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Spring Home Design
Seamless Sweep

A Bridge Between Worlds

An Accessible Aesthetic

Modulated and Modern




The staircase leading to the second level is maple with honed black-granite inserts and steel railing.
Val Thomas and Tripp Hunter moved a year ago. Friends and acquaintances questioned how they could leave the seemingly ideal home that architect-developer Thomas had carved from the auditorium of historic West Queen Anne School.

That building had been converted to residences in 1984 by the firm of Cardwell/Thomas. At the time, it was the largest privately financed rehabilitation and reuse project of its type in the Northwest, and became a national model for salvaging surplus schools. Thomas tapped the auditorium for himself, turning it into a dramatic two-story-high living room with French doors on either side leading to terraces where he could cater to a growing bonsai collection.

The centerpiece of the house is a 20-foot-high atrium that serves as dining and music room. The skyline and Elliott Bay are a constant presence.

But a dowdy 1960s brick house nearby enticed him. It had great possibilities, given its views of the city and Elliott Bay. In shaping their new home, Thomas and Hunter took their lessons from what had worked best in the old. Thomas says, "We loved everything about the auditorium - the high volume, relatively undivided space, the outdoor spaces and the privacy. But it didn't have great views. We wanted to have the same sense of space here - not a bunch of separate rooms but areas that blend into each other. The classic atrium is a hard thing to improve upon."

Their new house has an orientation similar to the old one, with a central north/south, two-story space that serves as stair hall, dining and music room. A secondary east/west axis connects formal and informal living areas and kitchen. The bedrooms, bath and home office are above these. French doors open to view terraces on both the main and second floors and shutters open from upstairs rooms to the atrium. The ground floor includes an apartment, a project room with doors out to the garden, and the garage.

In order to break up the mass of the facade, Thomas designed balconies, decorative brackets and a trellis for climbing hydrangea.

Transforming the house required major reconstruction, partly because the slightly sloped second story had such low ceilings - barely 8 feet high. In the remodel, they raised the ceiling height to a generous 9 feet. "We didn't increase the square footage," says Thomas, "but gained height." Each floor now has about 1,700 square feet of space. Ray Johnston of Johnston Architects turned Thomas' design ideas into working drawings.

The brick and cement plaster facade is prominent from the street. To fit it into the neighborhood of older homes and break up the mass of the street facade, Thomas designed black steel balconies off upper-floor windows and coupled decorative brackets below the cornice. In the middle, wood rafters support a trellis that carries climbing hydrangea. Newly planted shrubs will eventually fill in the spaces between concrete posts to form a hedge fence. Old lilacs and existing ground plantings have been kept.

The rear of the house is transparent to take advantage of city and water views.

Inside, the living spaces flow together, separated visually by slender columns with decorative metal capitals that frame the portals. The most dramatic space is the 20-foot-high atrium with its cove lighting and skylight. The star of the space is an ebony grand piano. "Having space for a piano with good sound has always been a key priority for me," says Thomas. "It's not quite the same as the auditorium, which had perfect acoustics. This is slightly too alive."

The south side of the house is transparent. With two full-length terraces, this side evokes the character of a contemporary Mediterranean. Tall glass doors slide open to extend the atrium outside.

In the master bathroom, cherry cabinets complement honed black-granite counters and plated fixtures. Travertine covers all walls and floors, and the floors are heated. The shower design required no enclosure.

The atrium is also the main dining room, bridging the more formal living room, which Thomas equates to a parlor, and the informal living area and kitchen, which he thinks of as a great room. Both he and his partner like to cook. "When we are here, people come in to sit. The kitchen accommodates lots of people as a gathering place."

The rooms are tied together with the same palette of materials - Mexican travertine and maple for floors, cherry and maple for cabinets, steel for railings and trim, and honed granite for counters.

In good weather, they use the terrace off the informal living area as their dining room. "The number of days we can actually open these doors all the way turned out to be quite a lot."

Counterpoint to the north/south axis of the atrium is the east/west axis of the informal and formal living areas. Lower ceilings in these spaces make them more intimate conversation places.

From their perch, they enjoy a view of the skyline filtered through tall cedars and a monumental copper beech. The backyard has become another great room that displays nearly 60 bonsai. From the dining terrace looking out at the city and the garden, Thomas reflects, "From here you can feel part of the out-of-doors. It is great to sit out here on long summer evenings."

Lawrence Kreisman is program director for Historic Seattle. He serves on the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board and is author of "Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County."

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