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.
Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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.

For my historic-yet-doily-free digs, I wound up in Alexander's Castle at Fort Worden, the military-camp-turned-state park. The large campus has housing ranging from big barracks buildings to large officer's homes to small cabins. It is used for conferences and retreats and is a home to arts and non-profit groups. The old parade ground gives it a spacious feel and at night I was struck by the profound silence that falls. It's no wonder artists and writers are drawn to the place. The big city might generate cross-fertilization and 24-7 buzz, but for many of us the muse likes to hear herself think once in awhile. Fort Worden offers walks in the woods, on bluffs, at the beach, as well as spots for layabouts to linger in the shade of old trees. And it’s only five minutes from town.

On top of a hill in the middle of it all is a brick bungalow with a three-story crenelated tower — oddly proportioned and, like towers everywhere, it has a magnetic force that attracts visitors who want to know, "What they hell is that thing?" It is the folly in this fort's garden. The story goes that a Port Townsend vicar, John Alexander, built the castle in the 1880s for an intended bride back in Scotland. When he returned home to fetch her, he found she'd married another. Alexander came back, like a sad bowerbird, to his empty nest. The minister eventually moved on and his home was absorbed into the fort when it was built before World War I.

Crosscut archive image.

Alexander's Castle Andreas Fetz/Flickr

If the story is true, the castle layout suggests that his hoped-for fiance dodged a bullet, because there's nothing about the structure today that would fit the requirements of a19th-century housewife. Granted, it has been altered over the years. Inside, there’s a stairway that ascends to a blank wall. Main doors open into an entry area that now serves as an awkwardly positioned dining room — the only space for one — and you have to pass through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. The living room/parlor is at odd angles. It's one part Winchester Mystery House and one part an eccentric's scrap-paper doodle.

The most Victorian element is its pretension. It’s a one-bedroom castle. The bedroom is on the second floor at the top of a very steep and narrow set of wooden stairs. The sleeping chamber is high-ceilinged and offers a view, but there's not much space for a live-in couple, let alone a Victorian trousseau. The third floor of the tower is now closed off and adds a spooky dimension: What's up there? Why does it only have one window? One suspects it is closed off because of maintenance or safety issues rather than anything grotesque or Brontesque.

Situated as it is, in an expanse of lawn on top of a rise and surrounded by lots of people with leisure to wander the "moors" and gun emplacements of the old fort, the castle poses a challenge for those averse to sightseers. When I pulled up, two women and two kids were peering in the windows. They started to move off when I turned into the driveway, but I invited them in with me to see the insides of the place for the first time. The kids seemed to love its novelty. But staying there for a couple of days, I had to be very conscious of closing the blinds in the bathroom, bedrooms and elsewhere. There's a rumor the place is haunted, but the scariest thing I endured was the fear of peeping tourists.

The interior is furnished. There's a roll top desk for writers and the kitchen is supplied with everything you need but a dishwasher. There's absolutely nothing precious about it — nothing worthy of being protected by a doily. In fact, all of Fort Worden gives you heritage without the gingerbread. The castle interior feels less like a Victorian showpiece than a quirky old summer home.

It has one advantage as a social space, beside being a local landmark. The board of the museum association dropped by one evening and I fed them wine and cheese from a gift-basket they had kindly given me for keynoting their conference. The castle was an instant conversation piece — a perfect icebreaker when you're not on intimate terms with the guests.

If one is looking for 19th-century character without having to endure throw pillows too much twee with your tea, Fort Worden is a good bet, and Alexander's Castle an irresistible draw — if you're not a Victorian bride.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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