Classic ‘Northwest School’ Island homes are legacy of Gene Zema

A regal Japanese gate welcomes friends to the home of Islanders Judy Roan and Ron Reeder. The house was built by Zema in 1991. It was the last home that the iconic Northwest architect designed. - Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter
A regal Japanese gate welcomes friends to the home of Islanders Judy Roan and Ron Reeder. The house was built by Zema in 1991. It was the last home that the iconic Northwest architect designed.
— image credit: Elizabeth Celms/Mercer Island Reporter

Gene Zema is an iconic Northwest architect. His work, unmistakably unique in design and aesthetics, has earned the man numerous accolades from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), along with regional distinction. At 83, Zema is retired from architecture. Yet his legacy lives on, not just in the books and archives of AIA and the University of Washington, where he studied, but in the form of beautiful homes, 10 of which grace the wooded lots of Mercer Island.

Gene Zema was born on Sept. 2, 1926, and grew up on a farm in the Sacramento Valley in California. In 1944, he enrolled in the University of Washington’s engineering program. He broke from academia in order to serve in the Navy during World War II. When he returned to the UW, Zema switched his focus to architecture. He completed his Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1950.

Zema earned his architectural license in 1951 and joined the AIA that same year. After working for various architectural firms, the Seattle resident opened his own practice in 1953. Located in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood, the office was emblematic of Zema’s architectural skill. The natural Northwest materials, Japanese influence and dramatic interior earned him praise from several architectural commissions. Today, the office still stands and is a visiting site for budding students and professionals inspired by Zema’s work.

University of Washington professor of architecture Grant Hildebrant is one such Zema admirer. Having known Zema for 40 years, Hildebrant is writing a book on the architect’s life and career, “Gene Zema: The Architect as Craftsman.” The book, which includes original designs and photographs, is set for publication in 2010.

The Lupton House

A focal point in Hildebrant’s book is the Lupton house on Mercer Island. This modest two-story home, built in a wooded setting on First Hill, is a gem in Zema’s career.

Originally, Island residents Homer and Myra Lupton wanted renowned architect Paul Kirk to design their home. The architect was too busy to meet their request, and so the couple turned to Zema, whose unique Northwest style also impressed them. After a bit of cajoling, according to Myra Lupton, Zema agreed to the project in 1960.

The couple specified the basic design they had in mind — “an unusual and out-of-the ordinary design in the sense of exciting interior spaces rather than box-like rooms” — and then left their home in the creative control of Zema. What he produced, according to Hildebrant, is one of his finest domestic designs to date.

“The Lupton house is the first building where Zema gets his spacial idea going. His forms are highly inventive and wonderfully dramatic. In the Lupton house, that great [living] room ceiling sweeps up into the bedrooms. It’s a perfect example of what Gene could do,” Hildebrant said.

The UW professor is not the first architect to praise the Lupton residence. In 1961, the Lupton house earned regional recognition as Seattle’s AIA Home of the Year, presented by the Seattle Times. It was the second time that Zema won this award, the first being for his own Laurelhurst home in 1954.

According to AIA’s all-architect jury, the Lupton house was distinguished in its “effective use of the elements of surprise and contrast.” The jury also commented on the home’s livability, saying “if architecture here has been treated as an exercise in pure space, the qualities of warm, residential character and livability have been in no way compromised.”

In 1962, the Lupton house earned a second award; the AIA Honor Award.

According to Hildebrant, the Lupton house is indicative of Zema’s maturation as an architect. It set a new standard for his craftsmanship, which typified the “Northwest School” architectural movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

“His forms are highly inventive and wonderfully dramatic,” Hildebrant observed. “He was quite wonderful in exploiting the character of the site. His wood detailing is unequaled in its luxuriance. He handles wood details in an unexpressed elegance.”

Northwest harmony

Over the next three decades, Zema designed a total of 10 homes on Mercer Island. Although each is unique, the homes exemplify Zema’s Northwest and Japanese-inspired style. The houses are built in harmony with their wooded surroundings. Because Zema valued the site of a home as much as its structure, his designs aimed to integrate the two. He disliked basements, preferring to build houses elevated from the earth on supporting beams. This structure allowed for Japanese-style landscaping around the home, or simply helped preserve the site’s natural ecosystem.

Ron Reeder and Judy Roan share Zema’s affinity for Japanese aesthetics. Like the Luptons, the Island couple hired Zema to design their North-end home. Unlike the Luptons, when Reeder and Roan contacted Zema in 1991, he was well into retirement, living on Whidbey Island with his wife. But Reeder and Roan were old friends of Zema’s, and so they were able to convince the retiree to go ahead with the project. Theirs was the last home that Zema designed.

“We absolutely felt lucky to get his last house,” Roan said. “We met him in the 1970s at the Japanese antique store he owned in Seattle. We shopped there and talked with him often. When we approached him years later to design our house, well, it was a bit of a long dance. He’d been retired for 14 years. But in the end, he embraced the idea.”

The house is quintessential Japanese, with Zema’s characteristic wood-beamed ceilings -- modeled after Japanese farm houses -- sliding “shoji” paper doors, and a sloped roof of interlocking tiles. Perhaps most breathtaking about the Island couple’s residence is the Japanese garden that surrounds it: a manmade stream cascades down from a Japanese tea house and into a pond below. Lush green ferns are shaded by the occasional bonsai tree. Smooth gray stones are stacked artistically on top of each other. A regal Japanese gate welcomes guests into this eden of serenity.

“It’s a Japanese house modernized for Western living,” Reeder said, adding that, as a passionate carpenter, he added oriental overtones to Zema’s original work. “He let me put the Japanese details in. I did a lot of the woodwork and put in the shoji [sliding doors]. It was a good collaboration.”

Every so often, Reeder said, Zema and his wife would come over for dinner. The architect would comment on Reeder’s Japanese craftsmanship; sometimes complementing it, other times arguing in favor of his own aesthetic. Zema was known for his strong character and stubbornness. It’s one of the many things that Reeder, steadfast himself, respects about Zema.

“Whenever he and his wife came over, Gene would start rearranging our furniture,” Reeder recalled with a laugh. “We’re both strong-minded people, so we got along quite well.”

Hildebrant also admires Zema for his self-confidence. This trait helped Zema reach his full potential, the UW professor said.

To this day, Hildebrant asserts, Zema’s work is the best to come from the “Northwest School,” which included Seattle architects such as Paul Kirk and Ralph Anderson. The movement lasted into the mid-1970s and then faded. Post modernism took over, followed by late/rich modernism, according to Hildebrant. But in all these years, the UW professor added, Zema’s style has yet to been rivaled.

“Time has passed that school by,” he said. “It’s a pity because Zema’s influence is nowhere to be seen.”

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