SHAME ABOUT SEARS. Things were going so well there for a while — like way back in the early 1900s, when Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold houses. Whole houses. In kits. Through that fabled catalog. Meaning: Home sweet home — from the nails to the pipes to the siding — arrived in boxes. Major assembly required.
And you thought that Ikea bookcase was tough.
Sears sold 70,000 or so of those so-called Modern Homes — all with high-quality materials and, clearly, excellent instructions: An estimated 70% of them are still standing. Meaning: There are more active Sears kit houses these days than there are active Sears stores.
Mar Gonzalez and Adam Sedo live in one of the oldest (and, likely, most active, considering they have a 2-year-old son). It’s a lovely, sturdy specimen of Sears Roebuck Modern Home No. 174: an American Foursquare, with three levels and 3,000 square feet — purposefully squarish, in fact, to maximize its city lot. Its original mail-order price, in 1909, was a whopping $937 (a cozy rocking-chair front porch, now enclosed, was an optional add-on).
And you thought that Ikea bookcase was a deal.
Mar and Adam’s mail-order Modern Home in Madrona has not only outlasted every Sears store in Seattle; it also has made it to a whole new era of modernity, thanks to a graceful renovation by Dwell Development, which recently updated three historic homes by introducing cutting-edge efficiency; enhancing original elements; and, in this case, preserving the legacy of a retail triumph — and the enduring home-assembling labor of our long-ago neighbors.
LIKE STEADFAST OLD FRIENDS, these centennial-and-then-some homes are golden — to architecture, to Seattle, to three sets of preservation-minded homeowners, and to Dwell Development co-principals Anthony and Abbey Maschmedt. Known for their own signature shade of bright green, they have built a national reputation by building distinctive modern homes stuffed to the super-insulated rafters with sustainable, Earth-friendly materials and technology.
Folks have noticed. In July, Dwell won the Department of Energy’s 2020 Housing Innovation Award, which recognizes innovators in zero-energy building, for its 5-Star Built Green home, Flora Farmhouse, in Georgetown. This was not Dwell’s first DOE rodeo: In 2016, Seattle’s first Emerald Star Certified home, in Ballard, was the “Custom Spec grand winner,” and the firm’s net-zero homes in Mount Baker and Columbia City won in that category, too.
These days, when the Maschmedts look toward the future, they’re also training their efficiency-minded eyes on Seattle’s past, without blurring their overall vision one bit. “There’s a quote that, in regards to sustainability, the greenest homes ever built are the ones that already exist,” says Abbey, Dwell design project manager. “The fact they’re not torn down and put into a landfill supports our sustainable mission and drive, and we’re glad we can contribute to that.”
The Maschmedts live in a home in Columbia City they built in 2007 to resemble a 1900s-era Victorian, turret and all. Old is really not new to them. There was a learning curve in the sharp turn toward historical renovation, to be sure, but also rewarding revelations.
“We’d done one thing: We’re successful at building modern, sustainable homes,” Abbey says. “We’re all about learning new things. We were trying to balance ‘How far do we go?’ and ‘What do modern people want?’ We’re not renovating for people living in 1905; how do we find the balance between a modern house and restoration? We saved doors. We found that out quickly: Throwing out all the old doors is easier, but are they as beautiful and charming? We saved all the hardwood floors and hardware and light fixtures — and it was worth it.”
In any era, Anthony says, good architecture is good architecture. “You can see a modern home that’s well-designed and say, ‘That’s really nice,’ or you can see a crappy box and go, ‘Eww’ — same with a Victorian or a Foursquare,” he says.
And well-built is well-built. The three classic homes Dwell renovated all had, as they say, good bones — and personal significance.
In each case, “This was completely just the right place at the right time — they all were on the market, and we had to have the right feeling. Every single seller sold us the homes because they felt we would be the best stewards for their homes and bring them back to life. I had an absolute love affair with every single one of those houses,” says Abbey, who graduated from Garfield High School in 1987. “I am really connected to that area, and that neighborhood has changed dramatically. We don’t want to strip away all of our history. It’s meaningful for me to save homes. Architecture is important, and so is maintaining a variety of styles. It gives me pause to look around the city and see only modern boxes. Cities like Barcelona, Spain, are able to artistically blend old and new. There can be a waltz between the two.”
FROM THEIR PREVIOUS place, a modern townhome on Capitol Hill, Mar and Adam were pretty much slow-dancing through their house hunt — “not in super-mayhem,” Adam says, although, with their young son teetering toward toddling, “Space was becoming a bit more challenging.”
Location-wise, it was important to keep their commute short and green. Ambience-wise, “We wanted something charming with some soul,” Adam says. “We had been looking at really rundown houses, or old ones, thinking we would fix it, but that required a ton of project management, and we’re not experts on these.”
This was the Maschmedts’ first historical renovation, but they were already well en route to expert.
“As part of my process, with every home we build, I would close my eyes and imagine what had been there, what had transpired over 100 years. And then: How will you live in the home today?” Abbey says. “I found myself inventing what may have happened within the walls. And seeing how things were built is really, really interesting.”
And, sometimes, surprising.
Mar and Adam’s Madrona home “had this archway molding into the entryway that arched so much, it would hit you in the forehead,” Anthony says. “This big, dramatic entryway — we had to adjust it — was probably a $50 doorway add-on to the kit. While replacing some of the siding, we discovered they had used newspaper back from the 1920s or ’30s: fully preserved newspaper sections we left for the buyers. You find all kinds of things like that.”
The staircase was “made more grand,” Abbey says. The floor plan was reworked for this-century living, and dentil work and moldings were replaced. Original fir floors were refinished. Vintage chandeliers were renewed. Sconces included with purchase, back in 1909, remain. Some original windows were saved and repaired. “When homes are built with that kind of craftsmanship and materials, you can see why they last so long. You can’t get that anymore,” says Anthony. Others were replaced with modern, eco-friendly options, as were systems and appliances.
So, by the time Mar and Adam stepped inside (no ducking required!), they found the charming, modern, livable 110-year-old kit home of their dreams.
“They didn’t go small,” Mar says of the Maschmedts. “They really improved the whole flow of the house, which is not a minor thing. It was insured like a completely new house, because they changed all the electric; they [updated] all the pipes. This is not just like a fixer or a flipper. This is nothing like that. This is like if you were to do it yourself, you’d do it this way. Overall, 90% of the decisions they made, we would have probably chosen for our own remodel. The moment that we saw it, we were like, ‘This is it.’ ”
CATHIE TOSHACH’S MOTHER used to be a historic preservationist, so it’s perhaps not too surprising — to us, anyway — that Cathie and her partner, John Suciu, live in a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1896. Or that Cathie has dug into historical society records for clues to its past.
“It’s always been kind of rooted in me since the beginning, just appreciating architecture,” she says. “There are some historical photos; you can see it really hasn’t changed much in terms of the design, architectural integrity, since it was built. I know it was listed as one of the significant buildings for the central area for its unique architecture, being a Victorian-style house.”
Had you asked Cathie before they moved in, though … she really did not see this coming.
“This is the first home I’ve owned,” she says. “I’m 41, so it was like, for my first home, I wanted it to be something I’m excited about. I never actually thought of myself as a Victorian-style homeowner; I thought I would go for midcentury modern, like a bungalow. But what ended up attracting me to this was the architecture. It’s beautiful. And with this house, I really appreciated the blend of the old and the new, like modern amenities with the old character, which is becoming harder and harder to find in my price point. They kept a lot of the original details — the stair still has creaks in it — and some of the original lighting.”
On the first level, original wood floors were restored, and a vintage chandelier shines elegance and authenticity on the foyer. The original staircase remains, along with pocket doors in the living room/parlor, and their original hardware. The fireplace was restored to its original period design with brick, reclaimed wood and Carrara marble. Brick from the chimney runs up to the roof, indoors, exposed.
All represent a visible, beautiful, tactile part of that balance between old and new, history and efficiency, character and convenience.
“Many of the things we did were behind the walls that were expected: plumbing, electricity, HVAC, roofing and insulation — you have to check those boxes,” Abbey says. “People don’t want leaded pipes; you have to make sure the systems are updated. They’re not seen, but they are appreciated. We try to make the homes as new as possible from all aspects of livability and comfort. I find the secret sauce is having a meticulous eye for detail: making sure the cabinets and the pulls and the hardware are there; you walk in, and you see them, and you feel them. All those details tell the story of the house.”
Anchoring the newest chapter here is one significant update, and one awesome addition: The kitchen was transformed into a modern, open, chef’s kitchen, with energy-efficient appliances nestled among vintage lighting and period details. “I like how they were able to make it feel refined, but not generic-trendy that you get so much in renovations these days,” Cathie says. “They put in this really nice Art Deco light over the kitchen sink that was original, and they left a wall-mounted cupboard and a butcher table that they put a new top on.”
And on the upper, attic level, Abbey says, “We created an entire master suite — obviously, that’s more to do with a modern way to live — in the turret. We also added closets. People didn’t have a lot of clothes in the 1900s.”
We’re not sure about their wardrobes, but Cathie and John do have two cats (Jack and Walter) and oodles of plants — 120 or so, not counting “air plants, terrariums and aquatic plants,” she says — so the new tippy-top suite, for now, serves as a very cool greenhouse, and a very workable workspace. Modern living is all about adaptability.
“Right now, I’m working from home,” Cathie says. “This is supposed to be my studio for my plants and my craft projects, but right now it’s also where I work day to day. So I had to create a makeshift desk. I keep all my plants up here right now because my cats are uncooperative.”
DWELL’S THIRD HISTORICAL renovation project, another American Foursquare (called “Blue Spruce” and built in 1902), “is the grandest of the three,” Abbey says
And, perhaps, the most ripe for research and discovery.
“I went down the rabbit hole trying to find out who owned it. We believe it was owned by someone fairly significant in the Seattle area,” Abbey says. “We had some flooring that had to be pulled out — oak veneer, not salvageable — and we discovered perfectly intact Ladies Home Journals from 1917. The entire floor in the entryway and the parlor were covered with them. They were used as a vapor barrier. I created this whole story that someone had come door-to-door selling oak veneer flooring as an upgrade, and they used all of the homeowner’s Ladies Home Journals. It’s a pretty magical house.”
Abbey pored through historical documents to explain “a giant pit in the basement — it looked like a swimming pool, maybe a baptismal, and we were completely intrigued,” she says. Turns out, it was a state-of-the-art coal pit when the home was built. “They had central heat. We were like, ‘Wow; this is incredible.’ We saved things as a result of that. You have to pay homage.”
Now, Anthony says, “We finished half of the basement with a laundry room and a carpeted play area, and left the rest to be expanded, if wanted, for storage.”
The kitchen, likely renovated in the 1970s, was modernized into something tres French-chic, Abbey says. The butler’s pass-through between the kitchen and dining room was enhanced. Upstairs, “The bathrooms were a hodgepodge mess,” Anthony says. “We refreshed both bathrooms in the master and the hallway and completely redesigned the way those bathrooms functioned.”
“One of the biggest things we tackled was all of the millwork: beautiful mahogany,” Abbey says. “Somebody had lacquered it every couple of years, so we stripped all of that down and restained it. We had to repair and add to it; I had to match old molding, and then we had to match old doors. They don’t make materials like this anymore. We had to weave it in there.”
Weaving, restoring, preserving, respecting: It all “tells the story of how the house was constructed and materials that were used; it creates intrigue and makes the home special,” Anthony says. “Being able to expose them and bring them back is significant from a restoration viewpoint. It’s fun, and an interesting process to say, ‘Let’s Sheetrock over that old pipe, but let’s expose this steel hold-down or beam or brick wall’; it’s still interesting.”
This passion-project process (Dwell renovated all three historic homes in 12 months) represents a vision, an entire history curriculum of lessons, and an opportunity for preservation and imagination — maybe not once-in-a-lifetime, but maybe twice in a lifetime: then, and now.
“Work on older styles got us thinking to bring this type of architecture back in new construction with our sustainable business — a net-zero Victorian, or Craftsman — maybe there’s a new market for us to re-create; that might be in our future,” Anthony says. “And I think people would really love to see that. Every new house that comes on the market is modern in design; you don’t see really true old-style architecture, and it’s challenging for buyers. We will do more. When the right timing comes around, and the right project, one of these a year would be an ideal opportunity. It’s important.”