The House That Grew -- This Whidbey Island Getaway Quickly Surpassed The Original Plans
CUTLINE: BELOW - THE HOUSE IS SET IN A CLEARING AT THE END OF A WOODED DRIVEWAY. WHILE THE BLUE-METAL ROOF WAS CHOSEN PRIMARILY FOR ITS DURABILITY, IT ALSO TIES THE HOUSE TO THE WATER AND MOUNTAINS BEYOND IT.
CUTLINE: TOP - UNPAINTED WOOD TRIM SURROUNDING FRENCH DOORS AND WINDOWS WAS MILLED FROM TREES REMOVED IN ORDER TO BUILD THE HOUSE. AT LEFT REAR IS THE PRINCIPAL ENTRANCE TO THE HOUSE, WHICH LEADS TO THE DINING ROOM.
CUTLINE: ABOVE - SQUARE WINDOWS, FRENCH DOORS AND A CLERESTORY MAKE THE LIVING ROOM A BRIGHT AND INVITING SPACE. BY CHOICE, FURNISHINGS AND ART WORK TAKE SECOND PLACE TO THE VIEWS.
CUTLINE: PATRICIA WRONSKY WORKS AT ONE OF HER LOOMS IN THE LOFT ABOVE THE DINING ROOM. HERE SHE CAN KEEP AN EYE ON HER YOUNG SON, LISTEN TO LIVING-ROOM CONVERSATION, AND LOOK OUT THE WINDOWS AT THE WATER VIEW.
``We started out thinking we just wanted a weekend cottage, something very small nestled in the woods.''
That's how Christopher Wronsky describes the first ideas he and his wife, Patricia, developed as they pondered what to build on waterfront property they had bought near Langley on Whidbey Island. Eventually they opted for a 2,500-square-foot, two-story house - and a two-hour commute four days a week - to be able to enjoy the beauty of the site all year 'round.
The Wronskys owned a small older home in north Seattle with views of Lake Washington. But both wanted a waterfront getaway. Wronsky, a commercial real-estate appraiser, realized that affordable undeveloped waterfront lots were fast disappearing, and began searching for property four years ago.
He narrowed his search to Whidbey Island for several reasons. ``The weather is better than on Vashon because we are in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. It's less gentrified than Bainbridge. And there is relatively quick ferry access to the mainland - every 25 or 30 minutes instead of once an hour.''
With the help of a local real-estate agent, he found the perfect site - 11 heavily treed acres with 300 feet of shoreline on Holmes Harbor, with views north and west to the Olympic Mountains. The property cost $90,000.
The couple first talked about building a small guest cottage on the site and then, eventually, the main house. But they re-evaluated that idea almost immediately because ``we'd seen too many people who had built the guest cottage and never built the main house.'' The solution seemed to be to design a house that could be built in phases as money became available, and that was how they proceeded.
Architect Edward Zigmund Wronsky did the designs based on priorities his brother and sister-in-law defined. The architect, with degrees from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, has a practice in Southhampton, N.Y., that does residential design as well as institutional space planning.
The Whidbey house was designed to be built in three sections: the main-floor living room, dining room, kitchen and loft first, followed by the master bedroom and bath, and later by the children's bedrooms and garage. While the concept was a practical solution to limited funds, it turned out to be an inefficient way to build.
``When we began to talk to the builders, we found out that the marginal cost of putting
together the whole outside provided great savings,'' Christopher Wronsky says. ``It meant we didn't have to bring in earth-moving equipment three times to pour foundations and we wouldn't be leaving re-bar exposed or stubbing out plumbing, or putting up temporary siding that would have to be replaced. We figured out that if we left off all the interior trim, for just a few thousand dollars more we could have the entire exterior of the house complete.'' It ended up costing $60 per square foot for the unfinished house partly because of the quality of materials used, including clear cedar ciding, blue-metal roof, select oak floors and high-quality thermopane windows. The finish work will take an additional $40,000. That doesn't include the cost of a septic tank that had to be located 435 feet inland from the house, or the 942 cubic yards of fill required to turn a bog into a suitable driveway.
The Wronskys stayed in a trailer on weekends to get to know the site better. They moved their pickup truck around the clearing and stood on ladders to envision the views from different rooms on the second floor. Patricia had insisted that they keep as many trees as possible on the site, removing only the ones needed to make room for the house. But in August, when she was forced to wear long underwear and run around from patch of sunlight to patch of sunlight, she decided that they could get rid of a few more trees! In making the decision, they also dedicated the good trees taken down to be milled for interior trim. The rest provide fuel for the dual gas/woodburning furnace.
With his strength in space planning, Edward Wronsky designed the house by looking at functions and laying out uses for the various rooms. That, as well as the initial phased development requirement, determined a long and narrow house form - one room wide in some places. Its components combine volumes of space along a 96-foot-long spine extending from the master bath at one end to the garage at the other. The major axis of the house was consciously turned 30 degrees from due west. This allows more views to the north, where the water always appears to be a richer blue, and provides wonderful light during the summer. By not siting the house to face directly west, and by taking advantage of the shade offered by a clump of large cedars, they avoided some of the afternoon baking that would have occurred in the summer. The orientation and window placement also opens the house to the prevailing breezes from the north and keeps the house comfortable during the warmest weather.
Another inspiration for the house was the Prairie-styled C.H. Clarke residence in The Highlands designed in 1908 by Andrew Willatsen for the architectural firm of Cutter and Malmgren. Christopher Wronsky had appraised the Clark house and loved its roof lines, size and scale of the rooms, and its grouping of forms. He sent his brother photographs and floor plans.
While the Whidbey house was not designed consciously in imitation of the Clarke house, nor is it a contemporary interpretation, the architect did pay attention to positive design expressions of that type of house, particularly its long axial form and broad sheltering roof overhangs. The latter, reinterpreted in blue metal, also were a practical solution to shed rainwater and the debris that is constantly blowing off the trees.
The house is spacious without being overly large. It was planned for casual entertaining. Wronsky's brother designed the dining room so it is the first room one approaches from the entrance hall; it does double duty as part of the greeting area of the house as well as the place to eat. There are no partitions between the kitchen and dining areas - only a small wood island for food preparation. There also is another preparation area with an additional sink out of view of the dining room ``for people who absolutely insist on helping with dinner,'' Wronsky said. This frequently is used as the coffee and breakfast bar to keep the clutter of appliances off the blue pearl granite counters in the kitchen.
A dramatic rise in ceiling height and light entering from four directions triggers the move from dining to living room. Triads of square picture windows, French doors and the clerestory give the house a transparent quality both outside and in. As you approach it from the driveway, you can see through the entrance, the living room and clerestory to the cedar trees and harbor beyond. Inside, the windows provide an ever-changing show of light and shadow on the white walls.
The loft - Patricia's weaving studio and the guest bedroom - is open acoustically and visually to the living room, but the two substantial looms, and all of the clutter of yarns and bobbins that go with them, are invisible from below. Nestled under the pitched roof, the loft has windows set lower in the wall so the harbor views can be enjoyed while sitting or lying down. Also upstairs are two mirror-image bedrooms with sloping roofs and lower windows.
The house is still unfinished. Trim moldings, just out of the mill, await several free weekends to be cut and installed. And the master bedroom and bath - the latter with windows wrapped around three sides - will finally be getting wallboard and fixtures now that the couple has sold their house in town. They actually look forward to that process, relieved to know that it all will be interior work, thanks to their early decision to opt for building the whole instead of the parts.
LAWRENCE KREISMAN IS THE AUTHOR OF ``ART DECO SEATTLE,'' ``HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN SEATTLE'' AND ``THE BLOEDEL RESERVE: GARDENS IN THE FOREST.'' PETER LIDDELL IS A SEATTLE TIMES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER.
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