Pacific Northwest | March 28, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMarch 28, home
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Spring Books 2004

Great Expeditions
When a lover of adventure comes home, a roomful of journeys awaits
Dr. Martin Greene and his wife, University of Washington professor Toby Saks, made room for their new library by taking space from the back yard and repositioning a garage. Comfortable chairs, a fireplace and sound system help create the feel of a sanctuary.
WHILE OTHERS may be content to experience their travel destinations from the confines of a comfortable armchair, it's just a point of departure for Dr. Martin Greene.

Whether trekking to the Antarctic to welcome the new millennium by retracing renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton's legendary 1914 Expedition or scaling Mount McKinley in 1995 with a group of his then-55-year-old peers, Greene's appreciation for explorers, maps and adventure begins among the black-walnut bookcases of his well-ordered Madison Park library.

"The first interest in finding these books was to read these books," explains Greene, a gastroenterologist at Swedish Medical Center. "When I moved out to Seattle (in the late '60s), I got very excited about mountain climbing. In the '60s, '70s and '80s I was doing a lot of climbing and started reading about mountain climbers. Reading about these men and the things they did — they were so heroic. It was very exciting."
A mountain climber and voracious reader, Greene needed a home library to hold the increasingly large stash of "his babies."
Being a voracious reader since he was a child growing up in Nebraska, Greene's books on polar exploration and Pacific voyages touching the Northwest coast of America were quickly beginning to expand the existing stacks around the house. Eventually, there was hardly a nook or cranny to stash a single tome.

"There were no more walls in the house to put any more bookshelves!" notes his wife, Toby Saks, professor of cello at the University of Washington and artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. "He just loves them, they're his babies."

When the couple began thinking about what to do to solve their increasing storage problem, "the first idea was to find a place to put the books. It started out with, 'Let's just add a small room.' It evolved from a place to put the books, to a place to put me," Greene jokes.

The space for the 575-square-foot room was created by using part of the back yard and repositioning the garage. Once architects Art Skolnik and Bryan White had completed the design, the project broke ground in October 2000; it was finished by June 2001.

To create the dramatic interior and casework, Greene worked with expert Clinton Miller, a Seattle-based architectural designer who specializes in restoring older homes and re-creating interior woodwork. "With something like this you don't want to make a mistake," Greene says. "We had many conversations about what drawers should be pullouts, how to store catalogs and whether or not to put the books behind glass."

He and Miller eventually decided not to put the books behind glass because Greene cuts a custom Mylar dust jacket for each one. "In traditional libraries back over the centuries, most of these type bookcases have been open," Miller adds. "It makes the books more accessible." Miller's Federal-inspired casework drew inspiration from Adam Design, an 18th-century English father-and-sons firm that greatly influenced both English design and Federal design in the States.

"What I was trying to do was to make a library that would be in the great tradition of English country homes and club libraries," Miller says. "I was trying to create a room that is a real pleasure to come, and a place to retreat. To create a room where you would want to relax, read, study and contemplate."

When it was time to execute Miller's detailed drawings, as well as the rest of the project, Greene and Saks chose Dovetail, Inc., a local general-contracting firm with a reputation for fine woodworking. With company president Adam Turner's early training as a furniture maker in Philadelphia, it's no surprise he shared both Miller and Greene's passion for the project.

And, while the craft of the printed page and state-of-the-art technology may seem like polar opposites, in this climate-controlled literary alcove, touches of technology help enhance the overall environment. As sunlight can cause materials to fade, all of the windows have UV-coating. The skylights have electrically controlled window shades that can be opened and closed with the flip of a switch. To make sure the space remains a sanctuary for thought and research rather than a media room, there is no TV. But there is a sound system and a fireplace that ignites with the quick press of the remote control.

A high-speed Internet connection allows Greene to keep in touch with other members of the Book Club of Washington and the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies; it's also useful in his research. "But a lot of the real research can't be done without going to the libraries themselves," Greene believes. "While computers have revolutionized the information you have access to, there is something about holding a book, curling up in bed with a book, relaxing in a chair with a book — that is very comforting."

It is that deep appreciation he hopes to pass on to his five grandchildren. "We always give them gift certificates for books," says Saks. Along with the gift comes the special treat of going with "Grandpa" to the bookstore to pick out their next reading adventure. Greene also visits their classrooms to speak about the various explorers, as well as the importance of caring for books.

"Like musical instruments — with books we're only the caretakers of these during our lifetime," he says. "Many people think a library is for dead books. But it's a place to take good care of your valuable companions."

It's also his personal sanctuary.

"I come in here and relax, sit and read, pay my bills. It's more than a place for books — it's a place to live."

Robin Fogel Avni is a free-lance writer specializing in lifestyle issues and trends affected by technology. Her e-mail is Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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