Published on Thu, Sep 29, 2005
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Home Improvement

Retro gets modern facelift

by Jack Kintner

If you liked the Jetson’s, you’ll love this week’s feature house. Styles from the 1950s that were “futuristic” are good examples of what’s now called “modern.” But more than a style, it’s really an architectural philosophy that dominated design for most of the twentieth century.
Bellingham architect Mike Smith and his wife, decorator Donita Reams, bought a more or less modern house at 9734 Lincoln Lane that was badly in need of renovation. They began work on it last winter and finished last month, producing a classic example of modern architecture. They sold it about two weeks ago for an undisclosed price.

First, a little art history to help you appreciate Smith and Reams’ accomplishment.

“Modern” in this sense means more than just up-to-date, like an indoor john is more modern than an outhouse. Most “modern” buildings and houses built in the 20th century are marked by clean, undetailed lines and lack of ornamentation. Skyscrapers, especially if appearing to be all glass, are products of modern architecture, structures like the U.N. building in New York.

For home design, a modern style rejects exterior ornamentation, letting the materials necessary to the task determine the outcome as opposed to copying some kind of historical period or using fake stonework. Modernism as a design philosophy was a rejection of ornament, simplification of form and elimination of unnecessary detail. It sought to emphasize this, when possible, by contrast, usually by color (white if possible) and setting (a natural setting emphasized the straight, clean lines).

In Blaine, one can find some great Queen Anne Victorians, a style popular when Blaine was booming in the 1890s through about 1915. Last week’s feature house at 1283 Harrison is a Queen Anne Victorian, a style somewhat less ornate than true Victorians, exemplified by the many “Painted Lady” houses popular in San Francisco some years ago.

Thanks to Smith and Reams, Blaine now has a good example of Modern architecture as well. The setting, for one, is classic for this kind of house, a pure white box, or series of boxes, set in the woods without anything else to intrude on the initial impression when the house is first seen such as overhead wires and phone poles, picket fences or overdone gardens. The front yard is open and spare, with just two very old trees, an apple and a cherry, pruned back into productive but constrained shapes. Along the north side and in back they retained an effective backdrop of mixed deciduous and fir trees that provide an organic contrast with the machined, precise lines of the house.

The original house, now the larger box that forms the north or left end of the structure in these views, was built in 1968 along modern lines but with an awkward floor plan. The two bedrooms and a single three-quarter bath were upstairs, with a living room, dining room and kitchen crammed into the downstairs. Total area was about 1,100 square feet, plus a garage to the east and a two-car carport.

Smith added another 1,000 square feet with a new master suite wing to the south, separated from the main part of the house by a narrow breezeway that serves as the rear entry as well as providing shelter for a Japanese garden, a popular accoutrement to modern houses in the 1950s in part due to ideas brought home from Japan by soldiers returning from the Pacific Theater. An electric sauna was added to the two upstairs bedrooms, and the original garage became a rec room. To the east of that he added an attached two-car garage and a carport by converting the old two-bay carport and adding to it.

Inside the house shows a variety of textures and colors, mostly that of exposed woods, low-nap carpeting and the color red. The circular stairway is a typical modern touch with its logical and space-saving design, and the one installed in this house is large and inviting, making it practical as well. Bathrooms are typically modern with “vessel sinks,” simple glass bowls. Both features show the basics of modern design: a simplified use of undisguised materials to perform a basic function without undue ornamentation. As with a sailboat or a suspension bridge, both the stairway and the sinks are good examples of the modernist theme, “form follows function.”

It’s possible, in fact, to briefly trace the rise and fall of modern architecture with a famous saying by one of its pioneers and other famous sayings that followed: modern architect Mies van der Rohe’s “Less is More” is followed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Less is more only when more is too much,” capped by post-modern pioneer architect Robert Venturi’s “Less is a bore.”

Just as modern architecture was a reaction to the overly-detailed Victorian that preceded it, the post modern is a reaction to the bare and spare modern era.

And, as modernism attempted to speak to the substance of the culture, that which unites everyone, post modernism attempts to express exceptions to the rule. If the former is represented by an all-glass skyscraper, the latter is represented by skyscrapers that have whimsical decorations.

On a smaller scale, good local examples of post-modernism, which is what’s contemporary now, are the prize-winning building at the U.S. border crossing at Point Roberts, with its exaggerated cantilevered cables, or the entryway to the Stafholt Good Samaritan Center, with its decorative but highly symbolic “Golden Falcon” medallion set into the exterior wall.

Smith and Reams weren’t building a skyscraper, though, just a private home in a somewhat isolated pocket of Blaine, and took advantage of the basic structure they found, using it as the core of a larger structure that would express accurately a rendition of what’s become a historic style.

For more information contact Smith at Zervas Group Architects in Bellingham at 734-4744.