The place where we grow up is engraved in our hearts and minds — the sweet smell of a delicate spring, the pristine blanket of fresh-fallen snow or a stirring image of a bank of elms whose leaves rustle upside down before a late-summer storm. It’s more than memories — it’s an ideal that beckons to us down the years and over the miles.
Susan and Barry Marshall heard this nostalgic call when they decided to build a timber home in the Pacific Northwest. The mountains, the water and the towering evergreens evoked memories of their youth spent in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. It was a capsule of a time and place long ago that they hoped to capture in their new home. “I thought we should build an Adirondack-style house,” says Susan. “The view from our property is of the Gulf Islands, which are rounded and heavily wooded like the Adirondacks. I wanted the flavor of home.”
All in the Details
The Marshalls did take a slight detour off memory lane. After all, this was Blaine, Washington, on the cusp of Canada with a view over Semiahmoo Bay and the Strait of Georgia. So a little modification was in order. “We stayed away from the bark-and-twig look,” says Susan of the typical trappings of Adirondack style. “Instead, we went for lots of wood and stone that suggest the ambience of an Adirondack mountain lodge.” With this decision to forgo some of the fine details, Nils Finne, AIA, principal architect at Finne Architects in Seattle, designed the house to be big and brawny. He calls it a “robust, straightforward building that uses all-natural materials in a direct, honest way.”
Which is not to say the finer points were ignored. “The details made the house fun to build,” says Stan Starr, one of the owners of Emerald Builders in Bellingham. “For example, because the Marshalls wanted all the corners to be rounded instead of sharp 90-degree angles, we had to figure out a way to make the beadboard on the walls fit around the curve.”
The massive Douglas fir scissor trusses, kiln dried in special microwave ovens in Canada, are the stars of the house. “I love to lie in bed and look up at the wonderful timbers,” says Susan. Engineering the trusses, however, turned out to be a real challenge. Although a broken-pitch roof is common in the Northeast, Nils inserted a second break in the line, which added a Japanese flair to the roof. It also created three different pitches to contend with. “The purlins from the two wings intersect with the purlins from the center entry,” says Laurel Slisz, who owns Two Dog Timber- works in Ferndale, Washington, with her husband Peter. “Nils thought it might not be possible to engineer this type of roof system, but Pete had a vision for it. We could see it in our heads; we just couldn’t quite draw it. Pete did a mock-up model in the shop and it worked.”
Construction was further complicated because Susan didn’t want any of the timber connections to show. So the Sliszes came up with a unique solution where bolts were used: “Every nut and bolt had to be countersunk into the timber and plugged with a piece of wood,” says Laurel. “So we saved the ends of each piece of timber that we cut so we could match the grain for the plugs.”
Supporting the trusses throughout the house are pillars made of reinforced concrete clad in round, local quarry stone. At first, the supports gave Susan heartburn. “I was a little hesitant,” she admits. “I was afraid the concrete and stone would give too much of a cold, rustic outdoor feeling. But that’s not the case at all.”
Adding warmth to a house filled with stone pillars was the job of interior designer Diane Gunson of First Impressions in Denver, Colorado. Having worked with Susan and Barry on two other houses, she felt confident in how to interpret their taste. “People from the East Coast don’t want new — they want history.” she notes. This meant floors lined with old rugs, hand-forged light fixtures and historically crafted wooden tables to soften the spaces.
Beadboard lines the walls throughout the house. For variety, Diane painted it red in the dining room and dark green in the bathroom. She suggested using milk paint, an historic paint that mimics the translucent, slightly chalky quality of aged surfaces. But the painters were leery of using a product they were unfamiliar with. So Diane ordered milk paint from the East Coast and had it matched at the paint store. “I was surprised we could use a conventional brand and capture the subtle quality that you get with milk paint,” she says.
Furnishings, too, needed to exude warmth. “We wanted chunky furniture we could curl up in,” says Susan. Diane placed soft lamb’s-wool sofas in rich plaid in front of the hearth. And with a nod to the pinecone motif at the Lake Placid Club in New York, where Susan and Barry were married, Diane commissioned a dining-room chandelier adorned with pinecones and a table with a carved pinecone base. On the wall hangs a 1946 Old Town canoe. “My father found it at a boys’ camp in the Adirondacks,” says Susan. “We had it restored and designed a spot for it on the wall.”
And it’s this combination of detail and thoughtful design that has captured the essence of Susan and Barry’s childhood — a familiar sense of place that warms their hearts and souls like only a home can do.