Greatest Homes-Tracy

Tracy Residence, 1955

Tracy Residence
Architect: Frank Lloyd Wright
Normandy Park
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 

Greatest Homes-Lake Union Floating Home 1

Lake Union Floating Home, 2002, Interior

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.

Greatest Homes-Lake Union Floating Home 2

Lake Union Floating Home, 2002, Exterior

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.”

Greatest Homes-Studio

Studio House, 1993–98

Studio House
Architect: Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects
North Seattle

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.  

Greatest Homes-Dowell

Dowell Residence, 1954

Dowell Residence
Architect: Architect: Paul Hayden Kirk
Seward Park
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.