Cover Story Plant Life Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


In Its Own Time
A fixer farmhouse is restored - one phase at a time

Dormer, balcony, bay window, deck, windows and stairways down to the back garden of this Seward Park house are new. The granite chimney is original.

"HORTICULTURALIST'S delight in Seward Park," the ad read. The two-story, cottage-style farmhouse was built around 1910, when farmsteads were commonplace in the district. Pete and Ann Holmes were attracted by the generous-size lots and street lined with towering trees — a leafy corridor in an otherwise urban maze.

While the trees were untouched old-timers, the farmhouse had been altered to reflect the styles of the 1950s and '60s. Original decorative moldings, oak floors and windows had been covered over or removed. In 1986, when the couple moved into the creaky, two-bedroom fixer, there was a big, '50s-style living-room picture window, pink interior paint and room partitions incorporating "a kind of Denny's-yellow glass," Pete recalls.

Shortly after they unpacked, the couple consulted architect Michael Shoffner. The house felt a bit squeezed at less than 1,800 square feet. They knew they'd eventually want a third bedroom and an extra bath. They also hoped to restore the house as much as possible to its period, and needed an experienced hand to make the disparate elements fit. Their simple plan turned into a 15-year restoration-remodel, with periodic help from Shoffner and an outcome that none of them imagined.

French doors open from the master bedroom onto a balcony overlooking the back garden. A red-blooming bougainvillea adds a dash of seasonal color to the ironwork.

As the project evolved, the Holmeses came to appreciate a less-is-more approach. Both are attorneys, and as their income grew to be more substantial, but they thought hard about what they would really be buying with a bigger house. Pete cites the book, "Your Money or Your Life," by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, as having a major impact on how they came to view money and time.

"In 1998, we had one set of exploratory plans showing a three-dormer expansion for a house about twice the size of the one we now have," Pete says. "We discussed loans, debt and the tradeoffs that come with all that. We figured out the dollar costs, the cost in time and inconvenience and so on." (They had two young children by this time.)

They did a reality check by looking for a similarly priced house that had the features they wanted, in a neighborhood they liked. "We confirmed our feelings that we were in the right place for us, with friends in the neighborhood, people who stop and talk about dogs or just ask how the garden is doing," Pete says.

"So I started photocopying and playing with Mike's plans. We thought we could keep it sub-jumbo, somehow, and find what was most important for us. This was a good opportunity for discussion in the family."

While the three-dormer plan was creative and attractive, Ann recalls, what they would have gained in house they would have lost in garden area. "This seems more in scale now," she says. And the single-dormer plan enabled Ann to quit her job, reassess her career goals and later go to work for a nonprofit organization.

The downstairs den opens onto a new deck, with stairs down to the back garden. The homeowners credit Masins interior designer Reine Eggleston for creating an overall atmosphere of relaxed refinement.
The living room has been opened to the den and dining room, with millwork and wall colors contributing to the sense of tranquility and spaciousness. The original fireplace in the living room has been replaced by a gas-fired one.

You'll still find towering firs on their 330-by-75-foot lot, but the old house is now dignified and inviting. New three-panel windows admit abundant light through wavy custom glass. Handsome interior archways define the new, opened-up dining room. (A wall and partitions were removed, rotten wood was replaced.) Trim work, including moldings, complements the original built-in bookcases and revamped fireplace downstairs, while the upstairs dormer adds welcome head room to the master bedroom.

The couple approached the remodel in three phases, starting with some basics. One of the first steps, back in the '80s, was to incorporate Shoffner's ingenious solution to route furnace ducting (the house had none) through decorative interior columns.

The cobblestone-and-granite-block foundation was replaced with concrete footings for stability. Next came new plumbing, updated wiring, a furnace, revamped laundry room and three-quarter bath in the basement. Pete and a friend got rid of an old single-car carport that blocked access to the back of the property, and together gutted the kitchen. The resulting galley-style kitchen has a venerable quality, though the only original part remaining is a light globe.

A bay window in the den, just off the living room, brings in light and adds character to the main floor. It also adds about 10 square feet to the house, virtually the only gain in square footage.

A second phase brought a new garage out back, an expanse of pavers between garage and house and a remodeled upstairs bath best described as cozy. The original claw-foot tub was restored and put back into use. A small sewing-room annex is used for storage; a folding ladder drops from the attic for access to more storage.

Solutions came in their own time. For example, the couple knew they wanted to remake the second bedroom into individual rooms for their daughter, Natalie, now 13, and son, Paul, 10. On the stair landing while puzzling over the matter, Pete noticed one offset door into the kids' bedroom needed another door for balance. Suddenly he saw how the one large room could be divided into two, with closets between. They consulted Shoffner, who made it work.

Passers-by can see no obvious sign of the extensive work that brought this early 1900s cottage back to life.

They're now past phase three, which included work on the exterior and the reconfigured bedroom. In the master bedroom, French doors and a just-installed wrought-iron balcony allow Pete and Ann to step out and enjoy those "horticultural delights."

They did seek out high-quality woodworking and tried to honor original styles. Sometimes that took some doing. Upstairs, Ann, then eight months' pregnant, removed six layers of wallpaper, with paint between, before discerning the shadow impression of the original milling design. Craftsmen were able to duplicate that trim, thanks to her detective work.

The sum of this experience may not sound like a schoolhouse of ideas, but that is what it became.

Natalie and Paul have lived all their lives with talk of paint and dormers, flooring and thermal-pane windows. And they've discovered how to work with their hands. Natalie, for example, learned at a very early age what it takes to restore an antique bathtub. Now, when they join their parents at the kitchen table to talk over major decisions, each can contribute from a relevant perspective.

"Ann and I have treated this as an ongoing lesson program," says Pete.

"That's what life is, isn't it? Every delay, problem or frustration on this project has been an opportunity for the family to investigate how it may have gone differently. We try to figure out how to avoid further mistakes or how to fix what's wrong. And we talk about what it's like to stick up for yourself while trying to get along with other people."

Phase four? Finally, some additional square footage: a guest suite and studio above the garage. Handy for when the children are a bit older.

One thing is for certain, Pete says. "This house won't have empty-nest syndrome. It's the right size. Not too big."

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Barry Wong is a staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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