CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s modernist enclave

13_0112 Thiry House 1 smallTucked away on a narrow, winding street on the north end of Capitol Hill lies an enclave of modernist homes dating from an early 20th Century masterwork to those that aspire and are just completing construction. Some are exemplary, some are rather ordinary, but their grouping on the same compact hillside of Capitol Hill compounds their inherent charms and attraction.

East Boston Terrace escaped my notice for years before its very existence was pointed out to me by another aficionado of modern design. At the panoramic viewpoint where East Boston Street dies into 15th Avenue East, Boston Street’s continuation could easily be confused with a driveway. The street quickly dives into the hillside, disappearing from view, with its steep slope leading one to a protected and sheltering environment.13_0112 Steep Stair small

Coming from the south along 15th Avenue, the first hint of this micro-neighborhood’s presence is the rather long, moss covered stair that takes you from the 15th/Boston bend down to Boston Street itself.Once down the stair, one is greeted by the newest addition to the mod-enclave, a tasty red and tan home, whose materials, massing, and color make it very au courant. Still under construction the chilly January morning I did my most recent walk, the building’s rather austere front elevation is in contrast, I imagine, to a fully glazed one opposite, and intended to capture what must be spectacular views to the east.​13_0112 Under Construction small

Next up on the tour of modernist boxes (and I use that term in the most affectionate way), is a little grey number that I would guess is of late 1970’s or early 1980’s vintage. The tightly spaced vertical siding and the glass canopy at the entry are amongst the clues. To the right you will notice the ‘outie’ balcony; a classic modernist move. One also may notice that the car port is actually a bridge, a hint of further hillside gymnastics to come.13_0112 Boston Grey House at Top Small

Skipping over the next building (saving the best for last), a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, prairie-styled dwelling commands the fork in the road. A beautifully tended landscape is fitting for a home so sited and inspired. The hip roofs and stone base help the home blend into its surroundings, much in the manner Mr. Wright preached it ought to. ​13_0112 Prarie Style Mass

East Boston Terrace’s relative seclusion reveals itself the further one progresses into its realm, with the closest neighbors looming above, their yards forming an effective demarcation from the rest of Capitol Hill. Spatially, this juxtaposition of higher and lower elevation homes in a compact space is reinforced by the homes not being aligned on the grid one typically finds in our neighborhood. Seen here in the foreground are two less obvious modernist homes. A little closer up, the rambler may appear more suburban than not, but I cannot help but speculate that when constructed, such a distilled domestic image was certainly at odds with the craftsman bungalows that filled Seattle, making this home a trend setter for its time. A subtle move to be sure, but the way the home allies itself with the curve of the street hints at its less-than-traditional posture. ​13_0112 View up Hill small

13_0112 Small Rambler smallThe hillside situation of Boston Terrace not only produces interesting visuals on the uphill side, but as you can imagine, on the downhill side as well. On this particular morning, I was fortunate enough to catch a view of the Cascades in all its splendor.13_0112 View

Backing this spectacular view is a more recent contemporary home. While it’s difficult to discern its exact vintage, the split face concrete block at the base hints at the 1990’s. That presumption is partially undermined by the apparently steel-sashed windows which typically hint at a much older home. Kudos to both architect and owner for seeing the value in installing such gossamer windows – their delicacy and transparency come at a premium price – but, with the view they engage it was clearly worth it. Another nice modernist touch is the simple and highly ordered landscape, comprised of uniform and geometrically deployed trees set in a carefully manicured ground cover.13_0112 Rambler Small

The infrastructure enthusiast in me is impressed by the extent to which bridges and roads are engineered to provide access to these otherwise inhospitable locales. I could not help but be impressed by the determination to build a road on this hillside. Have a look at the pilings supporting the roadway/bridge in front of the home just discussed.13_0112 Road Support Small

Now for la pièce de résistance and the true inspiration for this post — a great white box that sits across from the above-mentioned prairie style home. The term modernist gets thrown around a lot, including by me. Despite this etymological transgression, there is an image that I and many others hold as truly modernist — that of the early 20th Century, European-based, International Style pioneered by architects such as Walter Gropius. Although by no means ignored in the United States, it never quite captivated the imagination as it did across the Atlantic. To be sure, later American designers took such inspiration and molded it as their own, as shown by the designs of such masters as Eero Saarinen and Craig Ellwood. These later accomplishments aside, the pure white box antecedent was rare in the US, and rarer still in the Northwest (as opposed to California, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast). However, we do have at least this one on the Hill, and it is such an outstanding example it almost makes up for the dearth of others. ​

From the looks of it, this home falls squarely in the 1930’s, and my guess is the work of Paul Thiry, one of Seattle’s legendary architects whose oeuvre includes Key Arena and much of the related planning for the 1962 World’s Fair. Not that authorship matters here, as regardless of designer, it is exemplary of its type and a real treasure. Based upon previous strolls on Boston Terrace, it appears to have had some recent restoration work performed, and is sporting at least a fresh coat of paint and restored (or at least tidied-up) steel windows.13_0112 Thiry House 1 small

13_0112 Thiry House 2 small

[mappress mapid=”9″]The house itself has all the modernist cues: cubic form, bone white paint, steel corner windows, entry canopy, and assertive chimney. How I dream of more such beauties to be on the Hill — even the perennially abused glass block is perfectly incorporated into the design! Greater than the sum of its parts, this house also displays a deft hand at proportion, scale, and overall execution that makes it among the Hill’s finest looking residences, all reason enough to take a stroll into Capitol Hill’s modernist enclave and witness is beauty first hand.

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John Feit is an architect on Capitol Hill, and works at Schemata Workshop. He blogs frequently on design and urbanism, with a focus on how they relate to and affect the Capitol Hill community.

13 thoughts on “CHS Schemata | Capitol Hill’s modernist enclave

  1. I didn’t even know this street existed. I feel guilty that I want to walk along this street and look at the houses. It is a public street, isn’t it?

    • Certainly is! I run right past it all the time and I too had no idea it was there, but it’s definitely a public street (not a driveway).

  2. I also really enjoy these posts. You bring attention to homes and their details that may otherwise go unnoticed. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I’m one of the lucky owners of the Paul Thiry house. It was built in 1936 and is called the Nichols House after the original owner. Except for the kitchen, it hasn’t been altered since it was built. The amazing feature you can’t see in these photos is the completely circular dining room that cantilevers from the back, furnished with the original copper-mirror topped dining table.

    The bridge mentioned in the article is above an area that has had serious landslides. There was a fatal one in the 1940’s, and the bridge was rebuilt after another in the 90’s.

  4. Good article. Please keep such coming!

    (I live in the neighborhood and visit the area pretty often — often when flat-landers visit and I want to give them a good scare imaging living hanging off the side of hill as these houses do. Have never taken the stairs down, though.)

    As noted previously, that side of the hill is pretty active geologically. That winter of 97/98 was a scary one for many in the neighborhood as we watched streets that ran along the edge start to sag. What’s now a look-out mini-park just SE of Seattle prep was once a strip of houses — you can still see remainders of front steps from the street to what would have been a yard, and one of the daughters of the house that slid down the hill one night still lives in the area, albeit on the other side of the street.

    If I read the state records on landslides in the Seattle area, that slide killed a woman, too. It’s really worth a stroll through the state records on such land movement; some of what has happened over time explains why some streets run the way they do.

  5. It was such a beautiful Spring evening I decided to take a walk and see this serene nook of Capital Hill for myself.

  6. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful commentary on East Boston Street and East Boston Terrace. It is truly a wonderful little neighborhood. Your estimates for the construction of each house are very accurate. I was the architect for Joe & Lila Greengard’s grey modernist house at 1500 E. Boston. They built the house in 1977 and have kept the house in wonderful condition over the past 36 years. I also designed the CMU and white brick house at 1655 E. Boston Terrace (along the bridge) for my own family. We constructed the house in 1992 and have enjoyed living on “the Terrace” ever since. As a modernist architect myself, I attempted to design a contemporary home that would fit gracefully with its neighbors. As the landscaping has matured, it has receded into the landscape.

    The other responses to your blog are correct that E.Boston Terrace is a notorious slide zone. The subdivision was constructed in the late 1930’s and a ravine was filled in to created development sites. At the time, the lower portion of the loop road was on-grade. In 1942, a land slide removed the road (now replaced by the bridge) slide down towards Interlaken Blvd. One house that was located downslope from the road was moved elsewhere on N. Capitol Hill when it became apparent that the slope was creeping downhill to the east. But, one owner was reluctant to move, and their home slid during the major slide event, killing one of its occupants. Remains of the foundations can still be seen in the ravine.

    Then, at New Years 1997, the melting snow triggered another slide event under the bridge that washed out all the utilities under the bridge as well as my front yard, leaving my home standing on its augered concrete piles. It was a precarious looking situation for a number of months, but we were able to install a new soldier pile retaining wall to backfill our yard and the City rebuilt the utilities. So, live has been relatively stable ever since.

  7. Back in 1997 a sudden deluge damn near washed away this street and many of the yards and required very expensive and extensive repairs which i always feared were at our expense.

    It does seem to be a public street and I wonder if it is a wise public investment to try and maintain a street on such a steep hillside.

    http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970102&slug=2516799

    Seattle Mayor Norm Rice visited two other precarious areas in the city yesterday, including the winding East Boston Terrace on Capitol Hill, where four homes were evacuated, and the East Boston Street Bridge, which was closed because of fears a hillside would collapse. One home lost its entire front yard, making it impossible to enter the front door.

  8. John Feit, I just saw in Seattle Met that you are listed as one of Seattle’s most influential. I am glad that you looked at our house, but wish that the picture had been taken in the spring/summer when the pots are in full bloom.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post, but it is Josh Feit who is locally known — not so much me. Common confusion; and no, we are not related, although we have lived in the same cities three times, and twice during the same time. It is a confusion I have dealt with for almost two decades.

      I am sure you home is even more handsome when the garden is in bloom.