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Midcentury Made Modern: A Very Zen Landscape for an Architectural Gem in Seattle

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Midcentury Made Modern: A Very Zen Landscape for an Architectural Gem in Seattle

February 5, 2018

When a young Seattle couple with three children toured a 1961 house by locally known architect Ibsen Nelsen, they fell in love with not only its striking style but also the sprawling midcentury garden that filled its 10,700-square-foot lot.

But like so many homes of the era, both the house and garden had elements that didn’t fit the family’s contemporary lifestyle: The kitchen was compact and isolated, exterior views were framed by small windows, and the layout lacked flow between rooms and between indoors and out. The landscape, though generous, hadn’t been updated since it was designed—and a lot can change in the moist Seattle climate over the course of 55 years. Most of the wood fencing was rotting, trees were dangerously tall, and plants were overgrown. The star of the landscape, a courtyard garden visible from the living room, had been commandeered by three “outsized” rhododendrons.

The new homeowners hired architecture firm MW Works and landscape designers Wittman Estes to remodel the house and garden before they moved in. Let’s explore their solutions.

Photography by Jeremy Bittermann, courtesy of MW Works.

The new front door is a custom design, made of heat-treated oak planks in a pivoting steel frame. The heat treatment, explains architect Steve Mongillo, makes the wood more resistant to moisture and decay.
Above: The new front door is a custom design, made of heat-treated oak planks in a pivoting steel frame. The heat treatment, explains architect Steve Mongillo, makes the wood more resistant to moisture and decay.

The owners “appreciate good design and wanted their landscape to be a gracious complement to their midcentury house,” says landscape designer Jody Estes.

The courtyard garden, newly visible from the front door. In the house’s initial design, a solid wood front door opened onto a large coat closet, which walled off the courtyard on one side. The design team replaced the closet with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, so the courtyard garden is the first thing visible upon entering the house.
Above: The courtyard garden, newly visible from the front door. In the house’s initial design, a solid wood front door opened onto a large coat closet, which walled off the courtyard on one side. The design team replaced the closet with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, so the courtyard garden is the first thing visible upon entering the house.
Before the renovation, the courtyard was visible mainly from the living room. Now, the house’s main hallway borders the courtyard. Though the courtyard is fully enclosed, the design team visually brought it indoors by planting a small patch of black mondo grass inside, in line with a strip of the same grass planted outdoors.
Above: Before the renovation, the courtyard was visible mainly from the living room. Now, the house’s main hallway borders the courtyard. Though the courtyard is fully enclosed, the design team visually brought it indoors by planting a small patch of black mondo grass inside, in line with a strip of the same grass planted outdoors.

The original designer of the house and landscape, architect Ibsen Nelsen, was born in Nebraska to Danish immigrant parents. In the 1950s he moved to Seattle, where he lived and practiced architecture until his death in 2001.

The courtyard’s footprint remained the same, but a water feature planted with water lily and papyrus is a new addition.
Above: The courtyard’s footprint remained the same, but a water feature planted with water lily and papyrus is a new addition.

A walkway of ipe wood that cuts through the back of the courtyard serves as the daily entryway for the family, direct from the carport to a laundry and mudroom.

The view of the courtyard from the carport. The courtyard is planted with Japanese sedge, vine maple, wild ginger, and hostas. “It is not intended to be a flower garden,” says Matt Wittman of Wittman Estes. “It’s very calm and monochromatic until autumn, when the maple tree leaves will turn gold.”
Above: The view of the courtyard from the carport. The courtyard is planted with Japanese sedge, vine maple, wild ginger, and hostas. “It is not intended to be a flower garden,” says Matt Wittman of Wittman Estes. “It’s very calm and monochromatic until autumn, when the maple tree leaves will turn gold.”

A rough-cut limestone volume borders one end of the courtyard, while new windows next to it expose the kitchen, sitting nook, and informal entryway to views of the courtyard.

The landscape architects designed an integrated fountain of concrete and bronze for the water feature, “for its soothing sound as well as a focal point,” Wittman says. Most of the new windows are operable so that the sound of water may be heard from inside the house.
Above: The landscape architects designed an integrated fountain of concrete and bronze for the water feature, “for its soothing sound as well as a focal point,” Wittman says. Most of the new windows are operable so that the sound of water may be heard from inside the house.
The living room, as seen from the dining room. The windows open onto a side garden of shrubs and perennials.
Above: The living room, as seen from the dining room. The windows open onto a side garden of shrubs and perennials.
The back of the house looks toward Seattle’s Lake Washington. Though the house’s footprint remained unchanged, the architects flattened a formerly vaulted dining room ceiling to allow for a new, top-floor deck off the master bedroom. From a lower deck located off the kitchen, poured concrete stairs wind down to another patio and lawn.
Above: The back of the house looks toward Seattle’s Lake Washington. Though the house’s footprint remained unchanged, the architects flattened a formerly vaulted dining room ceiling to allow for a new, top-floor deck off the master bedroom. From a lower deck located off the kitchen, poured concrete stairs wind down to another patio and lawn.
The new roof over the carport is painted, raised-seam metal. Two untethered rain chains hang from the top-floor eaves, directing water into the gutters below. From the gutters, water flows into catch basins that are integrated into the landscape.
Above: The new roof over the carport is painted, raised-seam metal. Two untethered rain chains hang from the top-floor eaves, directing water into the gutters below. From the gutters, water flows into catch basins that are integrated into the landscape.

The house is clad in cedar wood with a weathering stain, and cement panels with a dark, integrated pigment. Custom planter boxes of powder-coated plate steel dot the property, and a black-stained cedar fence marks the borders. A new driveway of Stepstone pavers replaced a narrower driveway paved in a basketweave pattern.

In typical midcentury style, the original kitchen was designed as a utility room, not a social space. The architects removed all its enclosing walls, and replaced one wall with large sliding glass doors that open onto a concrete patio and ipe wood deck.
Above: In typical midcentury style, the original kitchen was designed as a utility room, not a social space. The architects removed all its enclosing walls, and replaced one wall with large sliding glass doors that open onto a concrete patio and ipe wood deck.
The main-level floor plan shows the driveway and carport, courtyard garden, ipe wood deck, and backyard lawn.
Above: The main-level floor plan shows the driveway and carport, courtyard garden, ipe wood deck, and backyard lawn.

Looking to add a deck, patio, or driveway? Start with our Hardscaping 101 guide to Pavers, Decks & Patios, Retaining Walls, and more. Find tips on How to Draw a Garden Plan and Architects’ Ideas to Create Privacy in the Garden. For more landscape overhauls, try:

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