WRITTEN BY REBECCA TEAGARDEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
In zigs and zags, a Whidbey house waltzes with the views
A stately bronze owl by Langley artist Ed Nordin stands watch along the front walk. "Because of the owls here there are no crows," says owner Peter Van Allen. "That was probably the reason I bought the place “ no crows."
THERE'S ONLY ONE painting to be found on the walls in Peter Van Allen's Whidbey Island home (and it's upstairs). That's because Van Allen's walls are the art; along with the floor, the stairwell and the glass-china-cabinet doors and the windows.
Each piece adds to a landscape of Northwest tranquility that flows softly in cement and slate. Ever heading toward the water, it trickles in three steps from the kitchen down to the dining room, three more steps down to the living room — and out the windows to Puget Sound below. The deck alongside the house echoes the indoor three-step waltz.
But let's begin with those windows — 12-foot towers of view, glorious view. Admiralty Inlet, the Cascades, eagles and elderberries. It's a 3-D vacation postcard. To the south, Van Allen watches the comings and goings of the Kingston ferry backlit by Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
"This little hilltop is perfect. No matter what window you look out of there's a wonderful view, and it's always something different," he says, taking in the forest evergreens and elderberries from an upstairs window. Through a different window there's a bird's-eye view of a bald eagle heading for the Sound. Another reveals a pond.
"You never get tired of being in this house; it's simple and complex all at the same time," Van Allen says.
A skylight over the stairway warms a wall given an earthy feeling in grays, browns, creams, blues, greens and more by island artist Judith Coulter. "I told her I wanted it to look like a dirty concrete wall. But, of course, being an artist, she couldn’t just do that," says Van Allen, very pleased. The German stainless-steel railing was made by Whidbey Island artist Larry Pauza.
He originally wanted to buy in Seattle, but "everywhere I looked your neighbors were 8 feet away. It was like an apartment in New York," says the retired art director who has lived in New York and Los Angeles. "I heard about Whidbey Island, and I bought five acres really quickly. I was sure I'd be happy here."
On that first island property, Van Allen lived in a Ross Chapin-designed Craftsman featured in the Taunton Press book "The Distinctive Home." Van Allen loved that house. But after a bit, he'd been there, done that with the Craftsman. He sold the house and everything in it (even the silverware in the drawers) and set out to build a modern house without so much as one piece of wood in it.
What he got was an open, serene cement-and-steel structure from Whidbey Island architect Randy Williams of the one-man office of Penn Cove Architects in Coupeville. Van Allen bought the property in June 1998, and the house was finished in 2000.
"I had Randy out within a week or two, and he immediately started drawing. I kept pushing him. I wanted an extreme home," says Van Allen, a big fan of Philip Johnson's glass houses and Frank Lloyd Wright's of-the-earth designs.
It's not one of those harsh square-box deals, though. The 3,000-square-foot home with five sets of French doors is a mere 18 feet wide inside, but you would never know it. Williams' lightning-rod zigzag creates subtle angles that give rooms direction and set up views ever new.
Van Allen's 3,000-square-foot home is just 18 feet wide. Architect Randy Williams liked the challenge of the site and Van Allen's desire for a contemporary home. "The view didn't really open up until you were right on the precipice," Williams says. "It kind of lent itself to a design that snakes down the site."
And although the floors both downstairs and up are slate, and the stair treads cement, the home has a softness about it. An organic feel; what's outside is also inside.
Interior walls curve seductively. The staircase is circular, haloed by a 6-foot skylight. Each stainless-steel baluster stands with a flirty little twist. And the wall there has a gentle, earthy deepness thanks to island artist Judith Coulter and her rags, sponges and brushes. Sand-blasted glass used as china-cabinet doors and on each side of the kitchen island glow a gentle blue-green at night, like sea glass. The porch off the master bedroom upstairs lures in a caressing breeze.
Williams not only designed the house, he was the lead framer. That's how he always does it. And in this case, he felt he'd hit the architect's trifecta.
The view from the kitchen flows from the dining room, down to the living room, and out to the water and mountains beyond. The rooms are united by 16-by-16-inch Brazilian slate, each piece placed carefully for balance. The glass pieces are by Langley artist John de Wit.
"You don't get an opportunity like that and a client like that on a site like that very often," Williams says. "Contemporary architecture is the Holy Grail as far as I'm concerned."
Williams and Van Allen had that magical architect-client connection.
"He's one of the few clients, instead of trying to show me stuff, which kind of drives me crazy, he told me what he wanted. That's a big difference," Williams says. "So I was able to take his words and make a design out of it."
Van Allen was his own general contractor and interior designer. Who better to deal with the demands of his very particular client?
Van Allen the client wanted an open galley kitchen, a place for the piano, two bedrooms and two baths. He wanted the light switches grouped because "I don't like them all over the place." He wanted the deepest kitchen sink he could find and no overhead cabinets. He wanted a near-silent dishwasher, and when the original was too noisy he yanked it for a quieter Miele. He wanted both an infrared sauna and a skylight in the walk-in master closet. He wanted paint colors the store never could get quite right so he took several cans home and mixed colors himself. He wanted a deck surface with no visible screw heads, so the Trex was secured from below. He wanted the biggest wood-burning fireplace he could get (4 feet by 5 feet) because "I like a warm house, not like Seattle houses that are cold all the time."
Wrap-around windows in the master bath offer a treetop view from a honed limestone bathtub as still and serene as a small pond.
So how'd he do?
"This is perfect," he says. "It's an absolutely perfect house to entertain in. You can have one or two people in it and it doesn't seem empty. But when you have 50 in it, it doesn't seem full."
It's so perfect, no man-made entertainment can compete, aside from a little Schubert on the sound system. Van Allen has no need for either a pesky television or intruding computer. "I threw it out," he says of the TV. "I'm so offended by all the trash on it. I took it to the dump and left it there."
Rebecca Teagarden is assistant editor of Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.