by Dean Stahl photographed by Benjamin Benschneider HERE'S A STORY in praise of dreamers. In particular, the founders of Hilltop Community...
Here’s a story in praise of dreamers.
In particular, the founders of Hilltop Community, near Bellevue, a collaborative neighborhood formed 60 years ago and thriving today.
Many of Hilltop’s principles were so forward-looking they are considered modern now: a home and its site should be in harmony with the land, yet contemporary in appearance. Views should be preserved, but nature respected. People should work together for the common good and enjoy the result in common.
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It succeeds partly because of what is almost a New England-style town government, says Hilltop resident Richard Corff. “Although it’s majority-driven, it’s consensus-based because everyone has their say” in community meetings: one family, one vote. That includes passing a prudent budget for upgrades and repairs that considers the fixed incomes of seniors. Expenses are split equally among lot owners.
Hilltop is an island of unincorporated King County in the Bellevue sea. What was once fireweed and blackberries is now forest and shrubbery. A circular drive and spur lanes link 40 home sites, each on one acre and most with superb views of Mount Rainier, Seattle, Lake Washington or Lake Sammamish. There is an extensive greenbelt with walking trail, a playfield, swimming pool and tennis court on another 23 acres. Though it sounds otherwise, this is nothing fancy.
“One thing great about these houses is people didn’t have unlimited resources, and the houses reflected their world view,” says Charles Anderson, an architect who has lived in Hilltop since 1994.
Hilltop began with a burst of optimism in 1946, just after World War II, when architects Perry Johanson (the “J” in the firm NBBJ), John Morse, Fred Bassetti and their wives foresaw a housing boom and began to think about how they could develop rural property into a collective community.
It was a golden moment for dreamers. Soldiers were back home after having seen something of the wider world. Families were moving West. Traditional ways of looking at things, including housing, were changing.
Morse found a promising piece of logged land southeast of Bellevue. Before long, eight families — UW professors, engineers and compatible others — had joined the architects’ venture. The group persuaded the landowner to sell the brush-covered knoll for $250 an acre and to bulldoze a rough road into the remote site.
Though it was another year before it was named, Hilltop Community had 18 founding-member families who, in 1948, crossed their fingers and pooled $150 apiece to dig a community well. In 1950, they decided underground utilities would be more aesthetic than overhead lines, but the power company’s quote was beyond their means. Undeterred, they hired a private contractor at a much lower price.
Architects who designed homes for the original Hilltop families — as their own residences, in some cases — include Wendell Lovett, Lionel Pries, Johanson, Morse, Bassetti, Paul Kirk and Roland Terry (with collaboration from others in the firm Tucker, Shields & Terry). They were young, for the most part, and in an experimental mode. These were modest houses, of contemporary design, built with basic materials. Nearly all were constructed in the 1950s and keyed to a view-corridor map.
Being progressives, Hilltoppers sometimes were viewed with suspicion by those who began to build nearby. This was the McCarthy era, after all.
“For us, it was a dream world,” founding member Victor Scheffer said recently. At age 101, he no longer lives in Hilltop but keeps abreast of the news there, the place he calls “a noble idea.”
Connie Reed, 83, and her art-historian husband, Gervais, met at Yale University, moved West in 1951 and bought into the group soon after. They built their house in 1957, and she still lives there. “What was it,” she asks, “the creative energy of the times? We really liked that you weren’t so much buying a piece of property but a membership. I didn’t know about that utopian stuff, but the idea of working together — you know your neighbors and they look after your welfare.”
Reed still has a typed onionskin letter from September 1951, welcoming the couple to the community and requesting payment of $2,040 — $2,000 for their lot, $20 for capital improvements and $20 for “the new Washington real-estate tax.”
Hilltop has restrictions, to be sure, but the “shoulds” appear to balance the “thou shalt nots.” The original bylaws drafted by a lawyer have changed with the times but still protect what the community holds dear.
The neighborhood’s strongest glue is a blend of civic activism and social bonding. Volunteers from each household are expected to join committees that deal with finance, security and keeping the water flowing. Work parties two or three times a year help maintain the greenbelt and repair community property. A welcome dinner for newcomers is customarily held at the next-newest family’s house. Over the years there have been carpools, mothers who taught preschool in their homes, food-buying cooperatives, garden instruction, cooking classes and an abiding spirit of neighborliness. If a tree falls to block your driveway, someone always shows up with a chainsaw. Volunteers even publish a newsy, professional-looking yearbook.
“There’s nothing exactly like this around,” Anderson says. “There are others that were started by architects, but so far as I know, none with the covenants we have. And the difference here, too, was that architects lived here.”
Emily Anderson, Charles’ wife, says, “The remarkable thing about this is it’s still working — we follow the bylaws, take care of the land ourselves, follow a budget . . . It is like that because it is so small. Beaux Arts was like this, but it fell apart, maybe because it was bigger.”
“Realtors have a misunderstanding about this area,” Charles Anderson says. “They see one-acre lots with views and think they can sell to a developer or someone to build a mansion. But we’re in unincorporated King County and have height restrictions and bylaws and so forth. We’re not on sewer, we have well water — what may be the smallest water district in the state.” And founders’ bylaws wisely prohibit dividing the one-acre lots.
Anderson obviously isn’t referring to all real-estate agents. His neighbor Corff is a realtor, and they have a common appreciation for modernist houses. Corff moved to Hilltop with his wife, Elizabeth Robinson, who grew up here. They were able to buy her parents’ home, where they are raising two young children. Houses rarely come on the market, and there are a number of second-tier homeowners.
“Children and elders are respected here,” Corff says. “There’s not a single fence, except to keep deer out of a garden. I could not imagine living somewhere else right now, though in some ways this is the antithesis of the Growth Management Act. I’m a real believer in planning. I haven’t resolved that juxtaposition yet.”
Of course, cooperative rule means some ideas get voted down. “I tried to get living units built near the playfield for members who might need smaller quarters or extra attention someday,” Scheffer said, but the majority wasn’t persuaded. When his eyesight failed, it was time to move on.
Hilltop doesn’t exist in a bubble. As some properties hit at or near the $1 million mark, newcomers arrive with different expectations. Work demands, the pull of recreation and other outside activities make it difficult now to find volunteers for some committees. But “there have to be pressures and changes,” Reed says. “Otherwise, (the bylaws) would be static and not useful.”
Could a Hilltop Community be created today?
“To make it work, you’d have to find people like Johanson and others who have the vision and courage to put it together,” says Scheffer, a former biologist and the author of several books, including “Hilltop: A Collaborative Community.” Essential, too, is a savvy lawyer to craft bylaws that stick.
Corff says flatly, “What we have here could not be replicated. Hilltop is 20 minutes from Seattle; property values are sky-high.”
But farther from a city?
“If forward-thinking, idealistic young people with a lot of energy really want to do it, they can. There is excitement about alternative energy and green design. And we need smaller homes.”
Practicalities aside, what a future Hilltop may need most is good chemistry.
“Setting up a community like Hilltop, it’s like keeping peace; you have to work at it,” Scheffer says. “We had some people in the beginning who were not compatible, and they soon left.”
Dean Stahl is a Seattle writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.