Steepbuilding lot provides Blaine couple their dream view

Published on Thu, Sep 21, 2006 by Jack Kintner

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Steep building lot provides Blaine couple their dream view

By Jack Kintner

Terry and Mary Johnston moved into their new Semiahmoo hillside house a couple of weeks ago. “We couldn’t be happier,” said Mary, “with the way it’s all worked out.”

The couple duplicated major pieces of a prior house they built in Portland near the Oregon Health Sciences University. “With that one, which was originally about 2,000 square feet,” Mary said, “the city encouraged us to add what’s usually called a mother-in-law apartment so it turned out to be 2,700 square feet.” They rented the apartment out to a string of medical students who became almost like family.

Their motivation to move to Blaine had to do with meeting local realtor Kathy Stauffer at the Seattle Boat Show a few years ago. “We were sunk,” said Johnston, “although we found out that we were spoiled in Portland.”

The couple brought their Carver 37 “More Time Out” with them from its Columbia River moorage to Semiahmoo Marina.

She said that in Blaine, “we’re in salt water now and don’t have covered moorage, so instead of clearing cobwebs and sweeping up, we find ourselves dealing with a different kind of maintenance,”

Terry Johnston described himself as a retired football player. The stocky former playground and outdoor equipment salesman was a pulling guard in college in southern California.

Mary has well over two decades’ experience in real estate and construction supervision, so they functioned as their own general contractors.

“Our architect is Fred Wagner of Grinstad and Wagner,” Mary said, “and we deliberately chose a steep hillside to build on, just as we did in Portland.” The site was prepared by placing a massive 200 yard concrete footing for the two-story 3,200 square foot house on the upper edge of their lot, a steep hillside that looks north-northeast toward the Peace Arch.

That was backed by many truckloads of fill to make sure their short driveway wouldn’t end up too steep. Their neighbors to the southeast had the same problem until the Johnston’s offered to share a corner of their lot which then gave both houses better driveway access.
The house seems compact and smaller than it really is because so much is below grade when driving up to the front door. “Wagner included a lot of craftsman style touches,” said Mary, “and we deliberately chose a dark exterior color,” in this case a rich Cordovan Brown by Cabot. The effect is one of substance without show, the dark wooden siding contrasting with the light gray driveway and highlighted with carriage lamps here and there, a shake roof and a small copper roof over a pop-out behind the master bath. It looks like something right out of Sunset magazine, relaxed and appealingly western.

The main floor is the top floor and has the master bedroom and bath, a great room with a wall clock several feet wide mounted on an inside gable and a kitchen that’s a direct copy of the one they had in Portland. On entering one is struck with both the view and the expanse capped by a ceiling that terminates in an eight inch by two foot laminated beam 32 feet long. “We couldn’t decide whether to paint it or not, but then we looked at the woodwork at the Loomis Trail golf club and decided that dark paint worked well inside, too,” Mary Johnston said, “and besides, we want people to look at the view, not the ceiling.”

The Johnston’s worked with John Blethen of New Whatcom Interiors in Bellingham to eliminate both walk-in closets and pantries. “We kind of held our breath,” Mary Johnston admitted, “but it worked out, and we saved a lot of space that would otherwise have gone to small walled-in rooms.”

Blethen did all the cabinetry in the house, including custom pantry drawers and shelves in the kitchen, closets and bureaus in the master bedroom/closet and vanities in the other bathrooms. Almost all are faced with cherry that Blethen antiques with a stain and an over-glaze for durability, making it easy to keep clean despite the dark color. It ends up looking lighter than it might otherwise appear with the use of detail, again craftsman style, to break up any expanse of wood wider than just a few feet.

“People like being able to see at a glance what’s in the pantry,” Blethen said, “and with these large rolling drawers and pull-outs that’s easy.” He added that with so much building going on he needs six months to a year lead time in order to be on time with custom orders.

The countertop is granite and off to one side what looks at first like a small wet bar is actually a prep area with a fairly small sink that’s got vertical sides and a flat floor deep enough for all the vegetables a big family meal might require.

The house is heated with gas forced air, so that and a high ceiling keep the humidity in the bathroom low enough to store clothes without fear of them getting clammy. It’s also wide but narrow front to back, so every bedroom, the great room and a more informal family room downstairs all share the same great view of Drayton Harbor and the B.C. Coast Mountains looming behind Blaine.

Narrow houses can be dark, but that’s prevented by having light coming in to the great room from all four directions and from at least two in most other rooms. Off the kitchen there’s a small private deck that functions as an outdoor breakfast nook.

The Johnston’s have a house that lets them keep the main floor more or less civilized while a minivan or two of grandchildren occupy the lower floors that has the TV and three more bedrooms. Both are old enough to believe that if you’re in the living room, television sets belong somewhere else. The lower floor also fronts out on a small level lawn that looks almost like a miniature putting green, retained by a rock wall.
Despite that, the Johnston’s chose the hillside lot themselves because they felt it was a better investment, once they went to the work and expense of putting a house on it.

Mary said that hillsides often have better light because there’s no obstructing trees or structures in front, as with height-restricted neighborhoods. In their case the house faces on two parallel streets and so will never have anything in front of it obstructing the view.
Landscaping for much of the lot will be more or less natural, except for the small lawn the hillside is fairly steep.

They were able to move a number of the plants they’d nurtured for some years in Portland, including a lot of fairly large perennials.

“But, boy, did we have to amend this soil,” she said, “We’ve put in what’s usually called for – mushroom compost, rotten alder bark and even coffee grounds from local roasters.”

Dine On Art: an eclectic collection of worldy ware

Two expatriated California couples living in Birch Bay want you to buy art at their Bellingham gallery but there’s a catch.

Walk into their “Dine on Art” gallery at 1201 Cornwall Avenue in the center of downtown between Holly and Chestnut streets and the color jumps out at you from tabletops and tableware, because in this gallery you buy something to take it home and eat on it.

Partners Kelly and Robb Pfeil and Lamont and Victoria Lavert are currently living in rented quarters off Birch Point Road while their new houses on adjoining D Street lots are finished.

They opened the gallery last Memorial Day weekend. Their studio where they manufacture their pieces is also in the area “but we keep that secret,” laughed Kelly Pfeil, “because we want people to come here to the gallery to see the finished pieces all accessorized and ready to go.”
Their basic stock in trade are what at first look like traditional kitchen tables on steroids. A closer look reveals a lot of hand work and detail that makes them worth the $4,000 asking price.

“My favorite is this one,” Pfeil said, pointing out a five by five foot table covered with bright yellow ceramic tile set into a brick colored grout. Dishes and plates of almost impossibly vivid reds and greens and many other colors sat on the yellow tile top, giving it a playful southern California look.

The dishes are called Capiz tableware after the translucent shells of the small mollusk they’re made of. A Capiz is also known as a windowpane oyster, and one still sees old houses in the Philippines that use them in place of window glass.

The shells are harvested and molded into dishes and bowls and so on by native workers in a building cottage industry much like that of the furniture production that the Pfeils and Laverts carry on in their Blaine studio.

Pinoy workers provide a durable product by pressing the shells together and layering them in a protective plastic polymer.

Though they can’t be microwaved or put through a dishwasher and can be sensitive to sharp knives, they otherwise can last for years without losing their bright colors.

At the gallery on a sunny day the translucence seems to almost jump off the table. Dine on Art also makes chairs ($200) and benches ($300) to match its tables, which come in standard sizes of three by five feet ($4,200), five by five ($4,500), three by eight ($4,500) and six by six ($4,800).

Each involves about a week’s work plus time spent waiting for various stages to cure, dry or set.

The wood is hand painted or stained and distressed, and then is given an oiled finish for durability. Dine on Art can do custom orders, Pfeil said. “Right now we’re putting together a table for someone who found a tile they really liked. Come on in if you have questions.”

Dine on Art can be reached at 756-0000, or go to