Island Fantasy

With a little know-how (and many checklists), Denny and Holly Onslow found paradise.

By Roger Brooks December 27, 2008 Published in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Will Austin

DENNY AND HOLLY ONSLOW CHATTER chatter about their second home in rapid bursts, barely pausing to breathe as we motor a chartered boat toward Decatur Island. They speak through smiles, immune to the craft’s noxious gas fumes and roaring engine. As the island grows on the horizon, they’re practically bouncing on their bench. The Onslows are almost home.

Decatur Island sits approximately 15 miles west of Anacortes. No ferries dock there; the four-square-mile uprising of earth is accessible by private boat or via a tiny airport, which is nothing more than a sparse wooden control “tower” and a dirt clearing in a swath of Douglas firs. A small general store and a one-room school serve the 60 or so residents who live there year-round. The roads are gravel or dirt packed, all with their share of potholes and deer rummaging for food, and abandoned trucks littering the shoulder like artifacts. Raccoons and birds nest in their seats, and moss and grass grow on the hoods as though the island is reclaiming the spot their flat tires rest on. Phone service arrived in the ’70s. Some call the island more crude than quaint; the Onslows just call it paradise.

When Denny, a developer with Harbor Properties, and Holly, a self-employed interior designer, decided to augment their primary residence in Leschi with an island retreat almost 20 years ago, they weren’t sure how to go about choosing the right spot. They found the ferry traffic associated with Vashon and the San Juans off-putting, so a friend pointed them to little-visited Decatur Island. “We rented a boat and then biked around the island,” says Holly. They had trouble finding the parcel of land for sale—everywhere they looked they saw only dense forest. When they finally discerned what could be theirs, they were hooked. “We fell in love with it, but then we had to buy the land, build a house, buy a boat…” she trails off. The Onslows’ densely treed, 12-acre parcel sits high above an east-facing beach. Standing alongside the mammoth conifers Denny, a former civil engineer, formulated a mental blueprint for their new home. A follow-up visit, however, changed their plans. A violent storm had ripped across the island, felling hundreds of trees, including dozens on the Onslows’ property. “We were devastated,” Holly says. “But it actually opened up views from where we planned the house. We could never have cut them down ourselves, but now we get a lot of sunlight, which we love.” The couple had their land, and their clearing. What they didn’t have was a house. So the Onslows, both in their 40s at the time, built one. Just the two of them.

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Holly and Denny Onslow are quick to point out that they didn’t build their two-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot home all by themselves. They contracted crews to move the earth and prepare the area. From time to time they also roped in family and friends. “Occasionally people would pitch in, but, eventually, you wear them out,” Denny says. “We wanted to keep them as friends.” Save the steps that involved heavy machinery, though, Denny and Holly built their island home alone, down to the very last nail.

For most, building any house by hand is unthinkable. Building one on an island with few resources, where all supplies must be barged in once a month, is mind boggling. “The whole process seemed daunting at first,” Holly admits. “We were always having to plan on what to bring next week—always staying a step ahead. If Denny hadn’t been in the business it would have been next to impossible.”

The couple worked on the house on the weekends and when their schedules would allow. Denny stayed up on most nights before leaving Seattle, making list after list of the supplies they would need to make the next two days productive.

"The storm actually opened up views from where we planned the house. We could never have cut down the trees ourselves."

It all sounds romantic. And today, seeing the comfortably rustic orchard and barn overlooking the water below, it’s easy to get lost in the fantasy. But the couple’s idyll was nothing short of a nightmare at first. They began by constructing a tiny garden house. They had no water or electricity at the time. They toiled all day, cooked over a fire, and slept in a van at night. They turned the garden home into a part kitchen, part workspace, with a bed thrown above it in a cramped loft. In the beginning, victories were small and hard won. Denny and Holly celebrated when they put in the outhouse (and later when they were able to tear it down), but they still had no place to shower. They laid a garden hose out in the sun, which warmed the water inside enough for one (very quick) lukewarm scrub up. “We’d fight over who got the first shower,” Holly says. “We got so dirty.”

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Once the house was finished, and the landscaping, including the small orchard, was planted, the Onslows faced one more hurdle: The island deer, who face no active predators, kept devouring their plants. Denny saw a solution in the many felled firs that still littered their property. He took the trees to a local who owned a portable mill. “He showed me how to run it and then let me go at it. ‘You’ll get more satisfaction out of it if you do it yourself,’ he told me. He was right.” Denny returned home with enough posts to build a fence around the yard and orchard—the couple even spread the bark for mulch. “It’s the ultimate recycling,” Holly says. It’s also effective; deer no longer munch on their apples and daffodils.

Inside, the Onslows maximized the house’s limited footprint, providing ample entertaining space and private retreats for the Onslows and their guests. The kitchen, dining, and living areas blend to create one giant room emptying out onto the back porch. The area is flanked by mirroring bedroom suites below and two lofts above, which serve as sleeping quarters for the couple’s five grandchildren.

"We all take turns hosting dinner parties—as long as you bring a bottle of wine, you’re welcome."

Holly appointed the home with durable fabrics and materials—chenille, cotton, and other natural fibers that are easy to clean and won’t mildew when the house stands empty for long stretches during winter. For the same reason, she chose pine, granite, and limestone for the floors, walls, and counters. None of the materials is slab, however. It was far easier to transport cut tiles.

The friends and family who lent the occasional helping hand have returned to enjoy the home (the Onslows come most weekends in spring and summer and for an extended Christmas holiday stay). The couple has also formed bonds with other island dwellers, both part- and full-timers. “We all take turns hosting dinner parties—as long as you bring a bottle of wine, you’re welcome.” But it’s the time spent with their parents, daughters, and grandchildren that the Onslows cherish most. “It’s such a great place for children to come and explore,” Denny says. Holly’s parents visit often, even though her mother is terrified when traversing the sometimes stormy waters. Holly’s father’s deer antlers, which hung in her parents’ lake house for years, now rest above an alcove that looks out over the backyard. A telescope, a gift from Denny’s deceased father, sits poised to spy on the bald eagle’s nest atop a nearby fir. “They really loved watching us build this house,” Holly says. “It reminds us of the things our parents did for us.”

As I rush to catch the charter boat, Denny Onslow waves farewell, stopping at the stone gate that he and Holly built. He turns back toward the house to start his extended weekend, leaving the gate open, a sign to island friends that the Onslows are home again.