A Whidbey Island château would suit hobbits, too
Styled like a French country château, a Whidbey Island home features fine craftsmanship, soaring ceilings and enough nooks and crannies to make both princes and hobbits feel comfortable.
photographed by Benjamin Benschneider
PORTLAND ARCHITECT Jeffrey Miller fell in love with the wooded, waterfront site on Whidbey Island the moment he saw it. Facing west toward water and mountains, the property was thick with cedar, camellias and even one of the last stands of old-growth fir on the island. It's rumored that the famed Olmsted Brothers designed the landscape on one of their westward forays.
The couple who hired Miller to design them a new home on the secluded site relocated to Whidbey from a more remote island in the San Juans. On their way to and from the ferry in Anacortes, they'd noticed another house Miller had designed and decided to hire him for their project.
At first, the couple was so charmed by a 1940s cottage on their Whidbey property that they hoped to add a bedroom and call it good. Miller drew up several possible options for a remodel, but soon it became apparent that the ceilings were too low in the old house, the spaces cramped and dark, and it would be impossible to bring it up to code.
So the original house was torn down to make way for a cedar-and-stone French country château that looks centuries old. Despite the new home's soaring ceilings and impressive volume of space, its footprint is 3,300 square feet, exclusive of the stone terraces that stretch out into the landscape on all sides. It has only a single bedroom, plus sitting room and study. Langley's Flat Rock Productions was called in to design a generously scaled garage, topped by guest quarters, across the stone courtyard from the main house's entry.
It was contractor Dennis Kamera, of local Kamera & Gilles, who assembled the team of crafts people needed to create such a distinctive house. Kamera spent more than two years on site, supervising metalworkers, stonemasons, cabinetmakers, plasterers and other artisans.
"I designed in lots of corners to have as many outlooks as possible, which makes for a very complicated roofline," Miller says. "Then we left it all exposed so we can see what is happening underneath the roof." Jeff Hanson of Northwest Timber Frames did extraordinarily intricate work to frame in the ceilings with their vaulted webbing of beams.
The home is custom-beyond-custom, with white-oak ceiling beams imported from the East Coast and antique limestone fireplaces from France. The kitchen sinks are handcrafted of white bronze. Nooks, crannies and the shapes of certain rooms were planned to accommodate the couple's collection of antique furniture. Even the stove hood over the vast, cream-colored Aga is a one-off, crafted of iron with copper rivets.
"As we framed in the house, we realized how dark it was going to be," says Kamera, which is the downside of living in the midst of magnificent old trees. The design was altered to add skylights and larger windows, especially in the staircase, so the interior of the house is flooded with all the light that can penetrate the massive conifers.
A great many artisans contributed to the unique ambience and patina of a house both elegant and hobbit-like. Is it the forest setting, the home's stone facade or the delicious peaks and overhangs of its complex roofline that evoke Tolkien's classic tale? Maybe that's the ideal for a French-inspired country house nestled into a quintessential Northwest setting.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "The New Low-Maintenance Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.