A Christmas-loving couple finished the job two previous owners had started, creating a beautiful family home out of a 10,000-square-foot former Navy administration office.

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WHEN YOU TALK about Christmas with Bethany O’Neill, you’re talking about food.

“I can’t wait for Christmas,” she says. “My favorite part is our breakfast. We’re having doughnuts! Three different styles of Rick Bayless doughnuts.”

These will be made by Shawn, Bethany’s husband, a guy who reads cookbooks like other people read murder mysteries.

Bethany has her own plans. “I’m making a ginger-pear tart for company tomorrow.” Then she adds, “I love to bake, but the 2-year-old is really socking it to me.”

Welcome to the O’Neills’. Bethany, Shawn, Finn, Hugh, Gus and Lillie (she’s the 2-year-old). Life here is, well, different. The O’Neills live in an office building that sits on Bainbridge Island’s old Fort Ward property. It’s a 10,000-square-foot poured concrete structure built in 1941 as a Navy administration building. (Work here included cracking Japanese code and other communications. But that’s a secret.).

When Bethany O’Neill first saw the place, she thought it was a condo building. At one point, it had sat vacant for years: “I can’t tell you how many people said to us, ‘I used to come here to drink.’ Or, ‘I broke my arm when I jumped out the window.’ ” There are six bedrooms, seven bathrooms. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
When Bethany O’Neill first saw the place, she thought it was a condo building. At one point, it had sat vacant for years: “I can’t tell you how many people said to us, ‘I used to come here to drink.’ Or, ‘I broke my arm when I jumped out the window.’ ” There are six bedrooms, seven bathrooms. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

The couple stumbled upon the place 11 years ago, when they were moving up from Los Angeles. Two previous owners, bless their hearts, commenced work to transform offices into home, the first introducing an Art Deco motif, and the second imagining an Italian villa, along with a pool and pool house (also garages).

The new slipper chairs in the living room, with appropriate pops of color from silk accent pillows, set the tone for the home’s new design path and draw the eye away from the fireplace, which still bears its Art Deco ornamentation.  (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The new slipper chairs in the living room, with appropriate pops of color from silk accent pillows, set the tone for the home’s new design path and draw the eye away from the fireplace, which still bears its Art Deco ornamentation. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

But, still, it was unique. And there were the beautiful surrounding grounds (seven acres). A perfect country home for kids.

“This is the first house we saw,” Bethany says. “With my L.A. eyes I thought it was a condo! But Shawn and I have always liked something a little different.” So now, the O’Neills, too, are putting their own stamp on the place, hitching their decorating wagon to fellow islander, interior designer Michelle Burgess.

Every year the O’Neills head out to Poulsbo to find their tree, big and open, good for beribboning and loading with ornaments. The mirror is from Restoration Hardware. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Every year the O’Neills head out to Poulsbo to find their tree, big and open, good for beribboning and loading with ornaments. The mirror is from Restoration Hardware. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Burgess has popped over today to turn up the volume on the holiday decorations. Oranges are piled into stately urns at the front door. A massive garland and wreath — handmade from thousands of fresh bay leaves — hang heavy in the entry. Limes, sliced in half, are incorporated into wreaths hanging in the dining room.

“This home is challenging for its scale,” Burgess says. “It has these strong lines you just have to acknowledge.”

The master bathroom, crisp and glamorous, has been completely remade. Pink Art Deco tile fell for statuary marble and a Burgbad bathtub that Burgess got a deal on. The chandelier, from Oly, is made of abalone shells. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The master bathroom, crisp and glamorous, has been completely remade. Pink Art Deco tile fell for statuary marble and a Burgbad bathtub that Burgess got a deal on. The chandelier, from Oly, is made of abalone shells. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

But the interior designer is fearless, so room by room she goes, removing Deco, toning down villa, uniting all into elegant country contemporary. The master bathroom got the treatment a year ago, and now it’s on to the kitchen. “Every time Shawn sees me he says, ‘What are we doing now?’ Sometimes, I tell him, ‘Hey! I’m just here having a glass of wine with Bethany.’ She and I are always in cahoots.”

But we digress.

“We baked,” says Bethany, remembering her Christmases past. “My mother makes 10, 15 varieties of cookies every year.

“And every Christmas my grandmother had a party for family and friends. It was open-door, and I always remember that she had the Champagne out. My grandmother loved to have fun. We have her silver and set it on our table, and I always have bubbly for Connie. … She passed away two years ago.”

It is tradition, though, that keeps memories alive. And the O’Neills, in their former office building of a home with a lawn worthy of the White House, have their own, too.

“We go out to Poulsbo and get our tree. It’s a very open tree, and I like that because I like to put ribbon on it,” says Bethany.

Burgess’ attempts to transform an institutional space into a family home are clearly evident in the welcoming dining room. The alabaster urn table lamps are Marlborough, highly collectible classics. They wear handmade silk shades from Harold’s Lighting and came from M. Culbert at Pacific Galleries. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Burgess’ attempts to transform an institutional space into a family home are clearly evident in the welcoming dining room. The alabaster urn table lamps are Marlborough, highly collectible classics. They wear handmade silk shades from Harold’s Lighting and came from M. Culbert at Pacific Galleries. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

“On Christmas Eve we have a nice meal, and Santa shows up and runs around the lawn around 6 or 7 p.m.

“It’s funny, though, but Shawn is never here to see him.”