Pacific Northwest | April 4, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 4, home
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Stripped and Salvaged
Through subtraction and addition, 19th-century charm is multiplied
By relocating the staircase that rose from the center of the main room, Mike Schaefer has created a usable living and dining area. The box-beam ceiling was built of salvaged fir removed from the exterior.
The chic Wallingford that newcomers know and love is not the Wallingford of a century ago, when it was home to workers in the shingle mills, asbestos plants, gasworks and boat-repair piers on nearby Lake Union. But a stroll through lower Wallingford reveals some houses that have managed to hold their ground as the neighborhood around them changes. Mike Schaefer has found his niche in one of several 1891 houses on his block. He has tried to preserve its character-defining street presence while at the same time making it livable and inviting.

He had been renting a well-maintained 1890s house on this block when he decided to take on a remodel project. The landlord, who owned two other rental homes up the street, offered to sell one. The three houses had much in common, including almost identical floor plans, though Schaefer's house is larger and, according to him, "correctly" framed.
The addition made it possible to design a kitchen with an 11-foot ceiling that welcomes guests and opens up its 8-foot French doors to the deck and newly landscaped back yard.
Schaefer's curiosity led to a search of property-tax records, assessment files and city directories for clues to their early-day ownership. He discovered that, coincidentally, all three home builders came from Prince Edward Island, one of Canada's maritime provinces. And he found out who originally owned his house: A.A. Allen. At the public library he was led to the early Polk directories, where he learned that Allen had worked in a nearby lumber business. He also found an obituary that listed cause of death as poisoning. "In those days, if you were healthy one day and dead the next, you were listed as being poisoned."

While working on the house, Schaefer met the son of the people who owned it from the 1920s until 1974, the Cooleys. They had sheathed the original wood siding with what, at the time, was a touted new material: insulation board. Schaefer removed the board to reveal the original siding once again.
Two tax-assessor photographs, one from the late 1930s and one from 1957, show the original open porches and the enclosed north porch and siding as it was when Schaefer purchased it.
The house retained its structural integrity, framed with beautiful old-growth fir. There were two front porches, an unusual feature in the Northwest but possibly a recollection of Eastern Canadian-vernacular buildings that encouraged cross-ventilation. Originally, each porch had two doors so you could enter the house on either side of the front room or directly into it. Schaefer enclosed the north porch to form a fireplace nook in the remodeled front room, which now serves as living room, den and guest bedroom.

Remarkably, the house interiors had seen few changes over a century. "There was no plaster in any of these houses," Schaefer says, "just wallpaper over bead board." The stairway to upstairs was in the middle room, and a stove in the same room provided central heating. Later, a bathroom was added off the one-story kitchen wing at the rear.

Practicality won out over quaint charm when it came to deciding what to keep and what to rebuild. The decision was made to tear off the back of the house — the kitchen and bath — and save the front. The entire structure was lifted a foot, and a new foundation was placed. Inside was stripped, the stair removed, and the back of the house reconstructed to provide approximately 2,000 square feet on two floors. The addition made it possible to design a kitchen with 11-foot-high ceilings and French doors that open to a deck and newly landscaped back yard.
The only deviation from the simple linear quality of this house is the oversized decorative baluster that Schaefer designed for the entrance stair. High ceilings and tall south-facing windows bring light into the house.
Geoffrey Prentiss, a local architect and personal friend, helped reconfigure the spaces and keep the project on budget by phasing it. Prentiss also helped select appropriate paint colors and encouraged salvaging the fir woodwork wherever possible.

Throughout the remodel, Schaefer was constantly asking himself, "What do you save of an old house?" The windows, replacements from the 1930s, were rotted out — expendable. But he spent countless hours stripping the fir bead board. The box-beam ceiling is new to add necessary support for the upper floor. But it is wood salvaged from the rotted eaves of the house — straight-grain fir that had been coated with paint. "We started out with beautiful wood that needed cleaning. Trying to encourage people to salvage building materials is such an effort. They usually want to get rid of the dirty old stuff as fast as possible. The reality is that if you take that dirty old wood and run it through a planer, it's worth its weight in gold."
The back-of-house addition allowed for a comfortably sized bedroom on the second floor with French doors to a balcony.
By acting as general contractor, by sticking with the bones of the house and salvaging whatever he could, and by taking the time to do a lot of the tasks himself, Schaefer ended up coming in under budget on construction costs. It took two years to make it livable. Upstairs, three small bedrooms were reconfigured to become a master bedroom and bath. By bringing the sinks out of their traditional location and into the upstairs hall, Schaefer was able to make a more functional bathroom in a very tight space. Once the master suite was completed, he moved into the unfinished house and lived upstairs while completing the downstairs.

He's still tweaking things, but the bottom line is clear: "It was worth it." He and his neighbors, he says, "are saving some of that late-19th-century flavor on the street as we fix up these houses and try not to make them look as though they have been extensively remodeled."

Wallingford Then and Now

As its part in a year-long celebration of Wallingford, Historic Seattle presents a slide lecture on Wallingford by Paul Dorpat, a fountain of knowledge about change in the city. Afterward, Thomas Veith, architectural historian and Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board member, will present the results of a survey to determine significant historic and architectural resources in Wallingford. The program is April 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Hamilton Middle School auditorium, 1610 N. 41st St. Tickets are $8 for Historic Seattle members, seniors and students (full-time with ID); $12 for the general public. Register by calling 206-622-6952, Ext. 234. More information:

Lawrence Kreisman is program director for Historic Seattle. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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