Cabin fever

Architect Wendell Lovett designed a nuclear reactor building and the home of a space-junketing billionaire, but it's his little San Juans retreat that says the most about him.
Crosscut archive image.

The vacant Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus. (Abby Martin)

Architect Wendell Lovett designed a nuclear reactor building and the home of a space-junketing billionaire, but it's his little San Juans retreat that says the most about him.

Recently, there was an event at the UW's Gould Hall showcasing the career of 87-year-old Seattle architect Wendell Lovett, whose work ranges from mid-century modern homes (like his house in Bellevue's Hilltop neighborhood) to contemporary geek gothic structures like the Charles Simonyi mansion ("Villa Simonyi") in Medina. The house was famous during the booming '90s when anybody who was anybody in the Silicon Forest had at least one construction crane marking their new domain. Today, ex-Microsoftie Simonyi can afford an even more precious status symbol: The billionaire has actually flown into space twice. Take that, Bill and Paul!

Too bad Wendell Lovett didn't design the International Space Station because he's brilliant with science structures, as evidenced by his lead design work on the UW's endangered Nuclear Reactor Building (More Hall Annex), a building that once housed a live "teaching" reactor. The Nuke Building is under consideration for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and, sadly, on the university's list of structures to be removed. When I talked to Lovett last year, he was clear that he wasn't happy about the building's being demolished, and it seems weird that it would be given Lovett's stature and the fact that he's a proud homegrown product of the UW itself, having been both student and professor there.

Modern architecture preservationists hope to save it, and an architectural historian I talked to, Hank Florence from the National Park Service, which oversees National Register nominations, says they are intrigued by the building because it offers a chance to tell the nuclear story in an urban setting. Most atomic structures, like Hanford's historic B-Reactor, are in remote locations, by design. In the beginning, they were secret and isolated for public safety. Interest is growing in Cold War and atomic history, and there is much to be told about our role in both the peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear power. The status of the National Register application is that it is being updated by the state's Department of Archaeology and History Preservation. The UW is expected to issue a revised EIS soon.

Wonderful as it is resembling a kind of concrete suburban cabana where one might host a barbecue (as preservation advocates did last year), the Nuke Building doesn't do full justice to the Lovett legacy. One of the things that came through in the UW tribute (hosted by the college's library head and architecture scholar Alan Michelson and attended by Lovett himself) was that he is not a modernist minimalist of the Mies van der Rohe school but, as one of the presenters said, a maximalist.

Many modern homes seem like underfed fashion models: all edges and anorexia. Where's the life, the mess, the people? Lovett's projects have a playful quality, they aren't austere but are meant to be lived in, and Lovett is happy to accommodate by inventing everything from origami-inspired chairs to plastic tables to hooded free-standing fireplaces, all of which make habitation of his homes more comfortable and more stylish.

Architecturally he's an inveterate story-teller. A man who has worked with Lovett on many projects, Charles Williams III, told how he creates a kind of story with the way people enter and move through the living spaces. You might have to follow a hallway and pass through a room or two, for example, before getting to the main view, a choreographed exercise in "delayed gratification." Lovett has a way of leaving crumbs that draw you into a space, then compel you to keep going.

This is partly due to the fact that, as UW architectural Prof. Grant Hildebrand told us, Lovett believes that certain basic "natural" spaces belonged in every home, a sort of archetypal interior landscaping. Lovett's homes always contain a space that plays the role of a meadow, another that of the cave. These appeal to basic instincts. The architect is no slave to cold uniformity either. A Lovett dictum: "Symmetry equals death!"

I have to say that one of the more modest homes Lovett designed is the most compelling for me, a structure described as "a little jewel." Called "Crane Island Retreat," it's a cabin in the San Juans that is absolutely marvelous.

Having spent lots of time in San Juan cabins, and having had an architect uncle (Malcolm Cameron) who built a fabulous modern home there in the early 1960s, I'm opinionated on the subject. You often see island getaways that don't make sense, and others that desecrate the landscape. I've never understood the mentality that says, let's rip out the moss and salal and replace it with lawn. What kind of maniac wants to spend Orcas weekends mowing? And in recent years, as Microsoft and California money has flowed copiously, more enormous megahouses have popped up. People: one Mercer Island is enough!

These are exceptions, however, though blighting ones. By and large, the San Juans property owners have shown a semblance of restraint: many waterfront and view cabins are moved back into the trees with discrete decks and large windows, some visible only by the sun's reflection. Other designers have tried to minimize cabin size, creating cozy, glassy aeries that are less hideaways than homes that attempt to bring the outdoors in while providing basic shelter for those inside. Many cabins are allowed to weather to gray, some even rambling along beaches where they are hard to distinguish from driftwood. This is as it should be.

Crane Island, tucked between Shaw and Orcas on Wasp Passage, is a beautiful spot, and Lovett's early 1970s cabin is perched above a beach on mossy basalt with the requisite grasses, Doug firs, and peeling madronas. I love how this retreat has lowered its drawbridge of a deck, yet the small cabin itself seems to shyly, yet jauntily, lean back into the forest. A madrona even grows up through the deck. The living space is small; the view maximized. I'm not exactly sure where the cabin is situated on Crane, but I saw one photo that seemed to show a ferry passing close by. Narrow Wasp Passage is a route for inter-island ferries, and they seem to pass close enough for that deck to double as a car ramp. Lucky for Crane Islanders, there is no ferry service to their lovely, low-profile retreat.

This cabin tells me much about Wendell Lovett's smarts, care, sensitivity, and wit— his appreciation for the Northwest and ability to inventively find ways to weave together the natural and built environments into a whole. The Northwest school, at its best, does this, and clearly Lovett is a master. "Villa Simonyi" may get more of the ink, but it's the "little jewel" that's a real treasure.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.