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Fall Home Design

A Box of Color

Skyscraper, Homestyle

Courtyard Woodland

Downtown Oasis


In the Mountain Mood

Courtyard Woodland

In the confined quarters of a city condo,
a mountain scene comes alive

Garden designer Marie McKinsey planned this condo garden so residents could look down on it from street level as well as from lower-level windows and patios. She created the feel of Northwest wilderness, complete with autumn color and a recirculating watercourse, in a sunken garden that measures only 20 by 55 feet.
THE SOUND OF water cascading over boulders drowns out traffic noise nearby. Vivid vine-maple leaves drift gently down upon water and stone. The same drama taking place in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains this month is repeated in this intimate, enclosed scene of seasonal change. Despite the naturalism of mature trees and generous slabs of stone, this splash of color and rushing stream are not out in the wilds but confined in a small, sunken courtyard, part of a new condo project in a bustling part of the city.

This project on Eastlake Avenue East in the center of Seattle is unusual in its low profile and seamless integration into the surrounding neighborhood. It started with an old apartment house similar to any number of single-story motels and apartments built in the 1920s around a central, concrete-coated courtyard. Many continue to offer inexpensive housing on Lake City Way and Aurora Avenue. Others have been torn down and replaced by more imposing developments, especially when water and mountain views are amenities.

Ray Spencer and Dave Wright, developers of the Eastlake Gardencourt Condominiums, took a very different approach with this project, bumping up the roofline to create three-story townhouses but keeping the same grouping of units. Architect Chris Day retained the Craftsman look of the original apartments so they blend in with neighboring restaurants and shops. The grand spectacle was saved for the Northwest woodland sunken garden that forms the heart of the condominiums.

You'd never know you were steps away from busy Eastlake Avenue East once you pass through a green gate and hear the rush of waterfall and stream that winds its way through Japanese and vine maples.
Garden designer Marie McKinsey's goal was to capture the essence of the Northwest by making a waterfall and stream the centerpiece of the garden, a particularly bold concept considering the entire space is only 20 by 55 feet. How she envisioned a foliage-filled mountain scene when faced with a dark and gloomy concrete basement (described by Spencer as "really more of a bomb shelter") is hard to imagine. But her idea is now a reality.

First the central concrete slab was cut away, creating a two-story garden space that all 10 condo units look out to. As owners come home, entering at street level, they can look down on the garden from all angles. The developers started with the idea of building patios off all the lower units, arranged to open out onto the garden. McKinsey realized that the patios would be little used, since residents would look directly across at the patios and windows of other residents. So, along with offering an escape from city life, she set out to create privacy for each condo owner with new views of mountains and water. Well, if not exactly mountains, then boulders and trees that create a similar aura of peace and timelessness. She planned the sound of running water to drown out the city din as well as muffle conversation from neighboring patios.

The Eastlake Gardencourt Condominiums were fashioned from an old 1920s apartment house. The concrete courtyard was cut away to create a sunken garden, whose native plantings and rushing watercourse form the heart of the Craftsman-style complex.
"To be honest, though, I never dreamed Dave and Ray would be willing to spend the money to build this," says McKinsey, gesturing toward the rock-lined watercourse and tall Alaska weeping cedars. Through use of beautifully rounded and cut boulders, and mature plantings, they've succeeded in making a garden that looks as if it has been in place for many years, with trees reaching all the way up to the street level above. Spencer saysthis project will no doubt remain unique — although they didn't lose money, the entire concept was too expensive to be repeated.

McKinsey set out to design a garden that would be easy for the condo owners to maintain. About half the plants are native to the Northwest, including ferns, vine maples and Alaska cedars. Japanese maples, nandina, ornamental grasses, rhododendron and hosta were chosen as sturdy and complementary companions to the natives, and to provide color and foliage in all four seasons. While she wanted to create privacy, McKinsey sought to keep the plantings light in form and texture so the residents wouldn't feel closed in. She and the condo developers hoped that the garden would serve as a communal area, as well as a quiet outdoor space for reading, eating, visiting or contemplation.

While at least 10 trees are shoehorned into the little space, the weeping cedars, despite their size and bulk, have a narrow profile, and nandina and vine maples are fluffy and filigreed rather than heavy and dark. McKinsey placed plants carefully to both block and frame views, while creating a naturalistic woodland feel of overstory and understory plants lining a mountain stream. The watercourse, built by Maranakos, takes advantage of the natural slope of the land, built up a bit for the waterfall. The water recirculates, running quickly in some areas over the rocks, puddling to form reflecting pools in others. Stone pavers link the various patios to the water, so residents can walk right into the garden, gaze into the ponds, and trail their fingers in the stream on warm days.

The designer wanted to provide privacy to condo residents while keeping the plantings in the sunken garden light in form and texture. Delicate plants such as Japanese maples were perfect for framing and blocking views without adding heaviness to the feel of the ground-floor space.

Building a garden featuring good-size plants and rocks was a challenge in such a small and confined space, right off a busy road. Installation posed the biggest problem, taking place through a hole in the wall of one of the units along the back alley. All the equipment and materials, from tall trees to backhoes to loads of soil, had to be squeezed in this way. The building contractor wanted to close up the hole so he could finish the building, while the garden crew needed it open as long as possible as they installed and tinkered with the garden. McKinsey credits contractor Brian Olson with being a remarkably patient man.

Condo owners enjoy the surprise of the garden every time they come home, not quite getting used to the fact that such wildness exists behind a recessed green door in a busy and congested area of the city. Majestic trees create not only a slice of Northwest forest right outside the condos' sliding doors, but also the respite of a four-season garden to wander through, listen to, and enjoy at all times of the year. McKinsey thinks the garden is a success when she sees condo residents out raking leaves, reading on their patios and stringing the bare branches of the vine maples with little white lights for the holidays.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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