THERE ARE TWO “befores” in this story of deplorable decline and glorious rebirth – and an “after” that is universally blissful forever.
My personal happiness occurred when I first noticed this angular, singular, spectacular modern marvel while driving around idly and waiting for some time before another NW Living home visit on Queen Anne.
Seriously: You can NOT notice this house. And then you stop, take it all for a rhythm and let the questions fly: why the hell is it shaped like a wedge? What About Holy-Cow-BOLD Graphic Art? WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ARCHITECTURAL TARNATION HERE?
Oh, so, so. There is clearly a story behind this house, but it’s not just a story behind this house. There’s a real academic thesis behind this house, and the fascinating multi-faceted architect who originally designed it (Robert Reichert, one of Seattle’s most influential architects whom you may not have never heard of it). There is its “before No. 1” origin, as a controversial and fearless expression of expressive modernism; his slide into sadness (“before No. 2”); and its joyful and hypersensitive award-winning catering. Plus all the stories from all the people who love it, remember it and are inspired by it.
Adelaide Blair and Darin McAdams might love him above all else. They live here now. And they had a lot of those same WTH questions when they bought this house — then a faded rental property covered in dull blue siding — in 2015.
“We were looking around the neighborhood, and I saw this house, and I was like, ‘This house is ugly and weird. Let’s go check it out,'” Blair said. We came on an open house, and they had a newspaper article that had a picture of what the house looked like, and we were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could restore a part of what she was?’ ”
She emailed Historic Seattle to see if anyone knew anything about the house and/or Reichert, who had designed it as a home/studio for himself and his mother in 1954. The historic Seattle connected Blair to Jeffrey Murdock (then pursuing a master’s and now group advocacy and director of education), who knew everythingas evidenced by the extensive slideshow he presented to Blair, McAdams and architect Stefan Hampden of CAST architecture (the only architect they interviewed who had done his own research on Reichert, she says).
Someone really should adapt Murdock’s rich thesis into a miniseries (the auditions for the role of Reichert alone could fuel their own reality show). “Reichert was such an enigma,” Hampden says of the Harvard architecture graduate who studied under Walter Gropius. “He had these three sides to him: one was a professor at UW; then car and motorcycle enthusiast; and then, thirdly, he was an organist in his church. The origin of the shape of this building, this shed roof going up the side, was a vaulted space, and there was a pipe organ in the house. (He was 18 feet tall!)
Reichert was not one to choose between growing up and going home. He called these giant exterior art pieces “shadow paintings”, says Hampden (now, more commonly, “supergraphics”); they were intended “to be expressive at all times”.
Not all of Reichert’s neighbors were impressed by his expression. Some complained to the newspaper. (Even the newspaper complained in the newspaper: Legendary Pacific Northwest Living writer Margery Phillips wrote, “Not everyone wants to live in a sculpture. Not everyone wants to live next to a a.”), late-night organ recitals.
Even now, Hampden was prepared for a less than warm welcome when a man who had grown up nearby visited the site during restoration. But instead, the neighbor enthusiastically thanked Hampden for bringing back the historic home and all it ever wanted to express.
“It was a really impactful piece of Seattle history that changed his appreciation of architecture,” Hampden said. “When you look through the who’s who of Seattle’s architecture, [Reichert] does not appear as Paul Thiry or [Paul H.] Kirk, but he was influential and taught at the university…and really pushed the envelope. It’s a piece of Seattle history that doesn’t get a lot of coverage, but I think it influenced a lot of people.
Yet, says Hampden, the goal of this historic restoration was never to accurately recreate Reichert’s work or home — but everyone wanted to remember and honor both.
“[Blair and McAdams] were really super excited to know where his aesthetic, his process, was leading with the house and what that was creating,” says Hampden. “On the other hand, it was for them, not for him. So we didn’t think of it as a restoration, but rather as a tribute, trying to understand Reichert’s process and to do something that would have really excited.
(Reichert was certainly NOT thrilled about what happened to his house after he left: He said it had been “vandalized” by subsequent owners.)
By the time Blair and McAdams arrived there, during its dark blue period, “The carpets were pretty gross – it was a rental house that you would rent to young people,” Blair says. “I lived in worse homes when I was young, so I don’t want to be too judgmental, but as a middle-aged woman I was like, ‘Hey. I don’t really want to live in this house. ”
The original plywood and stucco construction was rotting, along with the walls and beams. “They were tearing things down and asking, ‘How is the house still standing?’ said McAdams.
It clearly needed a “rebuild down to the studs”, says Hampden – and it took some imagination.
Using Reichert’s sketches, historic photos, and this hallelujah thesis, Team Homage (including dBoone construction and local metalworkers, artisans and artists) recreated and enlarged these large, bold exterior supergraphs (and painstakingly replicated another interior that had been painted on the ceiling); re-stucco to be fully breathable (and durable); connecting windows added and abundant light; rebuilt the Alexander Calder-inspired sculptural front door; transformed the former towering organ space into a home office loft; and added some super cool Mondrian-style bookshelves in the dining room (Blair and McAdams play a lot of board games, but not the organ).
This was a complex, painstaking and research-dependent project. “It was nice that it was only 1,500 square feet,” Hampden says.
It’s bold. It’s nice. It’s back. And its jaw-dropping “after” is already creating its own history (it won Historic Seattle’s Outstanding Modern Preservation Award).
Now, Reichert’s Perfectly Reichert House is home to new occupants who have enjoyed its “before” before they even knew anything about it – and are enjoying its “after” every day.
“This house was also Reichert’s studio, and that’s where he worked,” says Blair, who is an artist. “Living in a mid-century modern house with all this graphic design definitely affects my work, but it also tends to be more just to feel a connection to the past and to one’s work. We are lucky to have been able to restore the house — the exterior is quite faithful to what it was; the interior is more inspired by his work. It’s great fun living and working here. It is most certainly at home.