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Big house / little house

By on January 31, 2018 in Featured Homes with 0 Comments

Jim and Rachel agree pulling these gold chairs up around the wood fireplace on a chilly winter day in the little house is a great way to spend time indoors. Rachel’s “office” and superb view of Sleeping Lady is at the window.

This stylish little house gives parents plenty of privacy with their big family vacationing close at hand


Story by Susan Lagsdin

Photos by Donna Cassidy

For half a year a big family composed of two retired elders, their adult children and several grandchildren spent long vacation weekends together in Leavenworth, packed into a large farm-style house in what they hoped would be multi-generational bliss.

“We gave it six months to see if it would work out,” Rachel Clifton said of a remodel that had carved out a downstairs bed and bath for her and husband Jim, a semi-retired Swedish Hospital cardiologist. The plan was to make the rest of the two-story house available for their active family.

“The answer was no.”

That simple declaration eventually meant for the couple not only a creative solution but an ongoing, redounding blessing.

The adventure in good decision-making started in 2010.

With the nest long empty, and with their Bellevue hometown burgeoning, Jim and Rachel sought getaway property somewhere scenic that the whole family could eventually share.

Scouting for perfect commenced, and it happily yielded seven private and close-in wooded acres with a half mile of Icicle River frontage. The existing house seemed almost big enough.

Its ridiculously cramped guest area — originally not much more than a toilet in the center of an open space — was dubbed “The Heinous Room.”

Local builder Randy Wessman, whose work they had admired a few years before at La Toscana Winery, transformed it into what’s even now called “The Hotel,” a sweet little suite and deck, the owner/master quarters, just off the main room of the big house.

That’s when the experiment began.

Alas, the Clifton’s quarters were too close, too cramped, too all-involving. They soon realized they needed a bit more separation from the larger family and so considered permit-heavy and flood-fraught plans for a cottage, an ADU (Accessory Dwelling Unit), down closer to the water.

As swift as the Icicle in spring, they changed course and made the wiser choice, one they still marvel at. Why not create more space more simply? Avoid complication and connect a little house next to the already-existing big house, set back safely from the riverbank.

Designed by architect Peter Swindley (who also did their Bellevue home) the small ADU anchors a breezeway off the main house carport and, as required, is under 1,200 square feet.

A compact bedroom/bath and office face the river, while the high-ceilinged, open space living area is surrounded by both water views and the full-frontal impact of Sleeping Lady Mountain.

Randy continued with the new project, making engineering and aesthetic adjustments as he built.

He is delighted that the Cliftons are open to experimentation because he was able to invent an apple cider vinegar/steel wool marinade that turns new pine into old-look grayed pine, and he burnt exterior cedar boards into blackened high-grain using the Japanese “Shou-Sugi-Ban” method, researched online and tested in the driveway.

Repurposed items fill the house.

The couple brought their own treasures like metal pharmacy cabinets, a rare chicken wire and glass hospital door, and Rachel’s heavy plank desk. Randy recycled Wenatchee apple boxes for bookshelves, a Quincy potato silo and an old barn for interior siding, a beam and bracket from Cashmere High School.

Not everything is aged.

The new house features plenty of new materials like glaze-rubbed kitchen cabinetry and a raw-edge, satin-finished granite counter, antiqued hanging lamps and Corten steel fireplace backing, and the industrial-look HVAC piping and chain link loft wall.

Compact and intensely personal, the little house allows the couple total independence and privacy just a sandal’s throw away from their frequent family of six adult children and 17 grandchildren, some close-in (Wenatchee and Seattle) and some widespread (New Jersey and San Francisco). Their children’s friends and their kids are welcomed also, as well as a group of inner-city teens and their counselors.

Jim said of the frequent and sometimes frenetic use of the main building. “We’ve always believed in an ‘open house’ — here the children respect that it is ours because we own the property, and they give us whatever privacy we want. And we think of it as theirs — because it will be some day.”

Rachel confirmed the lovely symbiosis. “It was natural to ask their help to choose a place we could downsize to and that they would all enjoy too. They’re all very willing to share the utilities and upkeep and are really careful to keep the place clean and well-organized.”

She said twice a year everyone gathers for a major spruce-up party — the party games being deep cleaning, repairs, garden prep and the ceremonial setting out and taking in of outdoor furniture.

The breezeway is a symbolic walk through the woods to grandmother’s house. “There can be a crowd of people over there,” Jim said, indicating the house just yards away, “and we can be in the middle of the action if we like, or just relaxing over here.”

When the littlest grandchildren learned to knock at their door and to retreat if an invitation wasn’t forthcoming, they knew they were on the right track.

The Cliftons continue to fine-tune their jewel-box house.

Randy Wessman has remained their remodeler, builder, friend, solver of problems and go-to guy when new ideas crop up.

Both the Cliftons praise his flexibility and enthusiasm. Jim said, “He’s the perfect contractor — he’s energized by thinking outside the box.” And from Rachel, “Randy is so eager to work with us; we’ll just ask, ‘what do you think about…’ and he’ll look it up, do some research, and come back with a plan.”

For many second-home owners, this big house/little house is a reversal of space and roles; generally, the elders stay in the main home and provide a visiting space for family. Or, as sadly happens, grown kids don’t show up much because they aren’t attracted to the site or the house that’s available to them. Not so with the Clifton offspring.

In this case, there’s a noble role for what others might designate as the guest quarters: In 2015 Jim and Rachel moved here full time. They did divide domiciles for a few years, trekking back and forth to the coast, but just this winter they finally relinquished their rented Bellevue pied-a-terre. They are now citizens of Leavenworth.

Fully appreciative of the silence of huge views and the serenity of meadow, creek and woods, they also greet their lively loved ones with open arms.

The Cliftons are glad to live smaller in square footage and bigger in family, and as Jim said, “As long as God gives us health, we will stay here.”

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