By Robert Winter | Photos by John Granen
Set in an old residential neighborhood near Kirkland’s town center, the Chavez House is perched on the side of a bluff that looks out on Lake Washington and the skyline of Seattle. Even though suburban and fairly new (2001), it looks back in style to the early twentieth-century woodsiness represented in the work of the Seattle architects Ellsworth Storey and Andrew Willatzen. Its architect, Curtis Gelotte, a graduate of the architectural school at the University of Washington, designed a house that harmonizes with the forest of Douglas fir trees on the shore of Lake Washington rather than contrasting with its surroundings as most modern architecture does.
Playing up to nature in its rusticity, it is associated with a search for the simplification of life, which was the heart of the North American Arts & Crafts movement that flourished in the period 1900 to 1920. As with many houses being built today, it marks the revival not only of a style of that era but also a revival of the ideas that moved the Arts & Crafts, suggesting that those ideas are, with some reconfiguring, as relevant today as they were when first presented. This new old house is, like the older Arts & Crafts houses, a critique of modern society. With all its gadgets and clever novelties, it is nevertheless anti-modern. It has a view of Seattle, but it is symbolically removed from the bustle of urbanity while enjoying the city’s many civilized gifts.
A closer look at the first Arts & Crafts movement reveals many parallels with the second. Both were conceived in times of social, economic, and even political distress. By the middle of the nineteenth century the industrialization of Western Europe and North America had not fulfilled the hopes that it would provide abundance for everyone.
Those most critical of the Industrial Revolution, and the lackings that remained in society, eloquently expressed ideas that troubled even the captains of industry. Industrialization had not alleviated the burden of the poor and it created an assembly line that forced an end to handcrafted work.
This minority report became manifest in the thoughts and actions of William Morris (1834-1896), the acknowledged father of the Arts & Crafts movement. He was the son of a London stockbroker whose fortune allowed Morris to lead a life of inconsistency, ambiguity, and enigma. He ran his Morris and Company, a band of workers who revived the handcrafts, on strictly capitalist principles with an eye toward preindustrial beliefs. His writings show his fondness for antiquated society, before capitalism came on the scene.
We know what he liked, but curiously he says very little about the architecture of his contemporaries. Significantly a number of architects were in his immediate circle, and they were under the influence of Morris in their appreciation of vernacular architecture and its somewhat bland simplicity. In fact, there was a large school of architects designing houses with high peaked roofs and unornamented façades. It was a style that they called “Old English.”
At the same time that a small but influential group of English architects was seeking a simple domestic architecture, American architects, affected by the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, found in the American shingled houses of the seventeenth century, an inspiration toward the simplicity of the vernacular. What emerged was what the architectural historian Vincent Scully, Jr. has called the Shingle style. American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and the brothers Charles and Henry Greene tapped Japanese, Tudor, and Swiss sources which offered a model of simplicity and the use of large amounts of wood, better harmonized with the natural environment.
The present strength of that revival and the tenacity with which its adherents hold to it is remarkable, as is the fact that it has not only held on longer than the original Arts & Crafts Movement but that it seems to be gaining strength. The Chavez House is a product of that revival, but what does it, and in fact the popularity of all the crafts, both old and new, say about our perception of the world around us?
Reflections on Modern Society
It is dangerous to make generalizations about our own day, but it may be significant that the resurgence of interest in the Arts & Crafts occurred precisely at a time when again a sense of things out of control troubled many perceptive minds. It is at least worth thinking about that the resurgence of the Arts & Crafts movement in our day occurred at exactly the time of the Vietnam War (1961-75) when a segment of American society believed that “the military-industrial complex” was at the root of all evil. The idea of simplicity so valued by William Morris and his circle stood for order in a world whose complexity was incomprehensible. Furthermore, we have not yet recovered from Vietnam. In fact, as each day brings more problems, the “Epoch of Rest” that Morris predicted in his utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1890), seems ever more desirable.
The revival in the 1960s and 1970s was accompanied by a renewed interest in William Morris himself. E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary came out in 1955, well before the Vietnam War had become anything more than a terrible French imperial venture. But as the war broadened to involve the United States and the protests against it mounted, a mood of anxiety and depression swept America and Western Europe. It is of some significance that in 1967 three books on Morris appeared-Philip Henderson’s William Morris: His Life, Work and Friends; Paul Thompson’s The Work of William Morris, and Ray Watkinson’s William Morris as Designer. The Henderson book even has a foreword by the architectural historian Allan Temko, which alludes directly to the relevance of Morris to young people marching “in behalf of peace.”
Interpretation of the Past
Gelotte is most certainly aware of the relation of his building to William Morris’s ideas; there are important parallels demonstrated in the house and its siting. Like Morris’s Red House, it is suburban-in a residential district only a few miles from Seattle, yet, set on a lake, it seems remote from the problems of the city, like Morris’s beloved Kelmscott Manor. The Chavez House further reflects Morris’s ideas as they were interpreted by the American Arts & Crafts movement. The rear of the house steps down the side of a hill above Lake Washington and exhibits three tiers of spectacular wood and shingle supports stained gray, literally a cascade of Tinker Toys. The trim of the roof, gabled like Julia Morgan’s Thomas house in Berkeley, is stained a dark brown as in the architecture of the Pasadena architects Charles and Henry Greene. And, of course, the whole rustic ensemble fits into the Douglas fir forest that the house overlooks.
Following the Craftsman ideal of harmony of house with nature, Douglas fir predominates in the interior woodwork, reflecting the distant view and also the nearby planting designed by the landscape architect Dan Webb. The maple, oak, and walnut floors in various parts of the building continue the wood motif. On the top floor, the living room, dining room, and kitchen all have skylights that allow light to penetrate what would otherwise be gloomy interiors, the great drawback of a typical Craftsman house. Needless to say, they are necessary where Washington mist is a frequent visitor.
The fixtures chosen by Seattle interior designer Hilary Young are simple in their rendering, though clearly they are beholden to the Asian designs of Charles and Henry Greene. Tradition is upheld without copying. Likewise, the furniture, though some of it is inspired by the work of Gustav Stickley, is characterized by its simplicity and function rather than its style. Only the art-glass doors on the storage spaces in the living room and the cabinets over the sideboard in the dining room show any tendency toward copying the imagery of the earlier movement.
Anyone examining the floor plan will notice that the route from the kitchen to the dining room necessitates going through the length of the living room. At first this seems odd until you realize that the Chavezes usually eat their meals in the breakfast nook. The kitchen also is handy to the deck area. Otherwise the kitchen, except for the woodwork, which in an old Craftsman house would be painted white or some other light color, is true to the function of its predecessor in that it has every gadget and convenience that the homemaker could desire.
As in old Arts & Crafts houses, the fireplace in the living room is absolutely necessary. Of course the house has central heating since the fireplace is an extremely inefficient method of warming a building, but it retains its symbolism as the home’s warm heart around which the family can gather on cold winter evenings. Amusingly, a television set is hidden in a corner window seat nearby. Press a button and it will rise up out of the woodwork to provide a modern and more realistic family center. In spite of many modernisms, everything comes together to preserve ancient human values.
There is much of the past in the present, but obviously the architect has taken liberties with the Arts & Crafts tradition. History never exactly repeats itself. The Chavez House has a large front porch, but we suspect that only rarely does anyone sit on it to watch the passing traffic as was done in the old days. Following modern practice, the house looks inward, then outward again to the back porch. Significantly the deck at the sides and rear of the house comprises about a third of the top floor. From it the Chavez family and their guests can view the broad sweep of nature. The historic Arts & Crafts house has been updated, but it retains the look of home, a refuge from the world.
Robert Winter is an architectural historian and author of Craftsman Style (Abrams 2004).Published in: New Old House Winter 2005