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Sunday, July 29, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

A Perfect Union -- An Artist Turns A West Seattle Labor Hall Into A Home

CUTLINE: ABOVE - THE UNPRETENTIOUS, 3,200-SQUARE-FOOT STRUCTURE SERVED AS A WEST SEATTLE CHURCH FROM 1924 UNTIL THE 1950S, WHEN LOCAL NO. 1208 OF THE UNITED STEELWORKERS OF AMERICA MOVED IN. A 10-FOOT-WIDE NEON SIGN BEARING THE INSCRIPTION ``1208 USA CIO'' HANGS IN FRONT.

CUTLINE: LAUREL LIKES TO DISPLAY THE TREASURES SHE FINDS ON HIKES AND WALKS. IN ONE CORNER A VAXE OF FLOWERS WEARS A DRIED HORNET'S NEST.

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When Janet Laurel went shopping for a new home two years ago, she heeded the advice of an old jingle. She looked for the union label.

Until recently, Laurel's West Seattle house was headquarters for Local No. 1208 of the United Steelworkers of America. A 10-foot-wide neon sign bearing the inscription ``1208 USA CIO'' hangs from the front of the building, a familiar landmark in this blue-collar neighborhood bordering the Duwamish industrial area.

``I had always wanted to own my own building - one that was adequate for me to live in and work in, and that had high ceilings,'' says Laurel, 50, an artist.

The unpretentious, 3,200-square-foot structure served as a church from 1924 until the 1950s, when the union moved in. A simple stick-work design decorates the front, while diagonal braces support the building's broad eaves. A wide wooden staircase leads from the utilitarian ground floor to the upstairs sanctuary, an expansive, light-filled space crowned by a 20-foot ceiling.

``I got a very good deal on the building because it was in bad repair,'' Laurel says. ``It had dry rot. It was filthy. It hadn't been painted, and the colors it had been painted were like gas-chamber green.''

As part of the purchase agreement, the union remained in the building for nine months after Laurel moved in, occupying the downstairs while she lived and worked on the floor above. The owner says the experience was educational for both parties.

``There were lots of fireworks,'' she says, recalling the territorial battles and contrasting temperaments that marked the period. ``They did not anticipate a single woman artist being a strong woman. They probably thought I'd go upstairs and paint in the corner with the cobwebs.''

Instead, she set about erasing decades of neglect. Laurel repainted the building inside and out; hauled away truckloads of debris from the yard, cleaned decades of grime off the windows; took down 30 years' worth of posters from the walls; and removed the amber windowpanes the church had installed upstairs, revealing attractive views of Elliott Bay and parts of downtown.

Because she was working within a limited budget, Laurel kept the changes cosmetic, allowing the building's character to shine through - for better or for worse. On the plus side, the structure still boasted its original wainscoting and wood-sash windows. Unfortunately, the union had seen fit to cover the fir floors with a lightweight layer of amber cement impregnated with free-form splashes of red and blue pigment. Because she couldn't afford to remove the cement or cover it up, Laurel diffused the floor's impact by applying her own abstract brushwork to doors and cabinetry.

She tore out the glass-and-steel cage that surrounded the union's office on the ground floor, creating a combination guest room and office that's open to the adjoining living room. The steelworkers had used the space at the far end of the living room as a food bank. A little exploratory surgery revealed that the warren of rooms actually was a stage, with a proscenium opening along one wall. Laurel restored the opening and turned the space into a sitting area and storage space for her paintings. She sponged the walls with several shades of pale peach paint to hide the patches and cracks underneath.

Upstairs, the sanctuary became a combination dining room and painting studio. An adjacent storage room was turned into a master bedroom. To help diffuse the height of the ceiling in these rooms, Laurel advertised in servicemen's magazines for old World War II silk parachutes. She painted the parachutes and suspended them from the ceiling like canopies. In addition to making the rooms feel cozier, the parachutes help hide ugly light fixtures and other flaws.

With little money to spend on furnishings, Laurel resorted to prowling around junk shops. Among her booty: a $20 Chinese hooked rug, a $30 standing desk (whose legs she amputated to make it fit on a countertop), an Art Deco dentist's cabinet and a standing desk made from a Chinese temple carving that once belonged to Ivar Haglund. Other pieces are on loan from friends, such as the twin love seats in the living room and the stuffed cheetah with the rhinestone collar that prowls along the sill of the living-room window.

Because the building has no closets, Laurel commissioned some bookcases from her son, woodworker Steve Martin, and filled the place with old trunks, armoires and boxes that are both decorative and functional. She got good deals on pieces deemed too large for a normal-sized home, such as the 9-foot-long '40s wardrobe and the imposing Victorian cabinet in the studio. Instead of hiding utilitarian objects, she sometimes puts them out on display, splaying paintbrushes in a vase like flowers or dangling them from a set of antlers.

Much of the home's charm comes from the juxtaposition of formal and informal elements. For instance, Laurel took an old bureau, bound for the trash heap, covered it with a psychedelic splash of paint and topped it with a tarnished silver tea service. A silver-rimmed crystal bowl holds no fruit - just a sun-parched bone. A flower arrangement in the entry hall is garnished with a dried hornet's nest. And the coat rack across the hall is draped with a pair of stuffed pheasants.

``I like a lot of elements from nature around me,'' says the artist, who collects many of her accessories while strolling in the country. Tabletops are covered with shells, birds' nests, plates filled with dried rose petals - even a stuffed armadillo.

Natural objects play an important role in Laurel's art as well. Working with sumi (ink) on large sheets of handmade mulberry paper, she integrates calligraphic poems with images of animals in a style influenced by Asian cultures. Her paintings adorn every wall, and even cover pillows, upholstery fabrics and the base of the dining-room table.

Because she didn't want to take out a bank loan to renovate the building, Laurel relied on unskilled labor - largely her own - to keep the remodeling costs down to $20,000. She sought advice from friends and neighbors, and hired them to help on

the house. ``The people in the neighborhood have been wonderful,'' she says. ``I used them for quite a bit of the work. They always said I was `a lady with a dream.' ''

Laurel's dream included erasing some of the blight that had earned the neighborhood the nickname ``Heroin Hill.'' She organized a block watch, and saw it spread to adjacent streets. ``People stop by all the time and tell me what a good job I've done, and how they like seeing the neighborhood improve, and they thank me for cleaning it up,'' she says.

Although Laurel takes pride in the changes she's made, she's been careful to preserve the original character of her home, keeping the union sign in front as a reminder of the building's history. The artist did allow herself one indulgence, however. As a crowning touch, she signed her name across the front door - the final flourish on one of her grandest creations.

FRED ALBERT REPORTS REGULARLY ON HOME DESIGN FOR PACIFIC, AND IS CO-AUTHOR OF ``AMERICAN DESIGN: THE NORTHWEST,'' PUBLISHED BY BANTAM. PETER LIDDELL IS A SEATTLE TIMES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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