Category Archives: Architecture

A week in the desert, part 2: Cosanti

More from our April trip to Arizona …

After our visit to Taliesin West, Eric and I headed to the Paradise Valley area of Scottsdale. I was excited to show Eric a place that had enchanted me years earlier. Cosanti, an Arizona Historic Site, is the home and studio of architect Paolo Soleri (1919 – 2013), who was once a student at Taliesin West. Soleri is best known for his experimental urban laboratory, Arcosanti, 60 miles north of Phoenix.

Cosanti logo inlaid in sidewalk.

The Cosanti logo inlaid in the sidewalk. Can you make it out? [photo:]

Soleri coined the name Cosanti from two Italian words: cosa and anti, meaning “before things” or “against things,” depending on which source you consult.

Soleri and his wife, Colly, bought five acres in Paradise Valley in in the 1950s, long before suburbia hemmed them in. The property is now surround by fashionable homes. In 1970, Soleri began building Arcosanti as a prototype self-sustaining city with a densely settled, small footprint. Artisans at both Cosanti and Arcosanti produce and sell bronze and ceramic wind bells of Soleri’s design to fund their existence.

Stepping out of the car in an unassuming gravel parking lot, we walked under lacy olive trees to the entrance of the Cosanti compound. Suddenly, it’s as if we were on another planet or on a sci-fi stage set. The setting is a feast for the eyes, and a lot to take in.

Entry to gallery at Cosanti.

You’ve never seen anyplace like this! [photo: TripAdvisor]

As at Taliesin West, concrete is the construction material of choice (cheap!), but the effect is entirely different. Soleri experimented with using concrete to construct apses—quarter spheres—most decorated with strange and fanciful designs. The apses are positioned to take advantage of sun in the cooler winters, and shade in the blazing summers. Some of the structures are partly underground for additional insulation. These shelters are made by heaping up a big mound of earth, then pouring concrete into frames laid on top. When the concrete cures, dig out the earth, and you have an apse.

Admission is free, but we chose to pay for a guided tour that had just started.

Just ahead, down an allee overhung with olive trees and sculptures, was an apse filled with our tour group and bronze wind bells. I wished for a breeze, but the hot air was still. I wished I could have all the bells.

Concrete apse at Cosanti

Entrance to a strange land.

We entered the apse. I didn’t know where to look: up at the decorated ceiling or at the forest of wind bells that surrounded us. It felt like a small cathedral … a little weird, a little awe-inspiring, and entirely engrossing.

A bronze wind bell sculpture hangs from a ceiling at Cosanti.

A large bronze pendant dominates the ceiling.

Bronze wind bells at Cosanti.

Wind bells hang from the ceiling like flowering vines.

Bronze wind bells at Cosanti.

A door to more.

White and tabby cat at Cosanti.

The only cat I saw on our entire trip.

Tour guide under apse at Cosanti.

Our tour guide explains it all.

Larry, our tour guide, had worked at Cosanti for 20 years, so he had worked with Soleri directly. He explained Cosanti’s history and architecture, and Soleri’s vision for the wind bells.  Larry referred to himself as an artisan: a person who creates art using someone else’s design.

We moved to the next apse, this one full of ceramic wind bells. And a gorgeous red roof. This was the bell assembly area.

A red stained glass roof and pink bougainvillea under an apse at Cosanti

Red roof and pink bougainvillea.

Red stained glass roof in an apse at Cosanti.

Roof detail.

A chain of wind catchers hangs from the ceiling.

A chain of wind catchers.

Larry led us on to another large apse—the bronze foundry, which would have been off-limits to us had we not been on the tour. The apse looks like it’s made from wood because wood was used to create the form for the concrete. Just as at Taliesin West, white canvas panels provide protection from the sun and a pleasant, even light.

Bronze artisans set up for a pour at Cosanti.

Artisans set up sand bell molds for a pour.

Molds are made from a special sand that can withstand high temperatures without melting. The sand is surrounded by a thick metal jacket for stabilization. There’s a funnel-shaped hole at the top of each mold into which the bronze is poured.

The day was sweltering hot, but the men who poured the molten bronze had to wear heavy buckskin coats, chaps, gauntlet gloves, and face shields for safety. They deftly moved the crucible of 2200°F, glowing yellow bronze from mold to mold, pouring smoothly. I could tell they’d done this many times.

Two men dressed in protective leather pour molten bronze into molds.

Moving the crucible of molten bronze from mold to mold. Sand molds without metal jackets are on the right.

Watching the men pour the silky looking liquid bronze was fascinating in a scary sort of way.

Molten bronze pours from a crucible.


Within minutes, the new bells’ temperature had fallen to a mere 1000°F, and they could be removed from the molds without damage. Wearing heavy gloves, Larry whacked the sand from the casting, revealing a luminous golden bell. When the sand fell from the middle of the bell, it rang in a clear tone. (The sand is swept up and reused.)

The bells are beautiful when they emerge from the mold, but they darken to a gray color as they age. Soleri preferred to use an acid bath to add a verdigris color. Because the color varies, no two bells are the same.

A newly cast bronze wind bell looks gold.

Newly cast wind bell.

Two bronze bells at Cosanti

A newly cast bell (left) and a finished one after an acid bath.

It was beastly hot in the foundry apse, as you can imagine. I backed out under the olive trees, hoping for a breath of air. Behind us hung a large bronze sculpture belonging to the Goldwater family, returned for restoration. You can see its natural gray color … and an iconic Cosanti window behind it.

People stand in the shade of the foundry apse at Cosanti.

Our tour group bakes in the foundry apse.

A large bell assemblage awaits restoration at Cosanti.

A large bell assemblage awaits restoration.

I was a little relieved when we left the superheated foundry apse and ventured further into the compound. We walked through a tunnel whose small entrance and large exit whooshed the cooling air through … a Wright trick. Ahh …

Concrete structures at Cosanti.

A dinosaur’s ribcage? Soleri’s office is behind the portholes at right.

On the other side of the tunnel was an apse where ceramic bells are fired. Behind that was a curious half-underground building that served as living quarters for the apprentices onsite. See those steps that go down into the pit? They’re simply timbers that stick out of the wall. I took a break sitting on the hefty timber railing of the bridge.

Dormitory building with sunken center space at Cosanti.

Dormitory with a rustic Asian vibe. [photo: Tomiaki Tomura]

We exited the earth house through the door at the top of those timber stairs. In front of us loomed the enormous concrete roof over the swimming pool. This mammoth slab is supported on 12 utility poles. Like everything else at Cosanti, it’s been there since the late 1960s. This stuff holds up.

Thick concrete slab forms the roof over the swimming pool at Cosanti.

Wonder how much it weighs.

The wall of a small apse near the pool featured this poem.

A poem is inscribed on the apse wall at Cosanti.

A poem on the apse wall.

We had reached the end of the developed property, and the tour was over. Thanks, Larry! We returned to the gallery, where we’d started.

Siadewalk between concrete structures at Cosanti.

The sidewalk near the foundry apse.

Gallery and gift shop at Cosanti.

“Exit through the gift shop,” we always joke.

Inside the gallery and gift shop at Cosanti.

Inside the gallery and gift shop. [photo: TripAdvisor]

Bronze bell assemly at Cosanti.

A display at the gallery.

We knew we wouldn’t escape without choosing something special to bring home. Because I had been to Cosanti and Arcosanti before, I already had some goodies, so I wanted Eric to pick this one. He chose one of Cosanti’s Cause Bells, which donates part of its cost to a cause of our choosing (ours benefitted the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden). This bell has a varicolored polished finish, a little different than the acid-washed bells. It’ll look good in the modern house we’ll have some day.

A polished bronxe Cause Bell from Cosanti.

A polished bronze Cause Bell.

I’ve had my two Soleri bells, both from Arcosanti, for years. They’ve accumulated more patina as they’ve aged. These bells are LOUD. I used to have them hanging on the front porch until a summer storm blew through. The next morning there was a note from the city police that they caused a disturbance, and I had to take them down. They’ve been in a box for years, but I’m going to put them back up in my backyard garden … without the wind-catchers.

These ceramic tiles are from my first visit to Cosanti.

Blue and green coaster-sized ceramic tiles from Cosanti.

Coaster-sized tiles.

Something about this desert place, with its mysterious symbology and dusty, sunbaked concrete structures from the 60s speaks to the hippie artist in me, and it feels like home. (I was never a true hippie, and can’t really call myself an artist, but I hope to become one when I grow up.) I hope you enjoyed the tour and get to explore Cosanti (and Arcosanti) for yourself someday!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it



A week in the desert, part 1: Taliesin West

What better way to kick off retirement than a vacation? Or, as Eric pointed out, a vacation for him, but just a trip for me. A couple of our friends recently have moved to a retirement community near Tucson, AZ. We could hear the desert calling—as well as the offer of a few nights’ free lodging. Eric and I love the Southwest, so this was an easy decision.

We arrived in Phoenix and drove to Tucson via highways 60 and 79.

Our itinerary started in Phoenix because I wanted to show Eric a few places that I’d enjoyed in the past, but he’d never seen. Our first stop was Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio, Taliesin West. (We’ve visited Taliesin, his Wisconsin residence, twice.)

When I first visited Taliesin in the 1980s, it seemed far from town, in the middle of the desert. It’s still in the middle of the desert on nearly a square mile of land, but town has caught up. Scottsdale’s residential communities, swimming pools, and golf courses press against its borders. But when you’re there, you’re in another world.

The driveway wound uphill until Scottsdale faded from view … and we entered a world of rustic rock walls and signature red paint.

Stone and concrete sign at Taliesin West.

Angles, stone walls and palo verde trees.

Wright and his architectural apprentices began building Taliesin West in 1937. Using materials found on the site, they placed flat rock faces against plywood forms, then filled in with smaller rocks and concrete. (Can you imagine hauling these big rocks out of the desert with the sun beating down?) Our tour guide credited Wright for coining the terms “one-man rock,” “three-man rock,” etc. for measuring rock size, but I have not been able to corroborate that.

The logo is thought to have been influenced by a petrograph on the site that resembles clasped hands.

Clasped hands?

Our refrigerator magnet.









We entered here, going down the stairs to the gift shop to buy our tickets.

Fountain at the entrance to Taliesin West.

Angles everywhere.

Our tour guide ushered us into Wright’s office, through a classically-Wright low-ceilinged entry and into a tall, airy workspace. The angled roof was made of white canvas, which diffused the harsh desert sun into a soft, bright, and shadowless light, perfect for drawing. And, we all looked ten years younger! (Note to self: New house gets a canvas roof.)

Next, we walked outside, past the drafting studio and large, triangular pool. The wing to the left in the following photos is the drafting studio. Its roof is also canvas, which floods the space with so much light that electric lights are not needed during the day. The architecture and materials echo the shape and texture of the McDowell Mountains.

Stairs and pool at Taliesin West

A glimpse of the stairs to the pool.

Pool and drafting studio at Taliesin West.

Looking back toward the drafting studio.

The main building seen from the lawn.

From the tip of the lawn’s triangle, we walked back to the main building and through a breezeway whose low ceiling created a welcome flow of air. Workers were busy restoring the roof.

Bronze sculpture by Heloise Crista at Taliesin West

Sculpture by Heloise Crista.

I took a shot of the dining room—looking serene and cool in royal blue—through the glass.

Dining room at Taliesin West

Blue-upholstered dining room ready for lunch.

We entered the living room, know as the Garden Room for its view into an enclosed garden. This room was air-conditioned, for which we were thankful. (You can bet it wasn’t air-conditioned back in Wright’s day. This is a comfort added for modern visitors.) The room featured the same white canvas roof panels and Wright’s famous origami chairs, which are made out of a single sheet of plywood, and are surprisingly comfy.

Garden room at Taliesin West

Garden room showing canvas ceiling.

Orange-upholstered origami chair at Taliesin West.

Wright’s origami chair.

Folding screen with layout of Taliesin West as pattern.

One of my favorite details: The layout of Taliesin West makes an attractive screen.

Round vase protrudes from hole in window glass.

When your pot is too wide for the windowsill. (Never mind the rain damage.)

I’ve been to Taliesin West three times since the 1980s, and each time the tour is different because additional parts of the site have been restored and others are closed for restoration. This time, Mrs. Wright’s bedroom was featured. It’s a tiny room with a single bed, but two walls are covered in this colorful Japanese print. She called them swans … I call them cranes.

Mrs. Wright's bedroom at Taliesin West, showing Japanese print wallpaper.

Mrs. Wright’s bedroom.

We walked through a mysterious passage and were told to listen for a fountain. We could not hear the fountain until we came upon it.

Stone-walled passage at Taliesin West.

Don’t you want to know where this leads?

Fountain courtyard at Taliesin West

We stepped out of the dark doorway into the fountain courtyard.

Finally, we walked through another courtyard filled with Heloise Crista’s sculptures and stood outside these intriguing doors. We were about to enter the cabaret, where Wright entertained the celebrities and influential people of his day.

Two of the sculptures by Heloise Crista

Double red doors with Chinese pulls

Entrance to the cabaret.

Beyond the doors, we entered a long passageway with views down into the cabaret. Wright really knew how to create a dramatic entrance. Inside the six-sided room, the acoustics were nearly perfect. We sat in the back and could hear our tour guide whisper.

Slanted cabaret hallway at Taliesin West

Do you feel off-kilter?

Cabaret theatre at Taliesin West.

Sitting in Wright’s cabaret. Entrance hallway on the left.

Detail of cabaret wall sconce.

Detail of cabaret wall sconce.

As we finished our tour, we exited through a long promenade topped with buttress-like wooden beams and lined with bougainvillea, adjacent to the drafting studio. (The tour does not include the drafting studio because it’s occupied by architectural graduate students. We could peek in, though.)

Passageway outside drafting studio at Taliesin West

Down a long walkway under wooden beams.

Steel beams create a breezeway next to the drafting studio at Taliesin West.

Another look at the promenade. The red doors open into the drafting studio. The white squares are shutters for the windows.

If we could have seen the drafting studio, it would have looked like this. Wonderful light! The traditional canvas roofs, which quickly rotted from sun exposure and had to be replaced occasionally, have been topped with protective Plexiglas for years.  We learned that the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is now partnering with Sunbrella to replace the canvas with UV-resistant Sunbrella fabric.

Drafting studio interior [photo: Steven C. Price]

Students at the School of Architecture at Taliesin traditionally build shelters in the desert surrounding Taliesin West. (The Wrights lived in a desert tent before Taliesin West was built, and Wright famously proclaimed he wouldn’t ask the students to do anything he hadn’t done.) Here’s a fun read that describes some of these fanciful structures:

I’m sure this won’t be our last tour of Taliesin West. Maybe next time we’ll explore the desert shelters or take the dramatic nighttime tour. Can’t wait!

I’ll post more desert adventures in between updates about the home front. Lots happening there!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

Seattle Catio Tour!

I know some of my readers have been waiting for this tour, so LET’S GO!

Black and white cat peeks through Japanese forest grass

Cats want to be outdoors!

Catios—enclosures that allow cats to safely enjoy the outdoors—are becoming wildly popular. So much so that a local animal welfare organization, PAWS, along with Catio Spaces, sponsored a tour of Seattle-area catios. We don’t have a catio at the bungalow (Duke’s dog door gives the cats in/out access), but we have the purrfect place to build one outside our breakfast room windows, if we wish. When we build the Whidbey Island house, a catio will be a necessity because we’ll be near a busy road. Not to mention the coyotes and eagles that roam the area.

So, on a hot Saturday afternoon, Eric and I cranked up our car’s AC and crisscrossed Seattle on a catio tour. What better way to spend a gorgeous summer day?

Our first stop: Magnolia Manor.

Catio under magnolia tree

Magnolia Manor

Beautifully sited beneath a mature magnolia tree, this 8′-6″ x 5′ catio has a southern exposure to the home’s lovely, landscaped back terrace. In the catio constructed of natural-colored 2 x 4s and 2 x 2s, covered with one-inch hardware cloth, and partially roofed with metal roofing, the two resident cats can really feel like they’re up a tree. The structure is supported by pier blocks and floored with wood decking. The cats enter the catio via a cat door in the side of the house, climb a ramp, then traverse a 12-foot sky bridge into the enclosure. Multiple perches, huts, and soft beds provide places to lounge and be entertained by two birdfeeders hanging tantalizingly out of reach. Like all the catios we saw on the tour, this one features a full-size door for humans, which is padlocked for security. These cats were totally relaxed even while a passel of strangers poked around their digs.

Click on any photo to view the slideshow.

Next up: Casa Gatito Madre.

Dark-framed catio built against house

Casa Gatito Madre

This small-but-tall catio is framed with 2 x 4s and 2 x 2s that are stained charcoal gray. Screening is welded wire fencing. Two foster kittens slept, dead to the world, on corner shelves covered in outdoor carpet. Ultraviolet-resistant polycarbonate panels cover the roof. Although the pawprint is small at 5’7″ x 5′, the structure extends 10 feet tall so that the uppermost cat platforms are level with the deck railing, enabling humans on the deck to interact with kitties. Pea-gravel and a colorful rug complete the  floor. Obviously, people have fun decorating these spaces, which are equally part of the landscape and the house.

Serena’s Garden Getaways provide lucky creamsicle cat, Serena, with three awesome catios.

Large catio next to house

Serena’s Garden Getaways

All are designed by her mom, Cynthia Chomos, founder of Catio Spaces (check it out for lots of great photos, ideas, and plans). First, Serena got a window box catio in the front of the house—perfect for keeping tabs on neighborhood comings and goings … especially birds and squirrels.

Window box catio on front of house

Serena’s window box

Then, Cynthia built a 6 x 8 sanctuary catio next to the house. (If the charcoal gray framing and polycarbonate roof look familiar, it’s because Cynthia also designed Casa Gatito Madre.) Eric and I noted what a difference the color of the framing and fencing makes: A dark color makes the frame almost disappear, while natural wood stands out and lends the structure a lighter-weight feeling. If we built a catio, we’d use the same colors as our house to help it blend in.

But wait—there’s meowre! The pièce de résistance is the Catnap catio, a tall, gabled 12′ x 7′ garden spot in a corner of the beautifully landscaped backyard. (I felt like we were getting a bonus garden tour at these three houses.) What a serene place to lounge with Serena. This fanciful space features a grass floor, a spiral staircase for kitty, and a comfy couch for mom. The human door is decorated with another vine-motif panel, which we came to recognize as a design feature of Catio Spaces. Later, we saw similar metal trellises at Lowe’s, so they are readily available to dress up your catio. Imagine, if you’re a cat, the fun of running to your own garden room through the 20-foot honeysuckle-covered catwalk tunnel, which blends so nicely with the fence that at first my brain only saw “arbor.” The catwalk features drop-down hatches for maintenance or cat retrieval. What a paradise!

The Enclosure that Mama Built is a little more rustic, but just as functional as the others.

Large free-standing catio

Mam’s large, freestanding catio

Spanning three levels, cats can exit the house on the top deck, hang out in the area below the deck, and then continue on through a short tunnel to the freestanding catio enclosure. Both the enclosure and the under-deck area have doors for humans. Where other catios feature potted plants, this one borrows foliage from the backyard itself: ivy and rhododendrons grow inside, with shade provided by trees along the property line. A small tree trunk supports a series of cat shelves. Humans can hang out on the Adirondack chair, or on an old wagon buckboard. I especially liked the detail of a salvaged window forming a transom above the door. This structure isn’t as sleek and fashionable as the first three catios, with a homemade mix of materials … but I’m sure the cats love it just as much!

Fort Fluff was built to keep a rescued stray from bolting.

Cation built against yellow house

Fort Fluff

The two resident kitties have a shallow window catio in the front of the house and a large space in the back of the house, both accessible through windows. The owners told us that Lowe’s sells cat doors made to be cut into window screens—what a great idea! (We looked for them, but can’t find them at Lowes or on their website. Amazon has them, however.) With the house’s bright yellow paint, giant potted hostas, and turquoise patio set, this catio has a fiesta vibe. The wooden box with multiple circular cutouts is a clever place to hide. We often cut doors and windows in large cardboard boxes, to our cats’ delight. The enclosure fabric is dark green plastic poultry fencing. The owner mentioned that originally the catio floor was made of organic cat litter, until they found that rats could chew through the plastic fabric to get to the litter. They kept the poultry fencing but changed the floor to cedar chips, which naturally repels fleas (and rats), and it smells great. No more rat problem! This catio’s sunny location can be quite warm, and the concrete block house radiates even more heat. I’d add a roof or awning to this structure to make it more comfortable. Maybe that’s what the umbrella is normally used for.

Our last stop was the Cat Corral, another catio designed by Catio Spaces. Can you tell?

Catio in backyard

Cat Corral

This 12 x 9-foot enclosure (the biggest we saw) features a grass floor. (How do people cut it, I wonder? With a weed whacker?) The catio sits just off the couples’ deck so they can easily sit close to their cats, who enter the catio through a cat door directly from the house. There’s actually plenty of room inside the catio for cats and humans to cohabitate. The interior is spare, with carpet-covered shelves and platforms, but little in the way of hiding places, plants, or décor for either cats or people. And, in the afternoon, the catio is bathed in full sun. If it were mine, I’d add a sheltering roof of some sort, and furnish it with plants and items for cats and humans alike to play with or relax upon. Maybe it’s a new space and the owners haven’t gotten that far. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask. Still, it’s a lovely, large catio with tons of potential.

What we learned

Even though Eric and I have good imaginations and construction skills, we picked up some valuable tips on this tour. To create a professional looking catio that you and your cats will love, pay attention to these aspects:

♥  Use 2 x 4s for major framing, 2 x 2s for additional bracing and for attaching fence fabric.

♥  Stain or paint all structural members the same color for a cohesive look. Dark colors recede, light colors stand out. Or, match your house color to help the catio blend in.

♥  Cover the structure in hardware cloth or welded wire fence fabric. Run all the fence fabric in the same direction for a consistent look.

♥  Of course, add lots of shelves and perches for cats, but don’t forget to include some comfy furniture for you so you can enjoy the catio, too.

♥  Make sure your cat can find some hiding spots. Add little cat houses and boxes to explore.

♥  Catios are all about being out in nature, right? Build it under a tree, or use potted or natural plants so that your kitty can pretend he or she’s in their own safe little jungle. Cats love gardens!

♥  Be aware of your site’s exposure. If it gets baked by sun, make sure you provide shade. If you want the cats to use the catio in all wa eather, install a roof to keep them dry.

♥  Brilliant idea—install a cat door in a window screen!

♥  Cats can easily negotiate tight spaces, so you can get creative with entrances and tunnels (the parts you won’t get into).

♥  Add a trap door to a tunnel so you can reach in to clean it or grab your cat.

♥  Everyone appreciates a clean floor. Try wood, stone, pea gravel, grass, or cedar chips. Add an outdoor carpet.

♥  Add art! Cats love art!

Which catio is your favorite? We loved Magnolia Manor not only for its cat-friendly accoutrements, but for its beautiful garden setting under the magnolia tree. As our cats always remind us, “Location, location, location!”

B;ack and white cat sitting on a rock in a garden

Checkers says “Remember–cats love gardens!”

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it




From the inside out: Seattle Modern Homes Tour

C’mon along on the 2017 Seattle Modern Homes Tour! Every spring Eric and I look forward to this tour, which sets us off on a merry chase all over town. Amazingly, Eric seems to know the streets in every neighborhood, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride—and the architecture.

This year we managed to bag all eight of the featured houses, plus lunch and coffee, in the six hours that the tour was open (not always easy or possible).

Seattle is built on hills, so views are everywhere. This year’s tour can be summed up in two words: Views and stairs. Flights and flights of stairs to accommodate steep building lots. Most of the houses on this year’s tour weren’t friendly for aging in place—something Eric and I now keep in mind when we look at a house.

I found myself taking more photos of the windows and views than of the interiors, hence the title of this post, “From the inside out.”

Here are the highlights.

Map of our route through Seattle for the Modern Homes Tour

The 2017 Seattle Modern Homes trail [source: MA+DS]

Mt. Baker

We started on the south end with No. 8, in the Mt. Baker neighborhood.  It wasn’t hard to pick out this house amongst its century-old neighbors. It would stand out anywhere. Clad in repurposed wood siding, the rustic wood theme carried on inside. Maybe a little too rustic—running into the rough-hewn posts could leave you pulling splinters out of your face.

A wooden box on a hill

Mt. Baker 0

I found lots to like about this house: The walnut floors were to die for. The recycled cardboard hanging lamps (which I found online at over $300 apiece) looked warm and beckoning in the open stairwell. It felt open and airy, if  a little lacking in color. The garage, off the alley, was up a level from the front of the house on this steep lot, and accessed by a bridge across the back courtyard, which would make every trip to the garage a little special. But that same steep terrain reduced the backyard to a confining, deep pit of a courtyard. I love courtyards, but I didn’t want to linger in this one. What I really wanted to do was check out the cute shingled bungalow next door. (I bet the neighbors weren’t thrilled when this mod box landed virtually on top of them.)

Click on any photo to view the gallery.


House No. 7 in Leschi won the view competition hands-down. From our parking place, I looked right through this house at the Interstate 90 floating bridge (can you see it?). I love a see-through house! I could waste a lot of time just watching the boats and the mountains and the lights of the Eastside and the cars flowing along this artery to the city. I’d never get anything done!

Modern home with view of floating bridge


The living area’s wall of windows was just that: a wall. No deck would be built outside these sliding doors—only a railing. I can understand not wanting to compromise that view, but I’d want outside access from the main living space. An awesome deck occupied the rooftop level, but I don’t want to climb two flights of stairs up or down to get to my outdoor space. Bright light from outside made photos difficult. I remember the master bedroom as my favorite room. But that view … I could wake up and go to sleep with that view.

Madison Park

For No. 1, we drove to Madison Park, a truly lovely Seattle neighborhood that’s way, way out of our league. (Truth be told, we can’t even afford to think about moving anywhere within the Seattle city limits. The median house price has shot up to $772,000.) But back to my fantasy …

Modern home in Madison Park

Madison Park

The only view this house has is a spectacularly landscaped central courtyard, around which the house is built. Somehow, that’s all it needs.

We fell in love with this Zen-like house, and from the comments we overheard, everyone else did, too. Besides the courtyard, our favorite features were several high, long windows that made slices of outside into framed pieces of art.


Over the ridge in Roanoke, house No. 5 was a grand old Seattle foursquare. What was this one doing on a modern home tour? The streetscape didn’t give anything away, but I knew something special had to be behind that bright aqua door.

Gray Seattle foursquare house


The bright and light-filled living room featured a beautiful original fireplace that I wished I could have taken home. I loved the mod touch of the chandelier over the dining room table. If you look closely, you can get a sense of how the wallpaper I plan to order will look above my plate rail (more on that another day). Originals flourishes coexisted comfortably side by side with updates. And the original lacy stair railing under the leaded glass window was pure joy. The remodel was confined to the kitchen, the upstairs bedrooms, and the basement. My favorite room in this grand old house was the sleeping porch-turned-office. We liked how the custom storm windows were cleverly installed on the inside. Outside, another courtyard effect with a brick patio.

Lake Union

No. 4 was just a few blocks away on the shore of Lake Union (not far from some of the floating homes I’ve written about). In fact, some high-end homes floated right in the front yard of these condos. Eric commented that when he was in college, he lived at this exact address in a floating home. Back then, according to him, you lived in a floating shack if you couldn’t afford an apartment. Those shacks are long gone, and million-dollar homes have bobbed to the surface in their place. On land, the end unit of this condo building was our destination.

A four-story narrow modern condo

Lake Union

Right off the bat, the entry turned us off. I would be nervous to come home at night to this pinched-feeling narrow passageway. Inside, we climbed up … and up … and up. And then looked down. This view is entertaining all day, every day, with boating traffic passing right in front of your windows. The house had a narrow footprint, so few rooms occupied each floor, but for well over a million dollars, it did include an elevator. From garage to rooftop deck, it’s five floors. Again, love this view, but the extreme vertical layout didn’t work for us.


No. 6 in Wallingford had me fooled. I thought it was new construction, but no—it was a remodel. When we left and I inspected the exterior one more time, I could see vestiges of the original house. But inside it was all modern, all the time. This house was full of color and art. I thought it felt playful and warm, but Eric found it cold. Well … I guess we don’t always agree.

Navy blue remodeled Craftsman

It looks like a modern box, but it’s not.

I particularly liked the dining room, and how its lowered ceiling contrasted with the two-story living room. Its view of the old curly willow tree felt intimate and sheltering. I’m not usually a fan of dark cabinetry, and these made the kitchen feel like a cave, but at the same time, they set off the brilliant green view of the backyard. The countertops were flamed granite: burning bursts out some of the crystals and leaves the granite with an interesting texture.

Phinney Ridge

This modern box, No. 2, was our second-favorite on the tour. The open layout was simple, and the young owner had barely moved in, so there was no staging to look past. The corner lot offered an attractive city view west to Ballard.

Phinney Ridge

A highlight of this house was the grain-matched fir cabinetry. You don’t often see fir as cabinetry (trim is more common). This kitchen glowed with the warm fir tone. The same cabinets reappeared in the bedrooms, in floor-to-ceiling grain-matched glory.

The homeowner had just had the firepit and patio installed. I admired the horizontal privacy fence and the neighborhood ambiance from the deck off the kitchen and dining area.

Queen Anne Hill

Finally, we arrived at house No.3 on Queen Anne Hill, which was another favorite. We liked the dark brick façade—something a little different.

Queen Anne Hill

I sped past the sunken living room with its tall windows and fireplace because I spied a big gray cat in the dining area. When cat made a beeline to his backyard, I found myself in a spacious kitchen/dining room with a stunning tiled backsplash. The homeowner told me she had to fight their architect to install this tile, and I’m glad she won. It makes the room, and echoes the aqua color of some of her collected pieces. I’m an aqua lover, too (harkening back to my mom’s 50s kitchen when I was a kid). The layout of the kitchen/dining/family room space was similar to the Phinney Ridge home. This house also featured a serene master bedroom with an expansive neighborhood view and a wood-paneled ceiling, and a really lovely mural in the child’s room.

Returning to our little town in the valley and our humble abode is always a bit of a let-down after a day in Seattle (the south-county hicks go to the big city). Not because the town itself is disappointing, and we certainly love our bungalow; it’s just that Seattle seems to be so much more vibrant and exciting compared to our sleepy little burg. But, we’re close to retirement and we’ll never be able to afford to trade up to a house in hip Seattle. So we look and drool.

Join us for our next tour in June: The Seattle Catio Tour! Yes, this is really a thing, and we’ll be there to experience it all!

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it

I died and went to salvage heaven

When a friend at work sent me a link to EarthWise, a salvage store in Seattle, I hopped right on it, because who wouldn’t want to check out architectural salvage online instead of writing technical documents? I had heard about EarthWise, but we’d never been there. So of course, that very Saturday Eric and I made a bee-line to check it out in person, because who wouldn’t want to check out architectural salvage instead of doing household chores?

We were not disappointed. A garden of salvaged delights lay before us, shimmering under this summer’s unrelenting sun.

An assortment of architectural and household salvage items arranged outdoors

Look at all that great stuff!

Where to begin? Eric and I wandered slowly through the outer courtyard. Interesting, oddball, and sometimes unidentifiable items beckoned at every turn. Succulents grew in anything that resembled a container, left to survive on whatever water fell from the sky … which for months has been nothing.

The candy-colored sink display was the first thing to catch my eye. Like Necco wafers. Yum.

Six pastel wall-mount sinks sit on a table in the sun

Pastel sinks in the sun

Bins of chunky chains, rows of rads, stacks of street signs begged to be rummaged through. Rust and chipped paint everywhere. To some, this might look like junk, but to DIY old house people, or anyone with a camera, it’s art! Look at that character and texture. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Do you know what this is? I do, because I have something similar in my basement.

A rusty schoolhouse desk side support

Before my time

It’s the side support for an old-fashioned schoolhouse desk—the kind where the seat of the front desk is attached to the writing surface of the desk in back. Here’s mine, which Eric kindly dug out of the basement clutter:

Old-time two-piece school desk

Could use some TLC

A friend gave me this desk because she never used it. I have not used it either. It has sat in my basement for nearly three decades. Pity … it’s an interesting piece. The wrought iron sides say “Aim High” and “Time Flies.” I particularly like the cobweb design. (Click the photo to see it.)

Where was I? Oh yes … back to the salvage. Hey, there’s my mom’s first washing machine! Her admonitions to stay away from that wringer left me with a lifetime fear of getting my hair ripped out. This one had a lever on the side to adjust for different fabrics. For delicates, you simply set it for less time because so they don’t have to endure as much churning.

White wringer washer from the 1950s

Not before my time

I peeked into a series of small rooms that lined one side of the courtyard. The first was chock full of sinks.

Porcelain sinks of all kinds

Sink city

The next room, newel posts.

Vintage newel posts and railings

Old newels

I stumbled upon a box of blue midcentury tiles. These tiles are thinner than today’s tiles, and hard to find. Then I looked up, and—holy cow—an entire room of vintage tiles!

My favorite room was this one with its display—no, art installation!—of heating vents. Now I’m trying to figure out how I could use these intricate vents. My house probably had them originally, but it has had floor vents since before I moved in.

Vintage metal heating vents in many patterns

Such great patterns!

Inside the main building we found the expected rows of windows and doors and salvaged flooring. I was bedazzled by the light fixtures. Now that I’ve had a chance to study this photo, I may want to go back and get one for the bedroom, where a bare bulb has protruded from the ceiling since we removed the old shade.

Glass ceiling lamps displayed in a salvage shop

The beigey one, top center, is similar to our living room and dining room lights.

Isn’t this just the prettiest little toilet?

Porcelain toilet with decorative beading

Can a toilet be charming?

I have a bracket like these in the attic. It holds my hurricane oil lamp … but I don’t have a good place to mount it.

Ornate wrought iron lamp brackets

Don’t have to buy these … got one

In the jewelry department, I drooled over all the doorknobs. The white porcelain ones remind me of the frosted cookies that my great-grandma kept in a jar on her kitchen table.

More jewelry: antique door knobs and their fancy escutcheon plates.

Nearby were several shelves of mortise locksets, most of which had been carelessly painted over. I love the colors, but if you look closely, the ones on the right are gorgeous Eastlake designs. First thing I’d do is to remove that paint and let the brass oxidize.

Unfortunately, we don’t need any of these things, but Eric and I get excited when we see a whole lot of similar shapes in one place … there’s something about the repetition of forms and the vintage colors that makes me want to buy the whole collection, or at least photograph it.

We didn’t bring anything home with us except photographs—this trip. We already have enough stuff around here to open our own salvage shop. But it was sure fun to look!

Driven to distraction … by Modernism

A few weeks ago The Seattle Times featured a stunning Midcentury modern home in its magazine section. A side note mentioned that this home and four others would be part of the Seattle Modern Home Tour. We (well, I) absolutely had to see this house. That meant allowing Eric to spend a Saturday above ground instead of in the shop/dungeon, where he purportedly has been constructing our new bedframe. Heck, the bedframe can slide another day.

So we set out on a beautiful sunny morning to buzz around Seattle, gawking at homes we will never be able to afford.

Midcentury modern

And here it is … three bedrooms, a simple, L-shaped floor plan, terrazzo floors, George Nelson bubble lamp. Perfection. Floor-to-ceiling windows look onto an enchanted forest backyard. The brick wall of the living room starts outside and flows right in through the glass.

mcm livingroom

mcm dining kitchen

mcm backyard

Wouldn’t you love to wake up to this? No, I mean the view!!

mcm bedroom

The bedrooms have built-in vents below the windows. I had never seen these before, but Eric said the West Seattle house in which he grew up had them … they drove his dad nuts because they whistled in the wind.

mcm vents

The floating-stairs split-level entry, which, regrettably, we didn’t photograph, leads down to a long, narrow room that runs the width of the front of the house. With its ground-level windows, it would make a perfect art studio. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about this perfect little house.

Dutch colonial

What would you do if you had a gracious 1920s Dutch Colonial with a sunroom facing the street, natural mahogany trim, and a warm, traditional (if somewhat dark) interior? Worth a cool million or two?

DC exterior

You’d slash away the roof over the central staircase and replaced it with … glass!! Of course!!

DC glass roof

DC stairs2

The transformation is actually shocking. I was prepared to dislike what the architects did to this classic house, but oh, man, it’s spectacular!

The living room and dining rooms remain original, except for sunlight-emitting portholes and fresh, light-colored paint.

DC living room

DC dining room

But that’s where tradition ends. The kitchen is sleek and new (hmm … should we have done that?). I’m a sucker for kitchen windows that meet the countertops, and that leafy view.

DC kitchen

I couldn’t take my eyes off the wide-open NanaWall folding glass wall and the lovely courtyard beyond.

DC nanwall

Upstairs, each of the kids’ bedrooms had cool lofts for the beds. No doubt a favorite feature for the kids, but I’d hate to be the mom who has to climb a ladder to change the sheets.

DC loft

The grown-ups have a huge bedroom with a vintage-tiled fireplace.

DC bedroom

I bet the neighbors find this bathroom interesting.

DC bath

French doors flanking the fireplace let out onto a deck above the first floor sunroom. Holy cow, what a view! You could almost watch the UW Huskies play football from that deck! Do they know how lucky they are??

DC view

Glass box

On a Magnolia Hill street lined with charming brick Tudors and manicured lawns, you’ll find a big boxy house of metal and glass. Peek-a-boo, see-through views and long sight lines made me want to run through its bamboo-floored halls as if it were a carnival fun house.

GH kitchen

gb green roof

The living room’s green chair and pillows echo the green of the lawns outside.

gb green roof

The wild rug with its 3-inch wooly worms would hide our whole colony of cats! (How do they clean it?)

gb rug

A view like this from the bedroom? Yes, please! We especially liked the asymmetrical layout of the windows.

gb bedroom

But the north side of the house has only one window (the two women are standing opposite the front door).

gb exterior

Perhaps this explains it. Um … are we in Disneyland? Or Las Vegas? Click the photo to enlarge, if you dare. Extra points if you find the gargoyles. Yes, gargoyles. OMG.


I asked the owner how his Tudor neighbors felt about having a mod box on their street. “They don’t care,” he claimed, “Except for the guy behind us,” who now has a view of said box instead of Puget Sound. “What was here before you built this house?” I wondered. “Just a small Tudor,” he replied, implying it was a shack not worth saving. (There are no shacks on this magnificent street.) As impressed as I was with this modern masterpiece, the preservationist in me was put off by the arrogance of razing a classic Tudor and building a new house in its place. Were there no empty lots to be had on Magnolia Hill?


The next house also had been featured in The Seattle Times a few months back. At four stories (in the back), it was incredibly tall on its narrow lot. And it stretched from setback to setback, covering virtually the whole property … towering over a much smaller, abandoned-looking Queen Anne next door. (Maybe its owners didn’t want to live in the shadow of a skyscraper?)

skinny exterior


skinny back

I couldn’t see us living in such a house, with open stairs that went up, and up, and up to one bamboo floor after another—too much climbing for aging Babyboomers! Although the view from the top deck was expansive, the seven guys sunning themselves on their rooftop “beach” just didn’t resonate with me. Their stereo certainly did. I know … I’m no fun.

skinny view


Backyard house

Our last stop was a small house built in the subdivided backyard of century-old home. I imagined this was a pretty nice backyard until a house popped up.

by drive

Turns out, the new house is a little gem. Polished concrete floors, oak plywood panels, full-length windows, and another pretty courtyard (I’m a courtyard fan, you can probably tell).

BY living room

BY rear

Or, did I like this house because of the cute kitty who ran from everyone else but befriended me? I had been away from my cats for hours and needed a kitty fix.

BY tabby kitty

Again, I fell in love with the rooftop deck view. I know a view is not a house, but it certainly becomes part of the ambiance and the experience. I like a water view during the day and twinkling city lights at night. I like to see things going on. No water here, but lots of city. Click the composite photo to enlarge. On the left, the western end of I-90 (a freeway that runs from Seattle to Boston). In the dip between the hills, the arch is CenturyLink Field, home of our incomparable Seattle Seahawks. To the right is downtown. Whenever I drive this portion of I-90, I wonder what kind of neighborhood is up on this hill. Now I know … and I’m envious.

BY panorama

On the way home, we pondered: If we had a choice between a fabulous modern house with a killer view, or a houseboat on Lake Union, which would we pick? The houseboat, hands down. That would satisfy both my water and city view wishes, as well as being a quirky, arty place to live. Then it was back to reality … our valley bungalow with a union hall view, scratched fir floors, pet hair, peeling paint, weedy gardens, half-done projects.

But it’s home, and we’re lucky to live here.