CATEGORY: PORT TOWNSEND HOUSE (THESE STORIES ARE GROUPED, ALTHOUGH THEY SPANNED 25 YEARS)
PHOTOS: MT. BAKER and THE ORIGINAL HOUSE
When I first met Bob he had a 27 foot Thunderbird sloop that he kept in Seattle. Soon afterwards, he decided to move the boat to Port Townsend, a town he had fallen in love with during his early sailing years. Port Townsend was not only picturesque but having his boat there shortened the sailing time to the San Juan Islands by a day.
Shortly after our marriage he thought it would be a good idea to buy a house in Port Townsend, it being chock full of antique houses that were selling for so little that even he could afford a second home. Furthermore he now had a wife who was like one of those all purpose building tools: a do-everything gizmo that never seemed to need sharpening or need its motor fixed. Why not use this new acquisition/contraption to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse–or, in his words, “turn a house into a good investment.” The best part for me was that it would give me another house to remodel, so I enthusiastically agreed. On a solitary boat maintenance trip, Bob found a house and bought it without my even seeing it. He paid $11,500.00 for it–10% down and $75.00 a month. He told me it faced south and was in a wonderful location–at he top of the bluff above town and with a view of the water and the North Cascades from the front porch! He knew all of those things were magic to me.
Our new-old house was built in 1888 at the height of a boom that happened when the Northern Pacific Railway was slated to make Port Townsend its western destination. And west it was! It was on the Olympic Peninsula, which formed the west side of Puget Sound and was the last dollop of land before the Pacific Ocean. It was on a shelf of land between the Sound and the Oympic Mountains. The Northern Pacific had chosen Port Townsend, not because it was an aspiring town: there were only a few white settlers among the Indians on the whole of the Olympic Peninsula. No, it was because it was a strategic point of land on a large, fairly shallow bay with an all-one-level bottom: a perfect port for the hundreds of sailing vessels they imagined would be required to haul away the old growth timber–timber being the only thing besides water and mountains that could be seen in any direction. Another advantage of the site was that it was located on the extreme northeast point of that peninsula where there was an unlimited supply of west wind swooshing down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from said ocean to fill the sails of those sailing vessels. Further south, the wind was unreliable, being blocked by the Peninsula itself.
No sooner had this site received the blessing of the railroad than speculators appeared, as if from another planet, and started building three and four story Victorian commercial buildings along the waterfront and huge Victorian houses on the bluff above, all worthy of being part of the Pacific Northwest City of the Future!
While the railroad inched its laborious way over the Rocky Mountains, and faced the even more formidable steepness of the Cascade Range, steam ships started replacing sailing vessels. Steam ships needed deep-water ports. The Northern Pacific knew it would save millions if it could avoid building its track all the way around Puget Sound. Foreseeing the wave of the future, it found a perfect deep water port on the east side of the Sound. It was a tiny Indian village called Seattle.
So Port Townsend’s boom started dying before it was even fully born. When we bought our house there, some of the downtown buildings had windows on the upper floors that had been propped in place with 2×4’s on the day the workers walked off the job at the end of the 1880’s.
Our house was called a “blockhouse,” meaning the main part of the house was square with a steep hipped roof and a flat widow’s walk on the top. The main square was 30 ft. and, as I said, the front door faced south–or almost south, since the whole of the original townsite, following the shore line, was laid out 30 degrees west of south. It had a 14 x 20 ft. kitchen wing tacked onto its north side with the 20 ft. side attached to the square. There was a graceful 6 x 14 ft. porch on the kitchen’s west end. Across the south-facing front and down the east side of the main square was a 7 ft. deep Craftsman Style porch that had replaced the original high, narrow Victorian front porch. We knew what the original porch had looked like because there were two other houses in town identical to ours that still had their original front porches.
Because the house was built high off the ground, had 11’ high ceilings, steep roof, generous rooms and abundant porches, it looked large, but it was one of the smallest of the old houses: only one story with two bedrooms. It was called a Victorian Cottage.
Over the years the house had been “modernized.” The ceilings had been lowered right down to the tops of the window moldings: 8’-9”. In the main square, the walls that had formed an entry hall, parlor and dining room, had been removed, leaving its whole east side as one big room. What had been the dining room, had a protruding bay with four separate double hung windows, but the bay’s south window had been removed and turned into a narrow door that opened into a room fabricated from the end of the porch. It still had the porch’s sloping floor and was, of course, less than 7’ wide.
The house had been built without a bathroom or laundry, so those had been added: the bathroom on the outside and the laundry on the inside of the east end of the kitchen. Two thirds of the original kitchen porch had been turned into a pantry, and a west window had been turned into a new back door opening onto the remaining porch. What was left of the kitchen had only one window; it was gloomy and dark.
On the exterior, the Victorian brackets on the cornice under the eaves had been removed, and the whole house had been sided with asphalt fake shakes. When, much later, I removed them and restored the original channel siding, I understood why the owners had committed this aesthetic outrage. The original horizontal siding boards, applied without sheathing or building paper beneath them, had shrunk, leaving air spaces between the boards; there was no insulation, and the inside plaster had cracked. The only thing that kept the wind from blowing through the walls was the wallpaper.
But I am getting ahead of myself. I will back up and describe the process of restoring and remodeling this house step by step.