Picking Seattle’s Greatest Homes

By Katherine Koberg December 23, 2011 Published in the January 2012 issue of Seattle Met

THE FIRST SLIDE WENT UP ON THE SCREEN: the George W. Ward Residence, an Italianate Victorian built in 1882, believed to be Seattle’s oldest extant house. Viewing the photo in the conference room at the Seattle Met offices were a half dozen of Seattle’s most notable experts on residential architecture. The group had been assembled by our cover story writer, architecture critic Lawrence W. Cheek, to help him select the 10 greatest homes in the city, based on nominations submitted earlier. We’d scheduled a two-hour luncheon on the one day in October when all six of these very knowledgeable people could convene at the same time.

Lengthy discussion ensued. The house—old, rare, well-restored after a close call with demolition and a last—minute rescue thanks to Historic Seattle—ranks high in Importance. Seattle’s Victorian housing stock, with its wooden turrets and curlicues, tall narrow windows and low-pitch roofs, has largely been lost to fire and the relentless march of development in the early 1900s, which makes the Ward house especially significant. But great? The two-story home with a tower over the front porch was constructed by a builder businessman, not a prominent architect, and was fairly typical of its era.

As the debate continued—What is greatness anyway? An important piece of history? An eye-popping luxury estate? A game-changing gem designed by a prominent architect?—I started to freak out. Some 20 minutes had elapsed and I despaired that setting aside a mere two hours for the jury process was a hideously shortsighted mistake. Uh, I ventured more than once, shall we move on to the next slide? At last, one house down, roughly 70 houses and 90 minutes to go.

The clock ticking away, we progressed through the decades, from the Tudor revivals of the early 1900s to the flowering of midcentury modern design to the city’s renowned architects practicing today. The homes built here are a profound response to and reflection of where we live. From the city’s earliest days, the preponderance of wood houses stemmed from easy and cheap access to timber. The eclectic mix of styles in some neighborhoods were introduced over time by new arrivals incorporating ideas from elsewhere. And lately, the city’s native architects are designing ever more stunning homes that honor indigenous materials and capture arresting views in all directions.

Thanks to this ad hoc assemblage of historians, architects, authors, and passionate devotees of Seattle home design, by the time lunch was over, we’d not only narrowed our list, but I’d gotten a crash course in city history all the way up to the present. You will, too.

Katherine Koberg
Editor in Chief

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