Modernizing her midcentury-modern home has become an intensely personal (and personally intense) project.
AFTER SPENDING the past three years remodeling her own midcentury-modern rambler, architect Sheri Olson is now:
1. widely recognized as a “regular” in the electrical aisle of Home Depot.
2. considerably more first-hand-knowledgeable about hands-on remodeling.
3. almost — almost — really close to finished.
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“I am tired,” she says. But, also, already: very happy.
Olson bought this whole-house project of a home, high on a water-view hill above a secluded stretch of West Seattle beach, in 2015. She had some reservations.
“[Before this], I was looking at stuff with no sense of architecture to them,” she says. “And I was looking on Capitol Hill. I thought this was too far away. I’m from New York and am used to walking.”
This home, though, built in 1955 and occupied all that time by its original owner, not only had admirable architecture to it — tall, sloped wood ceilings; exposed beams; “everything in the right place,” she says — it also had tempting, reservation-tempering potential.
“I’ve built a house from scratch,” she says. “If you have a brand-new house, oh my God — that’s it. If you buy an old house, it can always get better.”
You could say there was room for improvement. In every room. For starters, there was no refrigerator in the kitchen. The lighting was mostly fluorescent. Nothing was especially efficient anywhere — not ideal for a LEED-certified architect. And, she says, “There were wires everywhere” — along with storage spaces, bulky built-ins, omnipresent shoji screens and loads of bold ornamentation.
“The day I got the keys, I was over here prying things off the house,” she says. “I like things to be visually calmer. For me, Zen is not putting things up. I started taking that stuff off myself, like the exterior Japanese screen on the fireplace in the family room. There was an insert that had been removed. It was a plywood box with gold wallpaper on it. And I took the shoji screens off, but kept some. There were too many.”
Once things moved out, other things started moving around. Prioritizing was the easy part.
“The fridge was in the garage, so I had to start in the kitchen,” Olson says. “I’m a huge coffee drinker, and I couldn’t keep going from the kitchen to the garage for half and half.”
Here, the skylight got to stay — but the shoji screen over it did not. Ditto the pink and baby-blue cabinets; they were replaced with warm, custom ones. The “range with a huge hood” vacated to accommodate a seated eating counter, “where you can see the water while having breakfast,” Olson says. And, look! That cabinet-like tower of sleekness nestled into the corner is an actual refrigerator. In the kitchen!
Overall, Olson says, “One of the bigger struggles was lighting. Because of the wood decking and exposed beams, [the previous owner] had put in very large track lighting. We figured out new wiring, and more minimal fixtures.” (Olson built the chandelier over the dining table based on the inspired combination of two Lindsey Adelman kits.)
Technology — specifically, she says, Sonos — “really helped eliminate all those wires.”
As for all that storage space, she says, “I’ve repurposed it into other things. The little area on the way to the garage is a new fiction library, painted. I ripped out the storage in the garage for a printing studio. With all that gone, it’s a whole different feeling.”
Flow is restored. Proportions are aligned. Olson’s midcentury-modern rambler is now her modernized home, and her office.
And still a bit of a project (two bathroom remodels remain), but this time with no reservations.
“I bought an espresso maker. I used to walk to get a latte. Since my office is here, I just drive to visit clients,” she says. “This was the best thing I could afford at the time. I knew with some sweat equity, I could turn it into something neat. That was a lot of sweat ago. I’m still sweating.”