Little Boxes on the Hillside

The 1972 Malvina Reynolds song, “Little Boxes on the Hillside” criticized the homogenization of a culture obsessed with materialism and upward mobility that was displacing any sense of character, place or individuality, set to a self-referentially folksy tune. As much as the song is a critique of post-war American values, in my view it is perfectly well suited as a critique of post-recession residential construction on Queen Anne.

There are few blocks remaining in our historic neighborhood that are not host to a “contemporary modern” box of a house, the sole purpose of which it seems is to provide the requisite rooftop deck. Neighborhoods are living, evolving things. Not every house on Queen Anne needs to be an early 20th century bungalow, or one of the stately beauties that popped up on its south slope after the introduction of streetcar service in 1902. But every house should be a good and respectful neighbor.

One of the more architecturally eclectic parts of the hill is Queen Anne Park. The area was developed over a period that straddled the Great Depression and post-war prosperity. The majority of its homes enjoy a mutual respect based on scale, construction quality and site consumption despite the decades that separate them. This characteristic allows for a certain quality of life, the value of which is difficult to quantify. But key to that quality of life are two elements: air and sunlight. In residential neighborhoods, these elements are preserved by rooflines that angle or step back to allow light and breezes to move past, around and over them to surrounding properties; and by limiting the footprint of a home to no greater than half of its lot to preserve livable outdoor space.

A Dryvit-clad house with a rooftop-deck looms over a neighboring home in Queen Anne.

Over the past decade it has become sadly predictable that when a Queen Anne home is torn down, a characterless, three-story, box-plus-rooftop-deck will spring up in short order. And this home will be built to eat up as much of the lot as possible to maximize the size of the dwelling below deck; resulting in rooms so large that there is no need for clever, efficient design. The effect on surrounding neighbors is immediate and negative. Less natural light will shine into their homes, and fewer cool breezes will travel through their backyards during our cherished summer months. And if one is fortunate enough to enjoy a peek-a-boo view, it will likely be obstructed by 4,000 square feet of Dryvit-clad belligerence. Many are embellished with a dizzying array of surface materials; some corrugated sheet metal here and there, a few token rectangles of board siding arranged in competing directions in a feeble attempt to convey the illusion that there is something architectural going on.

But these homes are not only discourteous neighbors; they do a disservice to those who live in them as well. Sacrificing easily accessible outdoor space to accommodate a rooftop deck is problematic at best. Unless the designer of the home had the foresight to give up deck square footage for a top-floor room with a half-bath and storage for cold drinks, (or at the very least a dumbwaiter) the deck will rarely see use. Several homes with rooftop decks can be seen from my house and I have never, not once, seen anyone use them. It’s a pain to haul stuff up and down from there. It’s a pleasure to step out into a well-designed and landscaped backyard and wave to your neighbor, whose name you know, enjoying theirs. The sense of community and quality of life imparted by thoughtful design cannot be overstated.

This modern Queen Anne home features distinct façade articulation, high-quality materials and construction. The protruding steel-and-glass window arrangement wrapping the corner balances the weightiness of the brick. The absence of vertical boards at the corner of the horizontal siding shows the care in construction taken to miter the wood for perfect alignment.


That is not to say that all contemporary modern homes being built on Queen Anne are discourteous neighbors, even some of the boxy ones. It’s a delighted to see a modern home designed with sensitivity to scale by an architect and client who understand that modernism cannot be successfully executed with inexpensive materials, stock windows and spec-house quality construction. Lack of decorative detail in modern design is deceptive; it requires high-quality materials applied with jewel-box-precise construction to be pulled off. And with any style of architecture, a well thought out and harmonious relationship to site and surroundings allows a home to be a standout rather than a sore thumb.

This modern Queen Anne home features a curvilinear roofline, extensive glazing and Corten steel cladding. High-quality materials and construction methods like these are important factors in successful modern design.

With no enforceable design ordinances in place to discourage construction of the less courteous boxes on the hill one can only hope that this trend will subside before our streets become dark canyons and our historic sense of place is lost. Until then it appears that, for the most part, they will all be made of ticky-tacky and all look just the same

James Washington, Jr. on Queen Anne: Where’s our Public Art?

Georgia Gerber’s dog in front of Trader Joe’s notwithstanding, I may be barking up the wrong tree when I worry about the lack of public art in our neighborhood. But truth to tell, Seattle Center aside, we simply do not have many works of public art on Queen Anne!

I was drawn to this subject of Queen Anne’s public art when the Landmarks Preservation Board included James W. Washington, Jr’s sculpture, The Oracle of Truth in its designation of the AME Zion Church on Madison Street. I am really thrilled by this decision to landmark one of Washington’s sculptures. With Gwendolyn and Jacob Lawrence, James Washington Jr. was one of the most important African-American artists in Seattle’s 20th c. history. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a sculpture been folded into a landmark nomination, so the designation is momentous. …Continue reading “James Washington, Jr. on Queen Anne: Where’s our Public Art?”

A Beautiful American Foursquare on our North Slope (Revised)

(Subsequent to publishing this article, super sleuth and passionate historic preservationist, Leanne Olson, provided answers to some of the questions I posed. They are reported in the Follow Up added below. Leanne chairs the society’s Landmark Preservation Committee.) 

“Look Up” is an old dictum bandied about by architectural historians like Jane Jacobs. The dictum still applies, but it assumed folks were walking around historic buildings with their eyes glued to the sidewalk. In this new post-automobile era where walking and biking are replacing fossil fueled outings, I am adopting a new dictum. It is quite simple, “Just Walk.”

Eastern façade 2925 Warren Ave. N.

Walking up to the top of Queen Anne from Fremont along Warren Ave. N., I stumbled on this absolutely gorgeous American Foursquare half a block south of Florentia at 2925 Warren. Even though I’ve driven that block a million times since moving here in 1985, and even though I ride my bicycle down Warren at least twice a week, I’ve never walked the block before. The whole block is a bundle of lovely early 20th-c. houses, I would never appreciate on wheels, so let’s all get out and Just Walk. We’ll love Queen Anne even more and be in better health.

This house is unique as the sole building on the street for which the city’s side sewer card gives no date of connection. I have no doubt that it was built prior to 1910 (see Follow Up below). Spectacularly perched on a very steep and narrow slope, the house has projecting bays on brackets at each corner of the second story. The sweet diamond shaped window between the two projecting bays is capped with delightful decorative scrollwork (hardly visible in the photos) that the contractor either bought at a local lumber yard or copied from a pattern book.

If the tipped square window is true to style, it lights a walk-in closet serving one of the bedrooms behind the corner bays. Those bays plus the hip roofs on each corner bay and the central portion of the house are typical American Four Square. At the top of the house and centered above those characteristic corner bays is an exquisite dormer with what is for Seattle a rare tripartite Palladian window. As with so many houses of the period, whatever their apparent style, this one has a projecting bay on the rear of the first floor whose windows must light the dining room. As with so many houses of this style and period, the entire body is sheathed in beveled siding (we called it narrow board clapboard in the east).

The house looking northwest (darn pole)

 As often the case with American Foursquares, a wraparound front porch leads to a front door on the north side of the house. The porch, which sports neatly turned posts, is unusually wide to accommodate, I am guessing, what were great views to the north and east before trees grew up and before 1932 when Seattle sprouted the George Washington Memorial Bridge that may block some views now. Truth to tell, the view to the north is still spectacular. The porch also hides a bay window which probably lights the living room and serves as the final touch on a superb, well balanced set of windows and decorative features that make this house so special. I am especially fond of the vertical panes that form a transom above all the large windows, and I can’t resist those small panes in the upper portion of the Palladian.

2925 Warren Ave. N. looking northwest

It would be great to know who built this house (see Follow Up below) and why all the houses on the block are scrunched so close together. I’ve made up stories about houses on the northern slope of Queen Anne. One of them claims that they are later with a smaller footprint than those on the top of the hill, because facing north with so few hours of sun, they had to wait for the sunny lots elsewhere on Queen Anne to run out. The date of this house and several others on the block which were constructed in the first or second decade of the 20th c. disproves that theory. It is more likely that the narrow lots and smaller houses reflect marketing to working class folks who labored in nearby mills or downtown factories. A short walk down to Nickerson made it easy to catch a streetcar going downtown.

Follow Up:

As I guessed, the house was built before 1910. In fact, according to the Seattle Daily Times of October 11, 1908,  the city had just issued a building permit to W. D. Arnot for a two-story frame residence to be 22′ by 35′ and costing $2,500.  We don’t know if Arnot actually occupied the house, and we don’t know when he broke ground. We can be pretty confident that the first occupants moved in over the course of 1909.  They may been Mr. and Mrs. Wiley Chapman noted below.

On December 8, 1912, on page 62, the Seattle Sunday Times  reported  the marriage of Olacile Winnifred Chapman to John Alexander McDonald who were wed at St. Anne’s on November 28.  According to the Times, the wedding reception was held at 2925 Warren Ave. N., the home of the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wiley Chapman. The Times noted that , “Mrs. W. Cathey sang a solo, If I Could Live a Thousand Years, I ‘d Live Them  All With You,” and that , “Music was provided by the Ross Seminary Quartet, composed of Mr. and Mrs. William Cathey and Mr. and Mrs. Earl Newton.” 

Now that is amazing! Mr. and Mrs. William Cathey were the parents of my one time next door neighbor Bob Cathey. Like his parents, Bob was a musician. He taught in Seattle’s Public Schools and attended the Free Methodist Church where he was in charge of music. Ross, we remember, was  the name of the neighborhood at the foot of Third Ave. W. where  the Free Methodist Church and Seattle Pacific University, an affiliate of the church, are located.  The church actually founded Seattle Pacific University, naming it Seattle Seminary.

Finally, it is pleasant to learn that the city’s survey of Historical Buildings completed in 2005 included this house. You can find the survey report here.