CATEGORY: PORT TOWNSEND
When I moved to Port Townsend I hadn’t taken my architects exam, so I advertised as an Architectural Designer. My first job was the remodeling of a large waterfront house on Discovery Bay with its own sandy beach and view of Mt. Baker. It was the perfect site for the onset of my fledgling career. Not only was it beautiful, it was idyllic–the best kind of good omen. And so it proved to be: a harbinger for all my working life in Port Townsend.
I got the job from one of my fellow employees at the plant nursery where I worked during my first few months in the town that proved to be my home for over twenty five years. Her name was Anita Lockhart. She had inherited the house from her father who had inherited it from his father. It was a two story house that had been added on to in ways that cut the inhabitants off from the spectacular view. It needed both remodeling and partial restoring.
The contractor was a young man named David Smuck. Smuck was not a name that fit him. He was tall and blonde and so good looking that people called him Gorgeous Dave. He looked like a mixture of Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, only better because he was a real person and not just on film.
He was also reckless. One day I came to the job and he was at the top of a second story wall that was being demolished. He was sitting on a beam that had no visible support except at one end about five feet away from him. The wall below was gone. He was tearing off the roof that was bearing on the beam. My mouth dropped open. I said, “Dave, come down from there! That beam could fall at any moment”! He just laughed exposing his perfect teeth. He said, “These old buildings just stay in place by force of habit.” Later Dave became a gold prospector. He liked to live on the edge.
One of his crew was Niels Holm. Niels had been born in Denmark where he had learned both house building and boat building. He spoke English with a heavy accent. On a later visit, after the time when Dave was hanging out in space, I found Niels finishing the deck. He was using his nailing hatchet blade to space the 2 x 4 decking, a method which made the spaces quite narrow. He was doing it fast and efficiently. However, having had experience with decking spaces that had become clogged with fallen leaves and maple seeds causing the decking to rot, I had specified ½” spaces in my carefully detailed working drawings. I said to Niels, “I thought I specified ½ inch spaces between the decking.” Without looking up, he said, “I never look at the fucking plans.” I was disconcerted, but I walked away and let him do it his own way, little knowing that the decking would shrink, and the spaces would become ½” anyway. Later I laughed over what had happened. It was my introduction to individuality on the job. However, after that I was always a little nervous whenever I knew that Niels was working on one of my buildings.
On one of my early houses Niels was again one of the carpenters. Again, I visited the job, and there was Niels down on the floor lofting rafters for the roof in order to get the right pitch. “Lofting” is a boat builder’s term that means he was drawing the rafters out full size on the sub floor. I said, “I have the roof pitch on the plans, and I know it is accurate.” Then I laughingly said, “Oh I know, you never look at the fucking plans.” Since that particular four letter word was not part of my every-day vocabulary, my use of it caused a sudden silence among the workers. The owner, Varden Tremain, happened to be present. Later, I explained to him what had happened on Lockhart’s job. Then he told me that Niels could speak English, but had difficulty reading it. After the plans had been used and exposed to weather awhile, he could not read them at all.
Later, Niels and I became friends. He always said he hated architects. Once, putting his arm around me, he introduced me to someone as “the only good architect he had ever known.” I said that was because ONE, he had never known an architect, and TWO, I wasn’t really an architect.
Later Niels built his own house. It contained lots of ferro cement. The bedrooms were actual rooms but the beds were in rounded cement cocoons that required climbing up a short ladder and entering a round door. He said that getting into a bed should be like going back into the womb.
Niels built his house with almost no plans. He thought plans should be outlawed and that all houses should be an expression of the owner’s freedom of action. When the inspectors came around he would argue with them endlessly and expound his philosophy until they finally gave up and went away. I don’t think he ever got a residency permit but he lived in his house anyway. When I left Port Townsend, Niels and his house had become part of the Port Townsend legend.