Nov 2, 2009

The Life and Death of a Seattle House: 700 West Kinnear Place

A woman, a man, and a teenage girl are eating homemade vegan burgers, sitting on floor pillows. The man and the girl,who are guests, pretend to like the burgers. He forces one down, but she hides hers in a napkin, asks to be excused, and flushes it down the toilet. The girl is enraptured by the house; she had murmured "sweet," as she and the man had climbed the steps to the porch, where they could see the Space Needle, most of Seattle's downtown, and even Mt. Rainier. The woman had loved the man in a previous life, and the man is feeling sad about several things. The girl has been recently traumatized by violence and betrayal. The subtext of the scene is rich.

But it's all artifice: The three people are the actors Lili Taylor, Peter Krause, and Lauren Ambrose. And those are the first and possibly last vegan burgers to ever be served in that house, 700 West Kinnear Place. My Uncle Fred was the real homeowner, and his idea of dinner was a steak with pat of butter melted on top.

Uncle Fred had told me back in 2000 that the house had been filmed for an episode of Six Feet Under. Finally, last year I started sporadically watching the series. Because it's the best TV drama I have ever seen, I had almost forgotten about 700 West Kinnear's role. But there it was, turrets looming into Season 2, "Driving Mr. Mossback", its fading yellow paint and brown-trimmed windows a tribute to the last of Queen Anne Hill's shabby gentility, the already lavish Seattle view pumped up needlessly with a telephoto lens.

This was no passing shot of a house in order to establish a sense of place, it was the place itself. It was the house that Nate, Peter Krause's character, had lived in before his father died and he had to help with the family funeral home in Los Angeles. Lili Taylor plays an old flame, Lisa, who remains deeply in love with him. She still keeps his shirt in the closet.

My grandmother's family moved to this house in 1906 from Syracuse, months before Uncle Fred's birth in the only bedroom without a view. The family attended Plymouth Congregational Church, often walking all the way down the hill and back every week. My great grandfather was a banker, full of Protestant rectitude, back in the days when thrift and modesty were virtues. The house was big, but with four children, three of them boys, and maiden Aunt Laura and my great grandmother's mother also living there, it was full. The children walked every day to Queen Anne "grammar school" and then Queen Anne High School, and all of them attended either Oregon Agricultural College or University of Washington, or some combination thereof. Fred grew up to become a lawyer. A stint in the Army during World War II was the only time in his life he did not live at 700 W. Kinnear Place.

The house served as a refuge for my grandmother after she divorced during the Depression and was taking care of my mother, born in 1929. I have many old faded pictures of my mother as a baby in a wicker baby carriage on that airy porch, as a toddler playing with a dog, as a gawky young girl under the apple trees. I visited with my mother and grandmother when I was in high school, then on my own in the mid 1980s, with a friend in 1990, and with my husband in 1998, when we were newly married.

To me, 700 W. Kinnear held the past together, and served as proof of my family's rootedness despite two later generations of military life. The house still ran on the knob and tube electricity rigged up by Uncle Fred and his brothers in the 1920s. Fred didn't drink much or clean out his liquor cabinet often; I found a bottle of some kind of hard liquor that dated from 1918. Quilts my great grandmother made, old radios that had names of Pacific Northwest radio stations on the dial, books owned by three generations shelved companionably together in barrister bookcases; whenever I visited, I inhabited the place, breathed its memories, and made it mine.

In 1998 my husband and I made a special dinner for Fred. It was more gourmet than his buttered steak, involving fresh pasta and gorgonzola. We bought everything, including the wine, at Pike Place Market. At some point during this dinner we offered to renovate the third floor and live there. We would help Fred maintain the place--he was 93 by then and still fixing the roof himself--and John would get a tech job easily in Seattle. I told Fred how much we loved the house and what it meant to me. He wrote me a sweet letter later, saying he thought not. He lived in the house until 2001, when he sold it and moved to a retirement community. The last time I saw Uncle Fred was that year, when he flew East to attend my grandmother's 101st birthday party. At the party he said to me, "I should have agreed to get that house historically certified. Because I sure do hate what this guy is doing to it."

My grandmother died in the spring of 2002, and then Uncle Fred on July 4 of that year. He was an all-American, self-effacing, pragmatic guy, dispensing painfully firm handshakes and bear hugs into his nineties. He was a trial lawyer and a gentleman, a dying breed. When my friend Karen and I were browsing his bookshelves we found a book turned backwards with the spine inside. It was The Joy of Sex. He had been long widowed by that point.

My brother Dan and I flew out for his memorial service, but I stayed longer to get a sense of Seattle as a place that had meant home to me. I wandered up Queen Anne hill to see the house. The windows were boarded up, and a huge semi was parked in Fred's rose garden, which had been unkempt for a year. This was not a house. It was a corpse. I walked under the old apple trees, and saw that his blackberries were ripening on the vine. A clawing grief took hold of me. I pulled myself together and rang the doorbell of a neighbor, who gave me old pictures of the house that she had saved. She said the next owner was moving the house several feet so he could subdivide the part of the yard with the apple trees. She gave me tea and we commiserated together, and celebrated Fred's life.

The house is for sale again, a house made so luxurious that no one can afford it, a house made so huge that no one can fill it. After moving the house, renovating down to the studs and finishing all the raw spaces, then adding a gluttonous new porch and a kitchen no one will cook in, the owner is moving on, perhaps going broke. The attic, with its dusty books and old family things, is now a vast beige space covered in carpet. The once-utilitarian basement, with all Fred's ancient tools, is also covered in this viral beige carpet and "finished." I don't recognize the house any more, its soul surgically removed. Its austerity and restraint are gone, which is what made the view so full of grace.

No one living here will tinker with tools in the basement, fix their own roof, or mow their own lawn. No film companies will impute Bohemianism to this new place. But one thing makes me take heart. Nobody can stop blackberries from growing like weeds in Seattle.

10 comments:

Marcia said...

Great story Lauren! Sorry it didn't work out for you guys to live there :( And what a great obituary for your uncle too!

Dan McKinney said...

A couple of things to think about though - the fact that the house was preserved, improved, and added on to means something - it wasn't torn down.

Fred may bot have liked what was being done to the place, but he did sell it, with no effort made to register it as a historic building, introduced no deed restrictions as to what could or could not be done with it after the sale. When you sell a place like that under such conditions, you're saying "goodbye" to the place!

True, its original character is gone, but so is Uncle Fred, and Aunt Arlene, and Nana, the folks who actually lived in the place. We live all the way across the country from Seattle, and have no real connection to that old house now, or ever, really. It's a place in our family's history, not even really our history. It's not as if we grew up there or spent any significant time there. 676 Wallace Drive, or the quarters in K-town, have more real-life connection to us.

The place in Seattle had acquired only symbolic significance to us, and "symbolic" can translate pretty easily to "imaginary". As Army brats, with no real "home", we decided to call Fred's house home, even though it never was ours. Like Canadians who imagine they have a connection with a royal palace in England, we imagined Fred's old house to represent us, somehow. But it only carried first-hand, and truly significant, memories for Fred and his sister - there the real-world connection ends for the family. Its status to us as a symbol is just a mental construct.

The world changes - in 2000, a house like that overlooking Seattle with it's new wealthy class and booming hi-tech industry was the perfect site to construct something that held significance for what was happening at that time. It became a modern mansion for a millionaire, as opposed to an old Victorian house for a millionaire, which is what it was for Fred. Today's millionaire wants something different than what Fred's generation wanted, I suppose.

Domestic Goddess said...

Lauren, when things hold sentimental value it's tough to put a price on it. I can see why it is painful and why you have good memories of it. Although my family members have never been millionaires, I know what you are feeling. Even though it's a house, there are so many memories, so many smells, lights, breezes, pies, holidays...

It's the good stuff you miss. The good news is that your kids will feel the same way someday. About some place.

elsewhere said...

Wow. What a great post. I delayed feeding the cats to read it.

Crissie said...

Wonderful story, Lauren. I have one place that holds that emotional investment and saw it this summer. It still holds the power to move me.

Velva said...

I was hoping that the ending to this story was that you bought the house on 700 West Kinnear Place.The house may have been changed dramatically but the foundation still retained it's soul.
Great story.

Carpe Diem said...

Lauren, catching up on Dream Kitchen. Fabulous. What a sense of place. And, so sad for you. I'm sorry. I remember you telling me about Uncle Fred and your ties to Seattle, but this paints a clear picture. I felt like I was there. When my grandmother's house sold, bungalow that it was, I cried real tears. But it, too, has survived via a string of new owners (one of whom, albeit, ripped out all the old original knotty pine walls). I stop by every few years, knock on the door, and ask to look around. I'm always met with surprise yet friendliness, and thus I get my fix. I hope someone does great things with it (and I suppose wtih the filming, they already are).

Deborah said...

Such a great essay! Found your post because I was looking for pictures of the house, the way it used to be. I nearby, and used to walk by it frequently. I remember an article in the Seattle P-I, when the house was first sold. Do you have any old pictures you could post?

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Anonymous said...

I have happened upon your post a number of years later. I happened upon it because 700 W. Kinnear Place is now the home of my parents. I never knew the original character of the place, though I most certainly recognize and identify with the pain of losing a home that has played a central role in your life. The home you knew may be gone, but I wanted to tell you that the home we know has become the heart of a family who loves it well. My three siblings and I, our spouses and our children gravitate from our dispersed residences to gather here. There is food, there is laughter, there is warmth. We fill every room - even the beige basement, with various cousins on couches and air mattresses - and the attic's closets are home to piles of old toys that come out to play with eager grandchildren. My mother cooks in the kitchen every night. I can see how this house, if empty, would read as soulless. A house, after all, is just a house. But home is about that which fills a house. I hope it brings you some small measure of comfort to know that the house that stands here now, while not the home you knew, is home to someone nonetheless.