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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Hilltop Haven

On common ground, a vision for good living is clear

Architect Charles Anderson and his wife, Emily, an artist, live with their two children in the 60-acre Hilltop Community near Bellevue. The unincorporated area of 40 one-acre home sites with a common greenbelt was formed by progressive-thinking architects and their friends in 1948. They bought the land and drafted covenants that govern the enclave to this day.

Anderson, 49, founded Seattle-based Charles Anderson Architects in 1992 with an emphasis on residential design. He also is a lecturer at the University of Washington. Anderson grew up in Spokane, earned an undergraduate architecture degree from the UW and a master of architecture degree from Columbia University.

He has remodeled several of his neighbors' houses in Hilltop and regards living there as an integral part of who he is as an architect. We spoke recently at his home.

Q: Hilltop's founders had a vision but were certainly not elitists. How did they accomplish their goals?

A: They'd come out of the war and chose to live in a cooperative environment. If they'd all been millionaires, it never would have happened. Their circumstances reinforced cooperation: They couldn't afford to hire contractors with tractors, so they physically dragged rocks out of the communal playfield. The remarkable thing about this is it's still working — we follow the bylaws, take care of the land ourselves, follow a budget.

Q: Who are some of the architects represented here?

A: The founders were nearly all architects and university professors. Wendell Lovett did four houses. Fred Bassetti and Jack Morse had a firm together in the early 1950s (Bassetti & Morse) and individually designed many of the houses here. Morse designed our house for one of the founders, Victor Scheffer, in 1951. Morse then built the house next door for himself. He was the principal architect for probably eight of the 39 houses here. Other houses were designed by Lionel Pries, Tucker and Shields, and Paul Kirk.

Q: Can this approach be compared to modern co-housing?

A: There, the focus is on community, but the architecture is different. Here was a combination of the social ideal and founding architects with site-plan rules to ensure design standards.

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Q: What changes have you made to your house?

A: We were very conscious of leaving the original house intact. It was built on an extremely small budget, but the architectural idea was so simple that it still comes through. Basically, we just cleaned it up but didn't alter the shape or spaces. We stripped the interior down to the bones and painted that white. Nearly everything had been covered originally; there was a drop ceiling with concrete-fiber tiles, for example, that was heavy and ugly. Even the fireplace was covered. We did a lot of fine-tuning, which is especially important when everything shows. The original owner is now 101, and he would recognize it if he walked in.

Q: You've expanded, but it's not immediately evident.

A: We moved in in 1993 and lived in the original space for seven years or so. There were four very small bedrooms and 1 ½ baths in about 1,500 square feet. We finally added a wing for an office, new bedrooms for the kids and a new basement. The wing we added created kind of an "L" and pretty much doubled the size of the house. Our first instinct was to run the "L" in the opposite direction. Over time, the garden became part of the house to us, and I couldn't bear to put a building there. We decided to use the part of the lot that has the least benefit, the darkest corner.

Q: How did you approach the remodels you did in the neighborhood?

A: I've worked on six houses here — tweaking and clarifying, respecting the originals. The Wendell Lovett house next door was straight restoration. I had the drawings and tried to help and not put my mark on it.

Q: How has living here influenced your architecture?

A: It's strengthened my own convictions about good architecture being simple, unpretentious and fitting into the landscape. There is a tendency among architects, myself included, for the ego to take over and make a big statement. For example, my first inclination was to put a big piece of architecture in front. It became clear I needed to back up and let the work just be simple and quiet. Someone not familiar with looking at a lot of architecture might come out here and not see the new building, just a wonderful garden and a funny little house. Q: Was your practice going this way before you moved here?

A: I have always found this kind of architecture appealing. I was interested in the Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian houses, and we drove around the country to see them. They exemplify smaller is better.

Q: How much does the landscaping contribute? Wouldn't this be a very different kind of house in an urban environment?

A: Obviously, because it's so open. It would be difficult if there were a house right next to you. In a more urban environment you'd go more to a courtyard concept so you could have an interior garden and privacy.

One of the things I encounter frequently with clients is they get a beautiful piece of view property and immediately want to create what I call a view machine, a machine that has spectacular views from every room, and they can't see giving up a view anywhere. I think it's important to have a spectacular view where it's appropriate, but then other times it is also nice to look inward.

Q: Isn't it more difficult to do simple architecture that works well?

A: It's not only difficult, it takes a great deal of restraint.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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