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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Northwest Living Valerie Easton

Here To Stay

In open, warm rooms, it's easy to imagine living large and long

You wouldn't expect a home its owners call "our cemetery house" to be quietly sophisticated and warmly welcoming. Ellyn Thoreen and Terry Benham so love the house her brother Robert Jones designed that they plan to stay put until their dying days. Hence the misleadingly gloomy name for their small home in the middle of a pasture on Camano Island.

After their children left home, the couple was ready to move from a house that Thoreen describes as a "big, big, three-story." Thoreen had no ambition to build a house. But Benham loved these five acres, and it was a plus that Jones' and Thoreen's sister lives on the adjoining property. Now the couple's pastoral view includes her sister's barn and the rescued horses she keeps.

As luck would have it, Jones was suddenly available to design the house. He'd left architecture nearly 20 years ago to join partner Dan Hinkley in running world-renowned Heronswood Nursery. When the nursery was precipitously closed down in May of 2006, Jones was ready to pick up his pencil and return to his profession. It didn't hurt that he was coming off a big spread in Martha Stewart Living magazine featuring the home he'd designed for Hinkley and himself a year earlier.

What is it like to have your brother design your house? "He was so lovely," says Thoreen. The family grew up in Stanwood on Camano Island, so the project was a homecoming of sorts. Their harmonious collaboration, aided by contractor Lloyd Construction from Mount Vernon, resulted in a home that's an inspired blend of Asian and Northwest coast Indian influences.

Yet the siblings had their differences along the way. Thoreen didn't want an open kitchen, but Jones convinced her that a great room would make the best use of limited space. Now she loves her kitchen, where she can both enjoy the fireplace and see out the great room's windows as she works at the kitchen island. Thoreen hasn't found any drawbacks to one large living space. "We can have two or 35 people here for a party, and it works beautifully," she says.

At 2,300 square feet, the home lives large because of high ceilings, wide windows and multiple glass doors. There are few hallways and no dead ends; instead the home's circulation pattern is two loops that lead off the great room. Opaque double glass doors open to the master bedroom, bath and meditation room on one side of the home, and to the guest suite on the other.

"We have five kids between us," says Thoreen, pointing out the private guest suite that doubles as her office, and the built-in, cushioned window seats that transform into beds. Built-in shelves beneath the windows display her collections. She holds up a curious white chip that turns out to be a halibut ear bone, just one of many treasures including shells, baskets and glass floats. The warm, rich tones of teak floors, cherry cabinetry and fir trim and ceiling complement her nature-based collections and Asian furnishings.

There's wheelchair access to the showers, in keeping with the couple's desire to stay put in this house forever. "It's simple, small and suits us perfectly. And I love that it has such heart and soul," says Thoreen.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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