A midcentury home on Lake Washington was featured in The Seattle Times in 1958, then fell into a little bad luck. But an architect talked the new owners into rehabbing the house, and they turned it into a star again.

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LIKE A CHILD STAR of the built environment, Marty and Pam Vowels’ naturally photogenic Bellevue home achieved fame at an early age. Adorable in youth, the precocious showpiece by architect Roland “Ron” Wilson appeared in the June 15, 1958, edition of The Seattle Times’ magazine, “Sunday Color Rotogravure Pictorial.” (Catchy!) In one of three black-and-white photos, its decks stretch toward Lake Washington behind a craggy landscape of waterfalls, paths and rock gardens.

The Vowelses’ two-tone kitchen (African teak and conversion varnish white cabinets by Jesse Bay Cabinet Co.) is a far cry from the landslide mess left there in the 1990s. The backsplash, Oceanside recycled glass from Ambiente Tile in Bellevue, “was probably my splurge,” Pam Vowels says, and the quartz-topped island, from Western Tile & Marble, filled the “need for something the grandkids can color on.”  (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The Vowelses’ two-tone kitchen (African teak and conversion varnish white cabinets by Jesse Bay Cabinet Co.) is a far cry from the landslide mess left there in the 1990s. The backsplash, Oceanside recycled glass from Ambiente Tile in Bellevue, “was probably my splurge,” Pam Vowels says, and the quartz-topped island, from Western Tile & Marble, filled the “need for something the grandkids can color on.” (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

The home’s transition to maturity was even rockier. By the time the Vowelses took ownership in 1999, the troubled main building, cabana and mother-in-law apartment/garage, all perched together on a perfect-view lakeshore, had three rooflines and three themes. The sun had beaten down the dark exterior stain. A landslide five years earlier had wiped out the kitchen.

Things were veering speedily toward a Lindsay Lohan/“Herbie” demolition derby rather than a happy Ron Howard rebranding.

“Truth be known, we had planned to tear it down,” Pam Vowels says.

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“It was a wart,” admits architect Gerald Redding, aka the modern-day sequel director who successfully lobbied for midlife rehab instead.

“To me it was always a knockdown,” says Marty. “But Gerald came in and did sketches, and they allowed us to see more.”

Marty Vowels used to golf five or six times a week. Now he practices putting on his own green, next to a 16-foot-high retaining wall supported by metal pilings. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Marty Vowels used to golf five or six times a week. Now he practices putting on his own green, next to a 16-foot-high retaining wall supported by metal pilings. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

When they originally bought the home, the Vowelses didn’t even see themselves living in it.

“We bought it for Marty’s mom,” Pam says. “We thought we’d just redo it for her and then build new (for us). We thought she’d live here 20 years.”

Sadly, though, Marty’s mother died in 2000, just six months after moving in. The Vowelses still had a separate house, less than a mile away, so other family and friends took turns living on the lake — their three daughters, a future son-in-law and three of his buddies, the daughter of a teacher at Bellevue Christian School, their youth pastor.

“We really shared it with a lot of people,” Pam says.

Then, finally, it was their turn — and suddenly, in the wake of crashing markets, renovating seemed quite a bit more appealing than building new. (Plus, Marty’s from an “Idaho family of loggers,” and he couldn’t bring himself to look them in the eyes and tell them he was demolishing a house.)

“The initial discussion revolved around what could be done to update the architectural style,” says Redding, of Redding Architects. “I suggested keeping the original midcentury design and celebrating it, i.e. respecting what the architect had done but updating materials and making improvements.”

If Redding was the director, Marty was the on-set crew. A woodworking hobbyist, he’s “always been kind of a DIY-er,” he says, and he watched YouTube videos over and over to hone his self-taught skills.

The low ceiling in the living room is “an acquired taste,” Marty says, but the linear firebox (out of frame, to the left) gives a sense of nice proportion, plus, “It’s nice to not spend a ton of money on utilities.” Pam opted for Wall Washers for light (in addition to the giant windows). “I’m not really a sconce person,” she says. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The low ceiling in the living room is “an acquired taste,” Marty says, but the linear firebox (out of frame, to the left) gives a sense of nice proportion, plus, “It’s nice to not spend a ton of money on utilities.” Pam opted for Wall Washers for light (in addition to the giant windows). “I’m not really a sconce person,” she says. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

“I did everything nobody wanted to do,” he says: demolition, framing, most of the electrical work, actual literal ditch-digging (“in the world’s hardest ground”).

A Murphy bed in the mother-in-law apartment over the garage (“the best view of the property except the roof,” Marty says) opens up the space for more uses. The double tongue-and-groove ceiling is painted white, as are the walls. “Sheetrock is so austere; paint gives it character,” Pam says. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
A Murphy bed in the mother-in-law apartment over the garage (“the best view of the property except the roof,” Marty says) opens up the space for more uses. The double tongue-and-groove ceiling is painted white, as are the walls. “Sheetrock is so austere; paint gives it character,” Pam says. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

It’s been a five-year project (the cabana interior is still in production) — but the result is a midcentury midlife renewal: one beautiful theme between all three buildings; a revised floor plan; all new floors; all new walls; upgraded energy-efficiency; and one newly easy-to-find way in, thanks to a new entry roof and hardscape leading from the main gate.

Step through the front door designed by Redding and into the bright entry — now all vertical grain fir, wrapped beams, skylights, Sheetrock covering the previous “dark and oppressive” tongue and groove ceiling — and here is the home the Vowelses always wanted for themselves: a two-tone kitchen; a main-level laundry room (“one of the bigger challenges”) with cubbies, cabinets and a standing desk; a bright downstairs “Kidville” just for the grandchildren; a master bedroom that’s all about that made-for-the-movies view.

With a new roof and hardscape leading from the gate, “Gerald overcame how to lead people who park to the entry,” Marty says. The stairs lead to the mother-in-law apartment over the garage. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
With a new roof and hardscape leading from the gate, “Gerald overcame how to lead people who park to the entry,” Marty says. The stairs lead to the mother-in-law apartment over the garage. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Since the 1950s, of course, that view has changed along with the world: The Seattle skyline is higher and wider, the Interstate 90 bridge is busier — and a former media darling gone sideways has found redemption.

“It was enjoyable to see everything come together, giving the home a future,” Redding says. “It’s got new life after hearing it was going to be torn down and demolished.”