THE TAO OF DOW
BY FRED ALBERT
Seattle contractor Jim Dow used natural materials and a minimalist aesthetic to transform a homely hilltop Mediterranean into a tranquil retreat worthy of its setting.
A few years ago, Jim Dow was sharing a sprawling Seattle estate with his two teenage children and a live-in girlfriend. But when the girlfriend moved out and the kids left for college, Dow found himself alone and adrift in a 6,000-square-foot craftsman in the city’s Magnolia neighborhood. Vowing to find something smaller and closer to the city’s core, he purchased a 2,600-square-foot 1920s Mediterranean atop Queen Anne Hill. “It needs a contractor,” the real estate agent confided, and she wasn’t kidding. Happily for Dow, heis a contractor, and he was able to see past the facts to the home’s potential. The cloistered rooms were cloaked in gothic appointments that looked like something out of a horror film. And although the site boasted a remarkable panorama of the city, bay and mountains, the home’s disregard for the scenery bordered on the comical, with just a single window oriented toward the view. Inspired by some of the modern houses built by his company, Schuchart/Dow, the homeowner enlisted the services of Garret Cord Werner and landscape architect Bruce Hinckley. Working from initial plans, the trio preserved the painted-brick exterior but gutted the rest, fashioning a series of free-flowing spaces rendered in a muscular mix of walnut, concrete and blackened steel. “I wanted the palette really simple,” Dow says. “I didn’t want to do all the coolest things you’ve ever seen in any design magazine.” Slots in walls, floors and even staircases offer teasing reveals between spaces, instilling every room and even the landscape with moments of personal discovery. The home’s masculine palette is given free expression in the living room, where a soaring concrete fireplace — stripped of any ornament save a sculptural steel poker — rises up to meet a vaulted cedar ceiling. Steel soffits fitted with lights encircle the room, lending scale to the space and preserving the purity of the ceiling plane, which consigns heating, cooling and additional lights to a series of discreet slots. A quartet of French doors supplants the lone window, offering access to a new cantilevered steel deck overlooking the city. Noting the lack of vertical connection between the upper and lower levels, Hinckley proposed peeling back one end of the living room to reveal the basement below. Excavating around the latter allowed Dow to turn the subterranean space into a light-filled family room; concrete retaining walls hold back the soil outside and mimic the exposed foundation within. Custom sectionals by Werner offer plenty of space to sprawl when the eight-foot movie screen descends from the fir ceiling above. Werner, who collaborated on the architecture as well as the interiors, chose tactile fabrics like mohair, wool and linen to counter the home’s hard edges. He combined colors and materials in lieu of pattern to instill a bit of variety, and selected generous down-filled seating to accommodate Dow’s love of reading. “I wanted to be able to take a nap in anything,” the homeowner says. Since Dow loves to cook, and friends always end up in the kitchen, he decided to make that room the focal point of the house. The design team vaulted the ceiling over the dining table (borrowing space from the attic) but lowered it over the cooking area to help break up the room’s shoebox proportions. Open steel shelves take the place of upper cabinets. A five-burner Miele cooktop is the only appliance in view; Miele ovens are stashed under the island, and Sub-Zero cooling drawers take the place of a refrigerator, making the space feel more like a gathering room than a galley. Although born and raised in Seattle, Dow vacationed on the family farm in Kansas, where he was surrounded by walnut trees and the furniture that his grandfather and great-grandfather made. He still loves the material, using it on floors and cabinets and commissioning a custom dining table from a 12-foot slab that he found in Oregon. The table’s ragged edges echo the outline of the original tree, narrowing as it progresses from base to trunk. “Everything in this house is sort of square and crisp,” Dow says. “I thought, ‘Let’s just do this live edge and have some fun with this one piece.’?” To help bring the Mediterranean architecture into the 21st century, Hinckley improved the connection between the interior and the garden, establishing outdoor seating areas and extending windows to the floor. Nowhere is this more evident than in the master suite, where windows frame still lifes of solitary pines and rockeries laced with ivy. A suede-paneled headboard and storage island help soften the décor, while walnut wardrobes keep clutter from upstaging the living artwork outside. Learning that Dow loved baths, Hinckley and Werner extrapolated an affection for water in general — so they wove a water motif throughout the garden, starting with a pond outside the master bathroom. A Japanese soaking tub, set flush with the floor, is separated from the pond by a window, so the two appear continuous. “I take a bath in that tub every single night,” says Dow, who even opens the window in winter, sending billows of steam skittering across the water. The water progresses through the garden, culminating in a cascade that plummets 14 feet into a rock-lined pool. Guests scaling the steep staircase to the front door always pause to contemplate the water feature before continuing their climb. Passing twisted black pines and stone walls embroidered with sedum, they eventually arrive at the top, where they must cross a narrow channel of water before reaching the front door. “It forces you to slow down and take notice,” Dow says. “I like the subtle things in the house that do that. They’re not big, but they’re effective.” What the Pros Know “At the end of the day, I just love sitting in hot water to unwind,” says Jim Dow, whose master bath features a Japanese soaking tub, or ofuro. Deeper and narrower than conventional bathtubs (Dow’s is unusually roomy), Japanese soaking tubs are designed to be used solo in a seated position, submerging the bather up to the neck. The tubs are generally round or square and feature vertical sides, and can be custom-made, as Dow’s was, or prefabricated from wood, metal, acrylic or fiberglass. The tubs are designed for contemplation, not cleansing, so users normally shower before entering. Dow keeps his tub filled, relying on a recirculating heating system to warm the water before use. Japanese soaking tubs are ideal for small bathrooms where a conventional tub won’t fit, but because the water is concentrated into a smaller footprint, care should be taken to make sure the floor can support the weight.