Architects at home by Dean Stahl photographed by Benjamin Benschneider ARCHITECT RALPH Anderson has helped shape the way Seattle and neighboring...
ARCHITECTS AT HOME
Architect Ralph Anderson has helped shape the way Seattle and neighboring communities look today. Hundreds of houses in the area were built to his plans, which embraced and refined the Northwest style. He also was a visionary investor whose renovations in the Pioneer Square area in the early 1960s saved buildings that might otherwise have been demolished for parking lots. Anderson, 82, who worked for architect Paul Kirk early in his career, is retired from the fray but keeps abreast of building trends. We spoke with him recently in the three-bedroom West Seattle home he shares with his wife, Shirley, a retired pediatrician.
Q: You’re right on the water here, yet this doesn’t feel like a beach house.
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A: I was interested in doing as much as I could on this narrow lot. It’s about 35 feet across. I designed this house to handle a lot of art, to exploit the view and to utilize clear cedar, which I never had done before in a house; it was too expensive for my clients. All the trim inside is cedar, all the doors are cedar — everything is cedar. I was able to find some great clear-cedar beams that came from Canada. Not too much of that is available now. I think I got rid of my cedar jag.
Q: Is this your ideal setting?
A: I seem to always want to be on the water. I was raised in Magnolia, and when I was young had friends on Perkins Lane. I loved the sound of the waves below the cliffs there. I thought, “Oh, I have to have that.”
Q: But you kept on the move?
A: I think Shirley and I have lived in nine different houses, actual houses, and maybe a half dozen apartments or small places.
Q: What were they like?
A: When I first got out of the University of Washington, in 1951, I built a glass house, a very simplistic house. I was in my modernist glass-box phase, which didn’t last too long. It was a beautiful setting at Hidden Lake, and I lived in that for a while. I kept trying to warm it up in the wintertime and finally put some sheer draperies on the windows. From that, I moved on to the Northwest design style. I felt more comfortable living in that sort of space.
Q: How do you define Northwest style?
A: Of course, Frank Lloyd Wright influenced most everyone, but not everyone was such a genius. I tried to use a lot of wood, and I tried to work with the contours, textures and vegetation of the Northwest, the wooded environment. Quite often I would have big, hovering roofs that would open up to the view. I was doing most of my houses in Mercer Island and Bellevue, and they were very warm houses, but not very expensive. I always considered myself the poor man’s Roland Terry.
Q: Early on you bought and renovated several buildings in Pioneer Square. How did that happen?
A: I had moved my office down to 108 S. Jackson, and became very interested in the area. No one cared about the buildings; it was the land that was valued. The First Jackson Building became available, so I was able to take a second mortgage on my house and buy it.
Q: Did that feel like a big risk?
A: I was confident something would happen, and it did respond very rapidly. People began to see possibilities. Richard White, for example, who later set up the Foster/White Gallery, bought an old hotel. In 1960, I bought the Union Trust Building from Sam Israel and moved my office there. So far as I know, that was the only building Sam ever sold. After that, when our two boys were in college, we moved into the Fisher Studio Building, near Pioneer Square. We converted it into living spaces and offices, and lived in three different apartments there. That was one of the first buildings to be renovated that way.
Q: You’ve mentored a good number of architects, haven’t you?
A: Well, a lot of them have worked for me. George Suyama and David Fukui, Jim Olson, Gordon Walker — they all came through my office and all went out and did their own thing, which is great. What they may have picked up is a sense of order — which I think all of their architecture reflects — as they developed in their own way.
Q: What do you think of our local architectural trends?
A: A lot of the young architects are in an industrial mode now in building, which is OK, but it doesn’t always produce the warmest kind of feeling. But, it’s an approach, and it’s fairly economical, I would assume. It’s interesting to note how the various styles come and go and come back again. We’re now going back into the late ’40s and early ’50s — lots of glass and a lot of the structure revealed. Steel framing. Remember the Case Study houses, mainly in Los Angeles? That was part of the 1950s. I think it’s OK, if it’s handled right. There is a lot of Bungalow style being built now by developers, but that’s very limited, in my opinion.
Q: How might architects best learn the profession?
A: I think they should build their own house first, which I did, with some help. They’ll find out in a hurry what’s practical, what expenses are and how to keep that under control. And then, if they live in it, they’ll find what they like, what is part of them, and they’ll hopefully develop their own vocabulary and do the things they’re comfortable with. And, hopefully, people will like what they do. I learned more from the practicality of building houses than I did from school.
Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.