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Fall Home Design

A Box of Color

Skyscraper, Homestyle

Courtyard Woodland

Downtown Oasis


In the Mountain Mood

Downtown Oasis

From high in an historic urban building,
a busy couple create a sense of serenity

Steven Hensel designed a metal screen (right) to visually separate the bed and living area. The screen and gauzy draperies soften the light while maintaining an airy and open feeling. An Asian screen is above the bed.
It seems incongruous to find tranquility at the center of Seattle's retail district. But with the help of designer Steven Hensel, a Seattle couple who work downtown have found that in a landmark office building.

The Seaboard Building was designed by William D. Van Siclen and began its service as the headquarters of the Northern Bank & Trust Co. Planned as early as 1906 and completed in 1909, this 10-story, trapezoidal building responds to the converging angles of Westlake and Fourth avenues. It was one of the earliest substantial office buildings at that end of downtown and reflected the community's confidence in the expansion of commercial and banking activity north and east from lower Second Avenue — the acknowledged headquarters of major banks at the time. While the base of the building and its interiors have been significantly altered, the entablature and cornice at the top of the building boast some of the most elaborate terra-cotta ornament in Seattle, replete with vines, flowers, oval shields, garlands, swags and lion heads.

While the ground floor of the Seaboard Building has changed frequently with shifts in the retail industry, the upper floors retain some of the most flamboyant terra-cotta cornices in all of downtown. Shields, garlands and lions abound.
Nearly a century old, the building is a designated City of Seattle landmark. During the past year, the architectural firm of NBBJ has been responsible for transforming it from strictly office space to one that houses residences on the 7th through 10th floors, with a new penthouse above. As part of the conversion, the light well facing onto an alley was filled in to expand the amount of office and residential space in the building. It is 10 floors up, at the top of this new fill-in, that H.S. Wright III and Kate Janeway have found their retreat.

Just as the building is a marriage of turn-of-the-century design and new technology, so, too, is the apartment a marriage of antique furniture and modern art, reflecting the collecting urges of the owners. Their long-term home is in Merrill Court, an award-winning townhouse development designed by Seattle architect Ibsen Nelsen to be a good neighbor to the significant architecture of the Harvard Belmont Historic District on north Capitol Hill.

Steven Hensel took his inspiration from the décor Wright and Janeway had in that home as he developed his ideas for this downtown aerie to be used as a retreat from their offices nearby. Wright says, "My wife and I work full-time downtown. We are active and engaged in our children's lives and school and so on. This is a nice refuge."

Hensel used a natural palette of sage, bronze, copper and gold throughout the studio. An eclectic group of Asian antiques complements a comfortable mohair-upholstered sofa and contemporary furnishings.
For Wright, in particular, the city views out the window are a continual reminder of the family construction business started in 1885 by his great-grandfather, Howard S. Wright. That company was responsible for many of the high-rise buildings downtown along with others, such as the Space Needle, just a Monorail ride away.

For Hensel, who typically works a year or two on a design project, this was fast-paced, taking only about five months. But he was intrigued with the Seaboard Building and its conversion, recalling that nearly 20 years ago, he did a brief stint in the credit department when Nordstrom had its offices in the building.

The conversion of its upper floors offered opportunities for varied treatments. Some units have brick walls, some have fireplaces, some have higher ceilings. While all the units have dramatic outlooks on the city, the one Wright and Janeway chose — on the alley — was quite small but removed from the traffic. The 10th floor was also the only one with 14-foot, 4-inch ceilings, giving the designer an unusual volume of space to work with. The filled-in space also created unusual wall angles. The quirkiness of those heights and angles challenged Hensel to explore the opportunity to play with transparency — light, form and shadow. In general, he steered clear of opaque, solid pieces whenever possible.

"It's all about looking through layers," says the designer. "Nothing really stops the eye." He points to the woven mesh screen that visually separates the entry hall from the kitchen, the translucent screen that sets the bed apart from the sitting area, and the gauzy draperies that screen and soften the light and views out the windows. Even the lighting fixtures, made of paper, are delicate kinetic sculptures — wall-mounted sconces by Flos from Sweden and a Niguchi lamp designed for Itari that helps to fill the loft-like space.

The color palette and the furniture were all chosen with an eye toward a tranquil experience. Because it was such a small area — approximately 850 square feet — the designer decided not to treat the spaces differently so there would be no jarring change from place to place. The palette evolved from a desire to have a place in the city that still relates to nature — sage walls and draperies and cherry flooring. Antiques and new furniture create an eclectic look that avoids the feeling of being overly designed. "Howard and Kate wanted an oasis from the frenetic pace of life they live," says Hensel. "This provides it."

Lawrence Kreisman is program director for Historic Seattle and author of "Made to Last: Historic Preservation in Seattle and King County." Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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