore any regional character or personal imprint of the designer. It was a masked ball of standardized revival styles: a Tudor on this corner, neoclassical over there. But one architect, Ellsworth Storey, newly arrived from Chicago in 1903, demonstrated an embryonic direction with his first work in his adopted city.
Storey designed this pair of houses in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood for himself and his parents, and they look like none of their contemporaries. Storey had taken the Grand Tour of Europe, and there’s an obvious echo of Swiss chalet in these houses—but it’s stripped down, desentimentalized, modernized. There’s also a tingle of the Prairie style that Frank Lloyd Wright was then exploring, and a touch of the Arts and Crafts movement. Storey was trying to integrate all these into a regional vocabulary. We can also read his interest in a Seattle-appropriate architecture in the all-native wood, river rock, and generous window area, luring in a lot of the reluctant winter light.
Storey never took the radical path out of the historical vocabulary that these first houses suggested he might, but his work continued to be more personalized and creative than most of his contemporaries. He was Seattle’s first regionalist.