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Originally published March 9, 2010 at 8:55 PM | Page modified March 10, 2010 at 11:50 AM

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Can historic home in Normandy Park be saved?

A beachfront residence designed by Seattle's Paul Thiry, known as the "father of Northwest modernism," may be soon destroyed if a buyer is not found. The unique home — built in 1962, the year of the Seattle World's Fair, for which Thiry was principal architect — is a massive, concrete behemoth that needs someone able to pay the $240,000 necessary to move it to another waterfront property.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993)

"Father of Northwest modernism"

THE PRINCIPAL ARCHITECT for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, Thiry designed the home at Normandy Park and a number of other well-known structures in the Puget Sound area.

The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI): Seattle, 1950.

The Frye Art Museum: Seattle, 1952.

Washington State Library: Olympia, 1959.

Mercer Island Presbyterian Church: Mercer Island, 1961.

St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church: Seattle, 1962.

World's Fair 21st Century Exposition: Seattle, 1962, including what is now KeyArena.

Source: DOCOMOMO WEWA

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Looking back on their childhood, sisters Lisa Polec and Christine Marshall recall the Puget Sound panoramas and dazzling sunsets visible through the expansive living-room windows of their hulking Normandy Park home.

During big winter storms, high tide would envelop the beachfront house like a moat. "It kept us really close to nature," said Polec, now a Seattle chiropractor. "I remember always going to sleep with the waves lapping on the beach. And because there wasn't any attic, when it rained on that house, it had the most beautiful sound."

It breaks the sisters' hearts, then, to know that their childhood home — designed by Paul Thiry, the so-called "father of Northwest modernism" — risks being destroyed unless someone steps forward — probably within days — to claim it for its $1 price tag. The current owners, who live next door, have other plans for the site.

"It's going to be a shame if it doesn't get saved by somebody," said Jeff McCord, Seattle representative for house-moving outfit Nickel Bros. of Everett. And therein lies the real cost: relocating the 200-ton, concrete-reinforced behemoth to another Puget Sound site would run about $240,000, he said.

The five-bedroom residence was built in 1962, the same year as the Seattle World's Fair, where Thiry was lead architect. And with its top floor jutting dramatically over the water, the home has inspired much love among preservationists, architects and others.

"Raised up on concrete legs, the house... has a sculptured form that almost suggests a gull poised for flight," wrote Sunset magazine, which put the home on the cover of its April 1967 issue. Saving it, though, won't be easy: Efforts have been under way since last fall, and potential buyers have come and gone. The problem: The house is so big that moving it anywhere but by barge to another waterfront property would be near impossible.

The home is 70 feet long and 32 feet wide with eaves adding six more feet on each side, too big for most residential lots, not to mention the task of negotiating a house that's twice as heavy as your typical, two-story Craftsman through city streets lined with street signs, phone wires and other obstacles.

Since last fall, house-mover McCord has been working with groups such as the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Historic Seattle and an organization named DOCOMOMO WEWA to find potential buyers. "The economy has made it difficult," he said. "That's the challenge — finding someone who loves the house and also has waterfront land they could move it to."

The current owners, who he said prefer to remain anonymous, would like to see the structure saved but have been waiting since last year to move forward with redevelopment plans. He would not say what those plans are, except that they do not include building a new house. Now the owners have told him that unless a buyer is found within the next week or so, demolition is their only option.

Says former resident Marshall, a Seattle nurse: "It's a really important house. It should be preserved."

Unique residence

Such a home could not be built today. Setback requirements deny such proximity to the water.

"When you sit in the living room, you almost feel as if you're afloat," said Chris Moore, field director for the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

Guest quarters and a laundry room anchor the first floor, but the major living area is upstairs. The home, according to the Sunset article, "has the snug feel of a ship: a comfortable haven when storms whip up Puget Sound and water pounds the rocks beneath the cantilevered living room."

"It's completely unique as a residence," said architectural preservationist Eugenia Woo of DOCOMOMO WEWA, or Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington.

Architect Thiry, who died in 1993 at age 89, designed the home when he was also charged with creating the 21st Century Exposition at the Seattle World's Fair, a project that would earn him a place in history. At the time, notions of futurism and technology had captured the public imagination.

"It's just a classic of that era," said realtor Tom Holst, who specializes in such homes. "There was a feeling in the 1950s of unlimited optimism for the future. People were trying new ideas."

Woo and Moore said that alone makes the home worth preserving. Its concrete form, glass expanses, teak cabinetry and Native American-style motif on stucco walls make it a record of Northwest modernism, which Thiry is credited with founding.

A University of Washington graduate, Thiry would produce a respected and influential body of work, including the original Museum of History & Industry, Frye Art Museum, Olympia's Washington State Library and buildings on the campuses of UW, Western Washington University and Portland's Lewis & Clark College.

Unfortunately, Moore noted, historically important buildings are often lost to development. "In this case, you've got a building that is prime waterfront, and the market has simply changed," he said.

Childhood residents Marshall and Polec lived in the home until they went away to college, and their widowed mother eventually parted with the place in the 1970s, unable to care for it alone. The next owner lived there until last year, when they sold it to the current owners.

Marshall, who now lives in Columbia City, hopes the home's "Jetsons"-like modernism can be preserved, if only as a window to another time. "It's a crime that we have places that are historic and we just tear them down because they don't fit with our lifestyle," she said.

Though geographically and figuratively far away, memories of her childhood there remain beloved. Sometimes it feels like a dream.

"It was really amazing. I just feel like I was blessed the first 17 years of my life."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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