Sunset, March 2007
’m suspicious of that lacy filigree around the quatrefoils.” Caroline Swope is critiquing an early 20th-century Seattle Box-style house on Capitol Hill. It’s deliciously cute and has been renovated with obvious care, but she’s cutting it no slack. “The wood looks too smooth, like it hasn’t been painted many times. I think it’s been added recently. So that’s a house where the bones are still there but a lot of the details have been changed.”
Stroll through any Seattle neighborhood with Swope and this is what you’ll enjoy: a relentless river of commentary analyzing and critiquing every old house—the fine points of its style, the social milieu in which it arose, and an incisive critique of how succeeding generations of owners appear to have treated it. Some wouldn’t be happy if they overheard her.
“This is a really nice little Tudor. But that’s a Colonial Revival window that got shoved in there.”
“Here’s a Seattle Box that got slaughtered.” Someone had enclosed the porch to gain a bit more living space.
“Ouch!” We’re surveying a modest folk-Victorian with a quirky second-story gable window that comes to a triangular point, kind of a folk-Postmodern Gothic touch. She has a catalog of quibbles. Too big a window for the gable, too acute a point, and most of all, a failed marriage of styles. “There are certain things that determine a style, and it’s important to preserve their integrity. If you go out for Mediterranean food, you shouldn’t find a sushi roll in the middle of the appetizer plate. It’s the same with architecture.”
Swope is an architecture and art historian, and despite her heartily opinionated nature, she recently assembled a calm and agreeable book, Classic Houses of Seattle: High Style to Vernacular, 1870-1950 (Timber Press, $39.95). It’s a thorough guide to the architectural styles of Seattle’s residential neighborhoods, and a trove of histories of individual dwellings. And not just the grand, important houses. She’s actually more passionate about discovering a lone delectable detail—a tulip-shaped leading pattern in the window of a working-class Craftsman cottage in Ballard, say—than the swarm of ornamentation encrusting a Queen Anne mansion. “When Mies said ‘God is in the details,’ he wasn’t just talking about the big jobs,” she says. “On some of these small houses, it may be just two or three details that give the house its delight.”
Swope is 35, petite, possessed of a shrewd and formidable intellect underlying a friendly and chatty manner. She talks like a hummingbird flies—rapidly, with furious energy and unerring direction. On one of our neighborhood walks I mentioned casually that while I loved to admire old houses, I wouldn’t want to own one—too many maintenance hassles. Swope waited for two weeks, then ambushed me with a shower of pointed questions about the 18-year-old house I live in. I was forced to admit—and astonished when I added it up—that I’d spent nearly $60,000 in repairs and renovations.
“And you’re afraid of old houses?” she asked.
“The nice thing about old houses is that even if they were cheaply built 100 years ago, cheaply built then was a lot better than cheaply built now.”
Swope can’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated with buildings. She grew up in a ‘70s split-level in Virginia that failed her for its lack of “mystery and fun.” Whenever she visited childhood friends, she’d slip away from the kids’ games and explore their houses. When she chose a college—Salem College in North Carolina—it was because she fell for one of its dorms, which dated from 1785. She shouldered a triple major in history, art history and interior design, then earned a master’s in historic preservation from Ball State University and a doctorate in art history from the University of Washington. The book on Seattle houses grew out of a lecture series she undertook for the Ballard Historic Society.
She wrote an unusual dissertation on a pair of American towns—Leavenworth, Washington and Helen, Georgia—that have outfitted themselves in mock Bavarian-village architecture despite having no Germanic heritage. “My dissertation committee told me, ‘You’re the first person we know of who’s ever built a dissertation around not liking something.’”
Swope’s husband, David Waring, says Caroline examines everything for integrity and consistency. “When we go to dinner someplace, I’ll say ‘This is a really beautiful restaurant.’ She’ll say, ‘Well, yes, but look how this shade of pink on this wall clashes with that one over there.’ She goes into a place and immediately all the details register. I think it’s very hard for her. It sets a much higher standard for what she can appreciate.”
Waring adds, “It’s the same with people—she looks for completeness. If she calls someone a friend, they may not realize it but it’s an enormous compliment because they’ve made it through a very long checklist of qualities that are important to her.”
Swope and Waring recently bought an old house themselves, a 1905 Colonial Revival in north Tacoma. It has 4400 square feet, one bathroom, three working electrical outlets, and a kitchen that hasn’t been touched since the 1950s. Swope loves it because it hasn’t suffered from layers of disrespectful remodeling. She is designing the renovation herself, to exacting standards.
“We have to find a way to put in one and a half more baths, create a place for a refrigerator and wall ovens, all the things the house was never designed to hold. I’m more than willing to be flexible for practical reasons—I don’t know anyone who wants to live with a 1905 kitchen—but not to compromise the integrity of the house. What’s going to drive my contractor nuts—I will want every piece of original molding back in its place, or if it’s missing, a new one milled to match exactly.”
Family and friends have told her she’s crazy to undertake such a project. I tell her she’s courageous. She doesn’t think either quite fits. “It takes courage to be a fireman and go into a burning building. All I have is a way of visualizing things. I can see what it’s supposed to be. And yes, a sense of mission. It’s like going to the pound and finding an old dog who has a lot of things wrong with him. If somebody doesn’t step in now, you’re not going to be able to save him. It’s the same with houses.”