Cass Turnbull hopes you can help her save a beloved house:
I hope someone who is reading this is the person, or maybe knows the person, who can save the house and garden at 4625 Eastern Ave North. It’s important. It’s keeping me up at night thinking that a developer is going to raze the garden, chop down her Heritage Trees and bulldoze that wonderful house–the likes of which will never be made again in Seattle—in order to build two or three MacMansions of the sort which are, unfortunately, commonplace. Marilyn’s Wallingford house is a sort of legend among neighbors. People have wondered for many decades who owns that house, and what is hidden by the overgrown trees and shrubs. It has the air of a mansion in a romantic novel and it has cast a spell over many people. Other folks, the less curious sorts, don’t even notice that something is there.
The house is reasonably good looking and ample in size but not huge. It is a monument to deferred maintenance. The copper downspouts have been stolen, the irrigation doesn’t work, there is a tarp over the greenhouse, the walkway is buckled, a concrete retaining wall leans outward toward the ally. But that neglect also means that everything is still original. The gutters are made of wood. The shingles are wood. There are original appliances in the kitchen. The outside is nice but the impressive part is inside–there is a painted mural and leaded windows, incredible wood work, vaulted ceilings, and bay windows in the study that open outward.
I only got brief looks inside the house because Marilyn Bechlem, (only the second owner of the house) was an extremely private woman. Even those neighbors with whom she spoke regularly were never allowed inside. As I entered the living room for the first time, I stopped, looked around and said, ‘wow’. Marilyn said, ‘People always say that.’ I took in what I could while following Marilyn to the underground garages to get to the water shut off (I was going through a secret passage!). She took me upstairs to the bedroom so I could see if we could improve the view from her tiny balcony (a real balcony!) And after the diagnosis she finally let me inside to sit and talk to her because she could no longer walk the garden with me. By then I had become inordinately fond of her for some unknown reason. I did manage to make myself tell her that, though she might not know it, it was nevertheless true that she was a special person.
Long before seeing the inside of the house I had fallen in love with the garden, which was why I had been hired. It had been totally overtaken by invading holly, laurel, Oregon grape, blackberries, and vines. Beneath it all hid a collection of perfect, 60 year old ornamental shrubs and trees. My crew and I worked there one day a month for over a year to dig it out. It was the secret garden and it was my job to restore it to Marilyn’s satisfaction—not an easy task. It was both hard and delicate work. Marilyn liked the overgrown look and was quite protective of every plant that the original owner, Mrs. Bittman, had planted there. Marilyn, a spry 84 year old, knew where each plant was and would walk fearlessly through the tangle on uneven ground to show us things and to check on our work. She could hear a comment made 15 feet away. So it was quite a challenge.
During my tenure, I liberated two-story camellias, a ‘waterfall’ of rhododendrons, kerria, quince, the biggest silverberry I’ve ever seen, silktassle, purple smoke tree, spindlebush, a huge witch hazel, wintersweet, the biggest osmanthus, strawberry tree, stransvesia, and many more plants including several I could not identify. I discovered and cleared the path back to a hidden wooden gate, I found a very large birdbath, cleared around the greenhouse, and pruned a way back to a charming wooden shed. I wish I had taken photos. As I returned each month the garden slowly revealed it’s hidden splendors. There was of succession of bulbs in the spring: avalanche lilies, fields of crocus, snow drops, and huge patches of hardy cyclamen (corms the size of tennis shoes). I talked Plant Amnesty arborists into donating a day of big tree work, $6,000 worth of work, for the giant sequoia, the coast redwood, the two copper beeches, the red oak, the three magnolias, two dogwoods, the snowbell, blue Atlas cedar and deodar, the gingko, the dove tree, the biggest tan oak in the city, and the most fabulous redbud I’d ever seen. It had moss covered trunks leaning horizontally over the field of foxglove, its trunks covered in tiny licorice ferns.
The garden still looks quite rough, as I was forced to stop by the occasion Marilyn’s passing. I felt robbed that she was gone and my time with her and the garden had come to an end. Truth be told, I was heartbroken. My intent throughout the process, besides keeping Marilyn happy, was to save the existing garden by bringing it back to good enough order that the next owner would not take a chainsaw and indiscriminately cut everything back. I hope I achieved that. And now, if only I can find the right new owner for garden and house, I will be able to sleep again.
Marilyn’s house is a block away from Seattle Tilth/The Good Shepherd center. It is due to go on the market any day now and it will probably sell in a couple of weeks. My real estate friend Cynthia said it could go for anywhere from $1-$3 million. Plus it will need many, many expensive repairs to restore it. So it needs the right buyer to save it. For them it will be a labor of love. But this is an easy place to love, I know I did. So I hope you are that buyer, or know someone who will be that buyer, and that you will contact the historic preservation people to express desire that it be preserved as a landmark:
Cass Turnbull, Marilyn’s gardener 206-783-9093
The real estate agent representing the seller is Patty Allen, 206-227-9139.
The real estate agent who will represent the buyer is my dear friend, Cynthia Creasey of Lake & Company. Cynthia specializes in ‘gardens that come with houses’. Her number is 206-276-8292
A few more photos are available here: http://www.shannonandpeter.com/BittmanHouse/