Architect Stephen Sullivan’s home of perfect imperfection
The home he first saw when he moved to Seattle many years ago turns out to be just the right place for a new beginning. “Here I’m learning about imperfection. I don’t need to make this house perfect,” he says.
Pacific NW associate editor
For architect Stephen Sullivan, the last stanza of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem “The Chambered Nautilus” best expresses his experience of living in a well-worn house: the process of renovation as a metaphor for growth.
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
Oliver Wendell Holmes
CAN A HOUSE capture your soul?
A case could be made.
From the moment Stephen Sullivan saw it, the hard-lived New England colonial revival on the northeast edge of Capitol Hill, he could not forget it. It was 1981 and the architect had just moved to Seattle from Boston, staying with friends across the street from the two-story gray box with a neoclassical porch.
The years passed. Sullivan busied himself with a prominent and large architecture firm, his marriage, his daughters. But things change. Sullivan’s marriage was ending. His daughters were grown. And on his 61st birthday he woke up, wrote a letter and quit the firm.
“I was looking for a place to live, and I drove by the house,” Sullivan says over green tea poured into earthenware cups he made himself. “The very next week, it was up for sale. I got it.”
Certainly the architect could design for himself any type of house he wanted. Except for one, an old house. This house. “What can I say? I love old houses.” Where another potential buyer saw a tired scraper, Sullivan saw history, raw space, New England (he’s from Andover), Italy, potential. And with that, personal growth.
“I love the concept of palimpsest, scraping away and seeing the layers of what came previously. I do things done all the time. I do things done to the nth degree. Here I’m learning about imperfection. I don’t need to make this house perfect.”
Sullivan, the home’s third owner in its 97 years, bought it from the estate of Catherine McNutt Rooks. “Cappy” was well-known for her spirit of adventure (Motto: “Onward and upward!”) and love of gardening. “My daughter is a horticulturist; Mrs. McNutt was a gardener. Quill redid the front garden, adding four box hedges as focal points, but while honoring Mrs. McNutt.” And also Seattle’s second-oldest sycamore tree, 18 feet around, its branches spread over the house like an open hand.
After unpacking, the question became, “What do you do with this old carcass?”
Sullivan replaced the heating system, plumbing and wiring, cleaned out a former downstairs rental for his new design firm. Some places among the 3,500 square feet of space he peeled and pulled. Tearing back the wallpaper, he found color and texture, sort of wallpaper-glue frescoes. Pulling up urine-stained carpets he found fir floors. Conferring with contractor Jim Strode on budget vs. desire, they agreed that a cupola should immediately be cut into the roof over the stairs to add light.
Other places he let be. “I was going to blast that kitchen window out, but the longer I live here, I think, yeah, maybe I’ll keep that.” A piece of the exterior has been painted test-sample brown, but Sullivan now realizes that was a mistake, preferring the mottled gray shakes as is. Sure, there are plans for change: removing a few walls, taking out a tiny bedroom to add a bay to the lake out back, adding a pottery studio in the basement. Like that.
Inside his home there is room for both East Coast Stephen Sullivan (a life-size bust of Thomas Jefferson) and West Coast Stephen Sullivan (sitting on top of an old tansu).
“It’s all possibility,” Sullivan says. “I think of it as my Italian villa.”
Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific NW magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.