A 1933 Ship Captain’s House in Seattle Gets an Update
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A 1933 Ship Captain’s House in Seattle Gets an Update

Jun 28, 2023

The house, a historical landmark that was built in 1933 with cedar shingles and Douglas fir paneling, receives a respectful kitchen addition.

Ole E. Nilsen, a Norwegian ship captain, built the house as a replica of his childhood home in Bergen, Norway. When the homeowners decided it deserved a bigger kitchen, they made mindful changes.Credit...Brooke Fitts for The New York Times

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By Wendy Moonan

This article is part of our Design special section about new interpretations of antique design styles.

Six years ago, Sonya Schneider and her husband, Stuart Nagae, bought a federally designated historical landmark in Seattle, a 5,000-square-foot, two-story home sheathed in dark, old-growth Western cedar shingles, with multiple gables, dormer windows and a cedar-shake roof. It sat on an unusually large three-quarter-acre lot with mature maples, Douglas fir and a hemlock tree, in Ballard, an old Seattle neighborhood on Puget Sound.

The house, for which the couple paid $2.5 million, according to public records, was built in 1933 by a Norwegian ship captain, Ole E. Nilsen, reportedly as a replica of his childhood home in Bergen, Norway.

In the early 20th century, Ballard’s shipbuilding, timber and fishing industries attracted thousands of immigrants from Scandinavia, and today the community retains its strong ethnic identity, with an annual Norwegian heritage parade and a new National Nordic Museum.

The house is a unique example of Scandinavian vernacular architecture, inside and out. It was built by highly skilled craftsmen who meticulously paneled the walls and ceilings with Douglas fir. (The boards are placed parallel for the wainscoting and vertically above it.) The living room has a double-height vaulted ceiling with a balcony loft characteristic of 19th-century Norwegian houses; its railing has carved balusters and its support beam is decorated with colorful scrolls, acanthus leaves and floral motifs, a style of traditional rural Norwegian folk painting called rosemaling, or rose painting.

When she first saw the house, Ms. Schneider, 45, a playwright originally from San Diego, recalled that she immediately recognized its value. “I grew up in a house built in 1933 with similar qualities,” she said. “I was raised to understand quality of space and fine craftsmanship.” (Mr. Nagae, 46, is a Japanese American venture capitalist from Seattle.)

Over the past few years, with a family that includes two daughters, 14 and 11, the couple integrated into the interior their growing collection of contemporary art (by the photographer Nan Goldin, the Indigenous Oregon artist Marie Watt and the Seattle native Roger Shimomura, among others) and an eclectic mix of midcentury and contemporary furniture.

The result is a fresh mix of time-transcendent design elements. “We have the two worlds talking to each other,” Ms. Schneider said. “The old house is happy to be covered in contemporary art. We introduced light and color to the dark rooms.”

There was only one problem: The galley kitchen was too small. “I think Captain Nilsen had a servant who cooked,” Ms. Schneider said. “There is a tiny bedroom in the basement.”

The couple decided the house deserved a bigger kitchen, though they didn’t pursue any architects until they met one in Rome, six years ago, at a Pearl Jam concert of all places.

Mike Mora, the co-founder of Heliotrope Architects in Seattle, and his wife, Jessica, had come to attend the concert and see their longtime friends Jeff Ament, a member of the Seattle band, and his wife, Pandora Andre-Beatty.

“That night, Pandora introduced me to Sonya and Stuart, and we learned we lived a half-mile away from each other in Seattle,” Mr. Mora recalled. “I was really familiar with the house as I pass it every day on my way to work.”

Ms. Schneider invited Mr. Mora over and shared her dreams.

She wanted a new, light-filled kitchen where her family and friends could gather, which afforded movement between the interior and garden spaces.

She was completely open minded: “When we began talking, I said, ‘Let’s go for the wildest scheme and then scale it back; we are drawn to modern architecture.’”

Mr. Mora was thrilled. “We were happy we didn’t need to design a replica of a 100-year-old building; we could be influenced by it but make an addition very much of its own time, with contemporary lines and more expansive glass.”

Heliotrope Architects, founded in 1999, has several high-profile institutional clients, including REI, Amazon, Microsoft and Nordstrom. In 2020, it won the James Beard award for outstanding restaurant design. Its residential work, however, tends to be minimalist, sustainable and with a quality, they say, that “weathers.”

Mr. Mora’s plan for the kitchen followed those principles; it is deceptively simple-looking, quiet and elegant.

The 500-square-foot addition is a contemporary post-and-beam construction.

“It’s one story, because we didn’t need any more program,” Mr. Mora said. It complements the house but stands on its own.

The two structures are joined by a glass passageway that accentuates the distinct character of each. Mr. Mora chose black brick walls to nod to the dark gray shingles of the house. His plans easily won approval from the local landmarks board. As Ms. Schneider said, “They wanted us to do something that reflected the current period.”

The kitchen interior is equally refined: Like the house, it is fully paneled, but in a fresh, contemporary way. The cabinetry is stained white oak; the beams and columns are stained Douglas fir. The ceiling is clear cedar. The floor is polished concrete.

In the cooking area, a long counter with a farm sink sits beneath a glass wall. Behind it is a large, quartzite-topped island, which incorporates the stove and another counter, with bar seating, for eating — and admiring the cook.

The space is all about clean surfaces; there is no clutter. The cabinetry has no external hardware.

To one side, glass doors open to the west (and a terrace with a view of Puget Sound).

On the wall opposite, built-in cabinetry leads to a kitchen table and four chairs made by the Brooklyn-based designer Bowen Liu and a showstopping Lindsey Adelman blown-glass chandelier. Its glass wall affords a view of the new garden to the south by David Berleth Landscape Architect.

The outdoor terrace to the south, which is shaded by an overhang, has a built-in wood-burning barbecue for grilling, a favorite pastime of Mr. Nagae, but the main action outside is the backyard to the west, with a loggia for private outdoor dining.

The Norwegians have an expression: “Wood is our living archive.” As early as A.D. 800, the Vikings displayed their excellent craftsmanship and knowledge of wood construction techniques in their longships.

Heliotrope Architects honors such craft traditions, which may explain the kitchen’s deep resonance to Ms. Schneider.

“The kitchen really feels like a collaboration; it really did come out as I hoped,” she said. “I now feel connected to this place through this project: It’s an homage to the old house and a nod to my husband’s Japanese, very minimalist sensibility.”