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Sunday, May 21, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A World Away -- It Took Eight Years To Refurbish This Vashon Retreat

BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION, David and Anita Lempesis are not practical people. Otherwise, they would have fled their Vashon Island beach house the first time they saw it, and never looked back.

Driving onto the property 15 years ago, they were met by a morass of blackberry bushes and discarded auto parts. The screen door was hanging off its hinges and the glass behind it was broken. Six adults were living inside the 620-square-foot house. An old car engine served as a coffee table in the living room, and oil oozed into the shag carpet - whose color was already soiled beyond recognition.

"We referred to it at the time as our $100,000 fixer-upper," says David, a marketing consultant. Despite the property's condition, he was drawn to the home's easy drive-in access and sunny westside location overlooking Colvos Passage.

"All it needs is some paint and new window treatments," suggested Anita, an interior designer.

By the time they finished fixing up their island retreat, the Lempesises had spent eight years on the project and hauled away 18 truckloads of debris. But in the end, they were left with a cozy, casual vacation home that feels every bit as tranquil as its setting.

Opening up the walls of the postwar fishing cabin, the Lempesises found bare electrical wires butting against wads of newspaper insulation. Originally built from plans for a garage, the structure was framed with 2-by-3s and fitted with mismatched aluminum windows. The Lempesises set 2-by-4s alongside the old studs, and installed new true-divided-light wood windows. The owners added a red composition-shingle roof crowned with a cupola, and replaced the exterior plywood sheathing with reverse-board-and-batten cedar siding.

After a professional showed them how to install the siding, they did the bulk of the work themselves. "We called ourselves the `Tight-As-A-Tick Siding Company,' " laughs David, "because when we got frustrated we had to have a drink."

Assisted by Vashon contractor Ed Palmer, they removed the partitions inside the house to create a single, free-flowing space. The old acoustical ceiling was eliminated (the tiles made excellent kindling), opening up the space to the roofline. Inspired by turn-of-the-century lighthouses, they covered the walls and ceiling with white beaded wainscoting and cream-colored trim. "We wanted something low-maintenance and light in color," explains Anita. "We wanted it to look a little rustic, too."

The floors were fitted with bleached pine planks, except in the kitchen, where Anita chose handcrafted terra-cotta tiles from Spain. The imperfections in the finish fit the cottage's casual ambiance. A leaded-glass window salvaged from an Oregon mansion illuminates a row of pine cabinets crafted by Vashon artisan Steve Schlossman.

"We like to get as much of the island in the house as we can," says David.

The couple enjoy lingering with friends over hearty, home-cooked meals, so they added an enticing dining pavilion to the north end of the house. Just large enough to seat five, the glass-walled aerie has views of the water. At night, candles illuminate the space like a beacon.

The dining table is surrounded by a set of wicker chairs. "What could be more relaxing than wicker furniture?" asks Anita, who gathered quite a selection of vintage pieces for the house. In fact, she and David dubbed the property "White Wicker Farm," and had the moniker emblazoned on their 1950 Chevy pickup.

The wicker is paired with an array of antique and new pine pieces, including a 19th-century New Hampshire bench and an English store counter crowned with an 18th-century hay rake. David paid a quarter for the weathered chair beside it, after spotting the piece along an Oregon roadside.

Clothing is concealed in decorative chests and armoires, while the painted cupboard in the entry hall doubles as a liquor cabinet. "I don't like things that are just there to look at," says Anita. "I want them to do something." A storage bin lurks under the window seat, and the ironing board folds out of a kitchen drawer. Kindling is kept in an antique dog cart parked alongside the fireplace.

To maximize their living space, the Lempesises decided to do without a bedroom. They sleep in a wall bed concealed behind a painting in the living room. The bed lowers into place pneumatically.

The bed and the wall behind it are covered with quilts - just one of the many items the couple collects. Indian baskets and duck decoys crowd the shelves on either side of the bed, while birdhouses are scattered throughout the cottage. David is also fond of pigs, and their likenesses adorn everything from door stops to wall hangers.

In warm weather, the house expands by half, as doors fling open and life spills out onto the deck. Pots brimming with pink-and-white geraniums pepper the outdoor spaces. Espaliered apple trees arch gracefully down the driveway, ending at a grove of pristine white birches. David first admired the species, betula jacquemontii, in the film "A Passage to India," and went back to the movie several times until he was able to identify the variety and track down some specimens.

Wood-framed stairs inset with brick amble down the steep hillside leading to the water. The path pauses at a pair of white arbors, where the owners can sit and savor sunsets over the Kitsap Peninsula, or gaze at the stars as they twinkle overhead. "There are summer nights when you don't want to go inside, it's so warm and nice out," Anita says.

With the hustle and bustle of city life behind them, the Lempesises use their time at the beach to reestablish their ties to nature - and each other. "It's just a whole different kind of routine here," Anita says. "It's only a 15-minute ferry ride, but it feels like it's a world away."

----------------- A WAY WITH WICKER -----------------

David and Anita Lempesis decorated their beach house with vintage wicker furniture. Most of the pieces are done in the "Bar Harbor" style, which was originally produced from the 1880s to the late 1930s. Bar Harbor's simple patterns and open weave was a reaction against the fussy, frilly designs of the Victorian era. The look is enjoying a renaissance today, with companies reproducing some of the original patterns.

New wicker is not necessarily better than the original. According to Alan Serebrin of Wicker Design Antiques on Capitol Hill, old pieces used better-quality reed, and featured frames made from domestic hardwoods like oak, ash or maple. Modern imports are woven around rattan or bamboo frames, which are not as durable.

To test the quality of an old wicker chair, wiggle the arms and sit in it. A solid armature is more important than flawless weaving, since frayed reeds and holes in the seat can usually be repaired more easily than a broken or cracked frame. Original labels will help authenticate the piece and provide an insight into its quality: Heywood-Wakefield was a particularly respected company.

Serebrin says you should expect to pay anywhere from $150 to thousands of dollars for a vintage wicker chair, depending upon its condition, design and rarity.

Fred Albert writes regularly about home design for Pacific Magazine and other publications. Greg Gilbert is a Seattle Times photographer.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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