Can this house (and garden) be saved?

Some things keep Cass Turnbull up at night. The fate of the historic Bittman House at 4625 Eastman Ave. in Wallingford is one. She wrote a blog post about it for Wallyhood:

It’s keeping me up at night thinking that a developer is going to raze the garden, chop down her Heritage Trees and bulldoze that wonderful house–the likes of which will never be made again in Seattle…

A lot of other people are losing sleep over it as well. The post has gotten 249 recommends and 68 comments so far.

At the time the post was published, April 23, the home was in limbo, the owner, Marilyn Bechlem, had recently died and Cass who had been Ms. Bechlem’s gardener grew worried that this house would slip through everyone’s radar and be demolished for Seattle’s latest construction boom.

Marilyn’s Wallingford house is a sort of legend among neighbors. People have wondered for many decades who owns that house, and what is hidden by the overgrown trees and shrubs. It has the air of a mansion in a romantic novel and it has cast a spell over many people.

The house is now for sale with a gentle "No Trespassing" sign on the gate.

The house is now for sale with a gentle “No Trespassing” sign on the gate.

Neighbors have rallied under the spell of this house with an outpouring of love and nostalgia for it, its owners, and the garden. A landmark nomination form was quickly written up and submitted. Talk of crowd sourcing to pay for the over 50 years of deferred maintenance was bantered about. People pledged their time in the form of free labor for work around the place. People who had walked by and never noticed the home before were in awe. A Wallingford gem had been discovered.

The house was designed and built by Henry W. Bittman, a famous Seattle architect, whose work, writes Caterina Provost-Smith in Shaping Seattle Architecture, “adorned the north end of Seattle’s downtown with a string of terra-cotta jewels and contributed more than 250 new and remodeled buildings to business and civic districts throughout Washington and Alaska.”

He is best known for the United Shopping Tower, now the Olympic Tower, an historic landmark, and the Terminal Sales Building. He is also responsible for the King County Court House and Eagles Temple.

The Tudor house at 4625 Eastman Ave. is believed to be his “first foray into residential architecture.” He built if for himself and his wife, Jessie, “an active, college-educated woman and an award-winning horticulturist,” writes Provost-Smith. The gardens she planted on the property’s .33 acres were the ones Cass would eventually tend.

For the Bittmans, who never had children, the house was a social gathering place, where they entertained lavishly. Notes Provost-Smith, “They crowned each year with an elaborate New Year’s Eve party, where, at the stroke of midnight, a specially designed dining table would split open and a sculpture commemorating the year would arise and revolve.”

Today hidden within the overgrown garden the house is like a battered time capsule. It’s little changed from the time when the Bittman’s lived in it over a half a century ago.  True,

The copper downspouts have been stolen, the irrigation doesn’t work, there is a tarp over the greenhouse, the walkway is buckled, a concrete retaining wall leans outward toward the ally.  But that neglect also means that everything is still original. The gutters are made of wood. The shingles are wood. There are original appliances in the kitchen. The outside is nice but the impressive part is inside–there is a painted mural and leaded windows, incredible wood work, vaulted ceilings, and bay windows in the study that open outward….

Beneath the wood-beamed Cathedral ceiling, amongst the stain glass windows and doors, between the original light fixtures and sconces, are murals of Lake Union, how it looked before all the development, how it must have looked just as Seattle was rising.

I only got brief looks inside the house because Marilyn (only the second owner of the house) was an extremely private woman. Even those neighbors with whom she spoke regularly were never allowed inside. As I entered the living room for the first time, I stopped, looked around and said, “Wow.” Marilyn said, “People always say that.” I took in what I could while following Marilyn to the underground garages to get to the water shut off (I was going through a secret passage!). She took me upstairs to the bedroom so I could see if we could improve the view from her tiny balcony (a real balcony!).

The heirs to the house also spoke up in the comments section of the blog both surprised by the neighborhood outpouring and a little taken aback. They explained it was complicated estate, but they were on it and considering the house in light of what their sister and aunt would have wanted.

Long before seeing the inside of the house  I had fallen  in love with the garden, which was why I had been hired. It had been totally overtaken by invading holly, laurel, Oregon grape, blackberries, and vines. Beneath it all hid a collection of perfect, 60-year-old ornamental shrubs and trees. My crew and I worked there one day a month for over a year to dig it out. It was the secret garden, and it was my job to restore it to Marilyn’s satisfaction—not an easy task. It was both hard and delicate work. Marilyn liked the overgrown look and was quite protective of every plant that the original owner, Mrs. Bittman, had planted there. Marilyn, a spry 82 year old,  knew where each plant was and would walk fearlessly through the tangle on uneven ground to show us things and to check on our work. She could hear a comment made 15-feet away. So it was quite a challenge.

The house is up for sale now, and the chief selling point is, fortunately, not the development rights, but the history.

(Click the following link to view the listing and lots of great photos of the property:
http://www.matrix.nwmls.com/DE.asp?ID=14286202580 After you open it up click on the small camera.)

As pricy as the house is, a cool $1,800,000, plus the cost of all the needed improvements to bring it into the 21st century, new wiring, plumbing, some new configuration inside too, it has one modern selling point–in the form of three classic garages. For a house that has a walkability rating of 90 that’s a lot of parking.

But Cass is still nervous, she worries that potential buyers will split up the property, keep the house but sell off the two plots beside it to pay for the renovation. “That would be a terrible shame,” she writes.  “The two really need to be kept together, like an old married couple.”

If that happen, says Cass, if they stay together and both house and garden get landmark status, “Then I’ll sleep like a baby forever.” A lot of other people will rest easy too.

 

A double garage (pictured) and a single garage are part of the property.

A double garage (pictured) and a single garage are part of the property.