Centennial Craftsman is still good lookin’
August 7th, 2013
Fortified by country music, Greg and Sharon Nickels restore their Admiral home to its former glory
(View Paul Dorpat’s “Now and Then” column in the Aug. 11, 2013, Seattle Times.)
(View the web extras, including stunning historical aerial photos of the Admiral district, for Paul Dorpat’s “Now and Then” column of Aug. 11, 2013.)
By Brad Chrisman
In the annals of Seattle history, he’ll be remembered as the city’s 51st mayor, the Honorable Gregory J. Nickels. Or, as they say in the dialect of his native Chicago, “Hizzoner Da Mare.”
But as the owner of a century-old house in West Seattle’s Admiral district, Nickels is not so different from the rest of the citizens who populate his tree-shaded neighborhood.
He’s a paintbrush-wielding, dandelion-pulling homeowner who, with his wife, Sharon, has invested countless hours caring for their historic home and striving to restore it to its original Craftsman-style glory.
“I’ve spent weeks steaming wallpaper in every room in the house,” Nickels says. “I do that very well. I put Hank Williams on real loud and sing along.”
As he serenaded each room over the past 26 years, the history of the house gradually unfolded. “Every layer of wallpaper,” he says, “has a story to tell.”
To tell the tale of their home’s restoration and mark its 100th birthday, Greg and Sharon will host a community celebration on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 18, 2013. Organized as a fundraiser to benefit the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, the event is dubbed “If These Walls Could Talk: The Centennial of Hizzoner’s Home.”
If the walls and other surfaces at 1910 47th Ave. S.W. could talk, surely they would thank Nickels for freeing them from the suffocating grasp of multiple layers of wallpaper, linoleum, musty carpeting and other materials.
“When we moved in Thanksgiving 1986, the house was very different than it is now,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful house, but the inside was all rust-colored shag carpet – who knows how old and what was hiding in it?”
The kitchen floor, he says, was covered with indoor-outdoor carpet. Beneath that lurked “layers and layers of old linoleum.”
“And the back of the house was a jarring switch from a beautiful Craftsman to this odd thing that they added onto the back.”
That 1980s addition, situated next to the kitchen, was enclosed in single-pane glass. “And that’s where the hot tub was,” Nickels says wryly. “So you literally had a hot tub in the kitchen, which was interesting.”
Year after year, room by room, Greg and Sharon transformed their historic abode. Their aim was to respect the integrity of the design, restoring original features whenever possible.
“In some cases, the house had been so altered that you couldn’t really just peel back,” he says.
When pure restoration wasn’t feasible, the couple chose fixtures and materials “compatible with the style of the house,” such as a stained-glass window in the kitchen that extended the motif of the stained glass next to the fireplace, and bathroom floor tile that fit the building’s early 20th-century heritage.
Many of the improvements were done by subtraction, removing materials and finishes that had been added by previous owners. While Nickels crooned renditions of “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” his father, Bob, patiently stripped black shellac from the woodwork around the fireplace.
One of the first projects Nickels tackled was to “take the damn hot tub out.” Above the tub was a glass ceiling that could be opened to the outside air.
“But it was really cheaply done,” he says, “and during the winter you could actually watch the heat leave the house.”
Today, the now-cozy room serves as Sharon’s office and an eating nook. A single skylight pays homage to the room’s hot-tub period.
In his young daughter Carey’s upstairs bedroom, he replaced a balcony door that was so thin, “ice would form on the inside.” Up on the roof, a crew removed four layers of shingles weighing 19,000 pounds.
A main-floor bedroom (that now temporarily serves as home for their recently returned from London daughter and son-in-law) also got a sorely needed makeover. That room “looked like a bordello,” Nickels recalls. “It had this really heavy valance and a plastic chandelier that was orange, I think. And flocked wallpaper.” And, of course, rust-colored shag carpet.
In the bathroom, he did away with gold, flocked wallpaper, dark-green shag carpeting, damaged yellow, black and green tile and a black toilet.
“There’s nothing creepier than a black toilet,” he observes, “because you cannot tell if the thing has been flushed.”
When they first looked at the home in 1986, Greg and Sharon noticed some unusual features that were clues to one chapter of the building’s history. At the top of both internal stairways, metal fire doors had been installed. A fire escape had been added off the back. And there were marks from a circular saw where someone had cut off the ends of stair treads that protruded slightly into the hallway.
The details are sketchy, but it appears that those changes were made during the 1960s when the building operated for a few years as a nursing home.
The reason the Nickels family moved to the Admiral area is tied to Greg’s early political career.
From 1979 to 1981, they lived in their “starter” home on Southwest Austin Street, just doors from 35th Avenue Southwest. Two months before the birth of their son Jake, they moved to a 1911-era house at 9033 38th Ave. S.W., near the Barton Street water tower in the south end of West Seattle.
Because Greg and Sharon had met in the Young Democrats, politics was never far from their minds. When Greg decided to leave his job as Seattle City Council member Norm Rice’s aide to run for the King County Council, they faced a dilemma. Due to what Greg calls the county council’s gerrymandering in 1986, their beloved 1911 Cape Cod home oddly became part of a Federal Way-centered council district.
Undeterred, Greg and Sharon decided to move their young family back into the West Seattle-based county-council district. The Admiral area satisfied that requirement, and although the couple initially had reservations about the condition of the 1913 house, they came back for a second look and decided to take the leap.
Nickels upset longtime West Side politician Bob Greive in the ensuing 1987 election. Following a 14-year tenure on the county council, Nickels made a mayoral bid in 2001 and won, becoming the first – and still only – West Seattle resident to serve as Seattle mayor. He went on to serve eight years at the city’s helm.
The oldest of six children, he was born in Chicago, then lived in Erie, Pennsylvania, until the age of 6, when his father took a job in Seattle with Boeing. For several years, the Nickels clan lived a few blocks from Lincoln Park. Greg attended Holy Rosary School and then Our Lady of Guadalupe before the family moved again to Capitol Hill when he was entering the seventh grade.
“I grew up here,” he says. “West Seattle was always home for me.”
For Sharon, an Ellensburg native whose father was the elected Kittitas County assessor, West Seattle had a comfortable, small-town feel akin to her roots.
Nickels says he’s excited to share what he and Sharon have learned about their home, and he hopes the Aug. 18 event will “inspire others to dig into the history of their own homes.”
Attendees will have an opportunity to meet Seattle’s former first couple and get an up-close view of the progress they have made on their home’s restoration.
Display panels that the historical society is preparing for the event will cover the history of the home before the Nickels family moved in, its history during the Nickels years, a history of the Admiral neighborhood, a description of Craftsman homes and what changes are typically made and why, and how to research the history of any home in King County.
Visitors also will get an intimate look at Greg’s study, a converted bedroom packed with artifacts from his political career: framed awards, political cartoons and photographs; a yard sign from his original mayoral campaign; the office chair that he occupied in City Hall; a certificate, signed by President Obama, commemorating his appointment as a delegate to the United Nations and many other mementos.
If the Aug. 18 celebration is like most events that have taken place at the Nickels home – and there have been many large gatherings over the years, including a fundraising event with former Vice President Al Gore as the guest of honor – the majority of guests will gravitate to the spacious kitchen.
Redoing that room was the biggest project that the Nickels have taken on at the house. Greg credits Sharon with having the vision to enlarge and modernize the kitchen in a way that feels compatible with the rest of the home.
“At first, I thought there was no hope,” Sharon says.
But when an architect suggested removing a wall between the kitchen and pantry, she began to imagine the possibilities – a roomy kitchen with windows to bring in natural light, and an open feel that connects the kitchen to both the family room and her office.
It was a big project but worth the effort, the former mayor believes, his focus shifting from the past to the future: “You’re giving the house another 50-year life.”
[Brad Chrisman, former vice-president of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society board, was the editorial coordinator for the landmark 1987 history book “West Side Story.”]