OH, IT’S PLENTY MANLY, what with the poker table and the humidor and the 10-foot rear-projection television screen. You’d have to reproduce asexually to miss the testosterone-laden vibe as soon as you walk through the electronically locked door. No, what makes “man cave” a misnomer is that this distinctly dudelike hangout is hardly the dark, claustrophobic hideaway that name suggests. Where other men would have burrowed underground to hide from their work and wife, Brad Harlow went up. And when he had finished building, he could look out over Lake Washington in a three-story monument to masculinity.
The second thing you need to know is that it wasn’t his idea. None of it was. Brad just wanted a place to close business deals, a well-appointed work space above the detached garage that sits behind the Kirkland home he shares with his wife, Alison. But he might not have even gone that far if she hadn’t insisted that he man up. You’re the chairman of a lending company and the president of a medical technology developer, Alison admonished him. You broker multimillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions, for crying out loud, and you’re folding yourself into a 90-square-foot office on the main floor of our house. She was through watching him tend to everyone else’s needs—they’d converted half of their home’s lower level into an art studio and office for her—while he denied himself a decent place to park a desk.
Brad finally caved—metaphorically—last February. He consulted an architect and then drew up the plans himself: one floor above the garage, 400 square feet, done. He submitted the blueprints to the county, applied for a permit. Denied. You can’t build that garage any taller because you’re too close to the park next door, the county told him. But it was too late; Brad had let his manly side out of its cage, and it wanted to build. Fine, he said, I’ll just tear the whole thing down, move it five feet to the east, and build it there. And it was right about then that Matt Hampton, of OneSource Remodeling, tapped Brad on the shoulder and whispered, You know, if you’re going to build one story, you might as well build two….
That’s how Brad Harlow’s man cave grew into a 1,400-square-foot mansion. (The couple’s home, by the way, is a comparatively modest 3,000 square feet.) How it became what he calls the Garage Mahal is another story entirely, one that might be titled “If You Say So.” As each contractor came to him with a question (What kind of wood do you want for the cabinets? Do you want a half bath or full?), Brad cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said, What do you think I should do? And when they offered up their recommendations, he cocked his head again, shrugged, and said, If that’s what you think, let’s do it. “In business, I’m really tough,” Brad says as he admires his view of Mount Rainier from the third-story sitting area. “But when it comes to my personal life, I don’t care. My wife dresses me. I’d be in a T-shirt and jeans every day if she didn’t put something out for me.”
Alison wanted rich, dark hardwood floors throughout, providing a masculine contrast to the sky blues and jade greens of her original encaustic art pieces that hang everywhere. If you say so, Brad said. Hampton suggested finishing the second floor’s main support column and wet bar and the heated cigar deck on the third floor with the same heavily grained, dark Brazilian tiger wood he’d used to build a deck on the Harlows’ home three years before. If you say so, Brad said. When Brad actually piped up with a specific request—he wanted to mount a 60-inch flat-panel TV on a second-floor wall—he got shot down. Hell no, said Alison, and Ryan Welch, of Magnolia Audio Video. A fixed display would obscure the artfully rusting, iron-based paint Alison had rolled onto that wall, so why not install a 119-inch motorized projection screen that would retract into the ceiling? He cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders, and said, If that’s what I should do, that’s what I should do. Even the pool table that Brad was so jazzed to pull out of storage and install in his new retreat has been temporarily transformed into a ping-pong table because that’s what the kids preferred.
Obsess about the design decisions and the decision makers, and you could fool yourself into believing that Brad’s Garage Mahal is an impersonal playhouse, just another well-funded experiment in groupthink construction with no real connection to the man who conceived it. But the contented smile that creeps across his face as he sinks into a squash-colored leather couch (which Alison picked out) and turns on his stereo from an iPhone app (which Welch suggested) says something else. It says he got just what he wanted; he doesn’t have to rent a high-priced hotel room to entertain clients anymore. More importantly, it says sometimes a man doesn’t need to thump his chest and exert dominance to get what he wants. Sometimes he just needs an idea and the confidence to let someone else make it happen.