Gordon Walker designs an island home for books and big views
In Seattle, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell live in a 100-year-old house, yet their Whidbey Island home is all trim-free, modernist geometry.
AS CO-ARTISTIC directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Francia Russell and Kent Stowell treasured time away from the city. After searching for a place on Whidbey Island for six years, in 1986 they bought an old farmhouse on a southwest-facing bluff. Their weekend retreat was the original house in what is now Useless Bay Golf Colony.
The 1930s house "suited our family just fine for years," says Russell. Yet it was dark and cramped and offered only wisps of view out the old windows. So in 2005, as they neared retirement from the ballet, the couple decided it was time to build a new house. They gave the old place to Goosefoot, a local organization that saves historic houses by moving them to new locations.
Russell and Stowell turned to architect Gordon Walker, with whom they'd enjoyed a rich collaboration on two dance facilities. "He knew us so well, and understood we wanted the house to be about books and music," says Russell. "We told Gordon that we wanted one big room with a kitchen at one end," adds Stowell, who, along with their restaurateur son, Ethan Stowell, is the cook in the family.
What sleight-of-hand did Walker perform to design a house that appears strikingly tall from the street, yet spreads open horizontally once you're inside? The main floor is a wide stretch of windows and glass doors that frames one of the most glorious views on the island. "Somehow Gordon made the view bigger than if you stand on the bluff," Stowell says. Walker turned the house 11 degrees both to create privacy from neighbors and to take full advantage of the view. Then he repeated that angle throughout the house, to the consternation of the carpenters.
Step out the glass doors onto the deck, and you're looking over marshes and wetlands, at eagles soaring. Beyond the wetlands is a spit of land thick with houses that light up the view after dark. Useless Bay, so called because moored boats are left high and dry when the tide goes out, stretches beyond the spit. The Olympic range and Mount Rainier dominate the skyline.
With a view like that, Walker kept the rest simple. The house has 2,200 square feet. Every room has built-in cabinetry and shelving. Furnishings are sleek, floors are pale wood, rugs are colorful, walls are white or dove gray.
They've kept it simple outside, too. The deck spans the entire space between house and bluff. "There's never a boring moment out here," says Russell of the radiant sunrises and sunsets. Tankers steam past, and the wetlands are constantly changing with the tides and seasons.
On the street side, landscape architect Tom Berger designed a horseshoe of white birches with a small grove of katsura trees for fall color. The couple worked with local designer Doug Kirk to fill in the landscape with drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plantings, set off by a metal sculpture by Colin Flanagan.
In Seattle, Stowell and Russell live in a 100-year-old house, yet their island home is all trim-free, modernist geometry. "We trusted Gordon in a diabolical way," says Stowell with a laugh. "We love the space and openness of this house. Like in ballet and painting, it's the empty space that makes it work."
And how did Walker persuade them to go with a contemporary house?
"I believe we arrived at that decision over a couple of bottles of wine."
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.