How to do Port Townsend, without the doilies

The town is known for restored Victorian homes, no longer so trendy but still weighted with kitsch. But there's much more to it if you look a little.
A commercial building in Port Townsend

A commercial building in Port Townsend GD Taber/Flickr

A Victorian mansion in Port Townsend

A Victorian mansion in Port Townsend Frank Kovalchek/Flickr

Alexander's Castle at Fort Worden offers a historic-yet-doily-free vacation.

Alexander's Castle at Fort Worden offers a historic-yet-doily-free vacation. Andreas Fetz/Flickr

It seems like stating the obvious to say that the Victorian homes of Port Townsend — many of them painstakingly restored and maintained like the "painted ladies" of San Francisco — now seem old-fashioned, but they do.

At one time, the preservation of these wonderful homes was at the center of the Port Townsend revival. In the '70s, Seattleites would venture forth for a weekend at B&B's like the James House to soak up the turn-of-the-century atmosphere and treat themselves to dinner at one of those "Best Places"-type destination restaurants, like The Farmhouse.

Driving around the town now, the venerable homes seem like a dated version of heritage tourism: a bit precious. I was in Port Townsend recently for the Washington Museum Association's annual conference and when it came to accommodations, some attendees — professional history folk, mind you — said they booked rooms with an eye to avoiding doilies. One professed suffering from "doily phobia." Some people, apparently, are anti-antimacassars.

I count myself among them, especially after an experience back in the 1990s on a business trip to San Francisco when I stayed in a B&B where my room was literally choked with throw pillows. If Laura Ashley made chintz cluster bombs, one had gone off in my room. Every night, I felt like a homesteader laboring to clear his stump farm as I tried to make space on the bed so I could lie down.

Fortunately, Port Townsend is more than doilies. The downtown is lively, bike- and pedestrian-friendly — there’s even a skateboard park — and the maritime orientation is visible and accessible; both ends of town are anchored by marinas. It also seems to be filled with people who want to be there, either kicking back or reinventing themselves, wearing those “We’re Here Because We’re Not All There” T-shirts. As I drove downtown, my way was blocked by a beer truck parked in the middle of the town's main drag, Water Street. As I waited to get around it, the air was filled with the fragrance of pot. That was cool. My errand was equally non-urgent: I was on my way to eat oysters and sip beer on the deck at Doc’s.

Don't get me wrong, I love the preservation work, which is ongoing. Port Townsend is like a vintage wooden boat: It’s a constant project to maintain and restore, and undoubtedly a money pit for some. But it is loved and it’s looking good. Northwest history here is palpable, and not just in the architecture. Right now, at the downtown Northwest Maritime Center, you can peer through the window and see an old-time anchor (in a T-shaped wooden bathtub) that was just recently brought to the surface and might be a relic left behind by Capt. George Vancouver's famed expedition to Puget Sound in 1792. Some have called the anchor the "holy grail" of regional maritime history and it will soon be off to Texas A&M for tests. Whatever it is — and there’s a good chance it is the lost anchor of the Chatham, a vessel that accompanied Vancouver’s Discovery — it presents an opportunity for everyone to brush up on the first Europeans to explore and map our part of the Salish Sea. Vancouver’s men prowled this very part of the Peninsula. Down the way at Discovery Bay, the expedition’s naturalist had his first chance to study one of our region’s icons, what we now know as the madrona tree.

As always, the scenery in Port Townsend is terrific. Luke Burbank, the brilliant radio podcaster and fellow regular on KUOW’s “Week in Review,” is a newly arrived Port Townsendite and an enthusiastic convert to their ways. He took me for a ride in his new, funky (what else) wooden (of course) boat along the waterfront. We had views of the Cascades and Olympics on either side, Admiralty Inlet was calm and blue, the crabbers were busy and the ferry boats picturesque. On another afternoon the top of Mount Rainier seemed to float atop a bed of clouds like the City of Cream Puffs.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 10:40 a.m. Inappropriate

If you find yourself in need of a doily fix, the commanding officer's house across the parade ground has been converted to a museum, full of the accoutrement of gracious living circa 1900-ish. Yes, there are doilies, but there's also a great collection of vintage kitchen equipment -- fodder for the "what in the world did they do with that?" game.

sandik

Posted Thu, Jun 26, 11:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Frank Wetzel passes along this comment:
My Aunt Inga haunted her old house in Port Townsend for a number of years. To her sorrow, she died without having children. And the new occupants of the house on Benton Street said her presence refused to leave her old bedroom. Finally, the new owners sat on her bed and said, “Inga, we have filled the house with children. Now please go away.” She did and never again returned.

Posted Fri, Jun 27, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Kitsch, you say? Actually, the "kitsch" is those angular, inverted-V rooflines that go on top of every new nasty, modern, ugly faux-Danish modern shipping container hovel disguised as a house or apartment, "designed" by the umpteenth Seattle "architect" and featured in the latest spread in the Sunday Seattle Times or Seattle magazine.

Maybe the "progressives" need to start a bungalow, Victorian, and doily retro movement. As long as they can call it their idea and hand each other genius awards for "reinvention" and "walkability" and "vibrant" and "sustainable," maybe it'll fly?

NotFan

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