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.”