INSPIRED BY the rooftop gardens in Italian cities where he grew up, architect Jim Castanes set out to make a garden high in the sky. He owns two condo units on the top floor of an old brick building on Capitol Hill, which was the first Seattle apartment complex to be converted to condos in 1980.
Castanes moved into the building that same year. He remembers the leafy neighborhood near Madison Market and the new Bullitt Foundation as being “All pimps and prostitutes then . . . The area has really changed.”
He should know. For the past three decades, he’s looked down on it from four stories up.
When Castanes first lived in the building, no one went up on the roof. He climbed up the fire escape and was so taken with the full-on westward view that he decided a roof deck was in order.
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“When I did this I was crazy . . . you’d have to be,” says Castanes of the liability inherent in rooftop construction. He needed to win permission from most of the other people in the building. Permits were a challenge. Then every bit of material, from heavy beams to dirt and trees, had to be carried in the old elevator, through the condo and up the new stairway to the roof.
But first came the persuasion piece. Castanes had to get 70 percent approval of the other condominium owners in 74 units. Rooftop gardens were very unusual then in Seattle, and people worried that the space might leak. Between neighbors and permits, it took two years to move the project forward.
Castanes first covered the roof with 800 square feet of tarp. Construction took two months, and the family has been enjoying the deck and the view ever since.
The most unusual element is a long, peaked skylight that slides on a rolling track over the staircase opening. As you climb the metal stairs, you grab a big lever to slide the skylight open so you can clamber up on the roof. Fresh air pours down into the condo when the skylight is open. Closed, it allows light to flood the entry and living room.
How about gardening in the sky? “Hummingbirds drop by,” says Castanes. Potted conifers form a hedge, and sun-loving perennials flourish. Castanes hired a structural engineer to figure out how much weight the roof could hold, and he over-engineered it so he could build a room up there if he ever wanted to, and could get permission. The plants are all on a drip system, so the family can travel without worry. Castanes found lightweight fabric at a sailing shop and designed an awning to shade the dining area in summer.
It’s not as windy as you’d expect four stories up, and surprisingly quiet considering the Capitol Hill location. You definitely feel above the fray, with the Space Needle stately in the distance and the condo’s block-wide green garden as the near view. The family cooks, entertains and watches the stars up top. With surrounding trees grown taller, you can still see Mount Baker after the leaves fall in autumn. With all of this, it’s no wonder Castanes says, “I wouldn’t have lived in this building all these years if it wasn’t for the roof deck.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.