One’s View of Mt. Rainier
When I was growing up in Seattle, my father, who’d come from Maine, one day asked whether I expected to live in Seattle as an adult.
“Of course!” I replied, surprised he’d ask.
“Then you should consider going east for school,” Dad said. “Easterners have a lot of influence in society. They make the rules. They run the country. You should get to know some.”
To reinforce this, Dad gave me a copy of Taras Bulba, Nickolai Gogol’s tale of a Cossack chief (Yul Brynner in the 1963 movie version) who sends his son (Tony Curtis) to be educated by the Poles, then great European powers, in order to add depth to the Cossack chief that the son, in turn, will one day become. I recall the movie better than the book, particularly the scene in which an outraged Polish father, whose men have seized Tony Curtis, slowly draws his sword and menacingly declares, “I won’t kill you, Cossack, but I will make sure you never dishonor another Polish woman as long as you live.”
Nonetheless, I took the risk, and eventually, for thirteen years, while at school or working in Washington, D.C., I lived in the East. Still, it never occurred to me not to return to Seattle. I must have transmitted strong signals on this point. Decades later, a woman in D.C., who in 1970 I’d tried hard to convince to marry me, finally explained why she’d refused: “I knew you would drag me out to Seattle and a life in the rain.”
This recalled another movie scene: Liza Minelli explaining to Michael York in “Cabaret” why she’d refused him and chosen to remain in Berlin – he would have dragged her off to Cambridge, and life in a flat as a mother and the wife of a don. For both of us – Michael York and me – a woman we’d loved providing this too-late explanation of why we’d lost her stung bitterly, and prompted two inconsistent thoughts: I would not have dragged you there. And besides, you would have liked it.
The first time I met a Seattle native who felt differently from me, rain had nothing to do with it. James Quitslund, a Rhodes Scholar who’d grown up on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle, became a teacher at Andover in 1965, during my senior year. I was very young, far from home, and felt a bond; I even knew some colorful folks who lived near Jim’s. But he rebuffed my attempt to found a friendship on an insider’s appreciation of the Queen City (as it was then known, before civic boosters, uneasy about gays, re-nicknamed it the Emerald City ).
“In Seattle,” Jim said, “no one cares about anything except whether his view of Mount Rainier is blocked.”
That extraordinary and succinct observation has haunted me for years. In it, Seattle parochialism is neatly captured and forever exposed, like a butterfly on a pin. My father and Taras Bulba thought: spend time with the Others, and improve the qualities of mind you bring home. Instead of the Greeks’ slogan over the academy door, “Here we develop the mind without loss of manliness,” they hoped for something slightly different: “Here we develop the mind without loss of rootedness.” Jim Quitslund’s observation conveyed the opposite objective: spend time with the Others, improve your qualities of mind, and that way you can escape into their midst.
Of course, there’s something incomplete about Jim’s observation – and Jim himself, after many years, eventually came home. But what he said remains troubling and difficult to dismiss, unlike the dated words of the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who, when he headed the Seattle Symphony, exhorted the city’s leading arts patrons in 1941 to redouble their efforts, lest Seattle be known as “an aesthetic dustbin.” That snobbish remark (usually characterized, wildly out of context, as an intentional insult) now seems merely quaint. Jim Quitslund’s pronouncement, although snobbish, too, can’t easily be brushed aside. It carries a whiff of Eternal Truth.
In my unfinished novel, set in Seattle, the Quitslund-troubled characters spend a good deal of time musing about the view of Mount Rainier, and whether concern (or regard) for it somehow symbolizes the small-mindedness of the city. One character considers the view the reason for living here; another, the reward. A third considers it a form of compensation, and meager. The protagonist considers it emblematic. Like Turgenev, he’s chained to the earth, and his view of the mountain, on clear days, reminds him of the links. (This summary suggests good reasons why the novel remains unfinished.)
In real life, Jim’s observation naturally troubles me most when, as now, I am in fact actually worried about someone actually blocking my actual view of Mount Rainier. I’ve become the person Jim despised. It’s not the only thing I care about, I hasten to emphasize. But I do care about it. Even at the Quitslund risk of my immortal soul.
I believe – and this is my Provocative Thesis – that nowadays people in Seattle take far less care than formerly to avoid blocking someone else’s view of Mount Rainier, and that this decline in neighborly consideration and sensitivity, while reflecting national trends, can be traced more or less directly to the impact on Seattle, in recent years, of sudden new wealth. This thesis is so difficult to prove that it may be wrong. But when, as today, our views of Mount Rainier are threatened by happy new homeowners with too much money and too little judgment (or, as realtors say, “MMNT – much money, no taste”), I can perhaps be forgiven for framing it. And the recent shrinkage of sudden new wealth, stock market-driven, may even provide evidence to test it.
The Provocative Thesis, asserting that today’s Seattle residents act differently from their predecessors, and offering a causal explanation, depends on what a sociologist might call “time series” data. Mine are in anecdotal form. But before trotting them out, it’s worth noting a curious bit of “cross sectional” data, an unchanging frame from the ever-changing movie: except when it comes to someone else blocking their view of it, Seattleites are remarkably blasé about Mount Rainier. Am I the only person here who wonders, on a clear day, how any work gets done, how traffic even moves?
Physically and visually, Mount Rainier dominates Seattle as no other mountain quite dominates any other city. (I’m ignoring Tacoma, of course, as Seattleites generally do; “ Tacoma ” actually means “ Mount Rainier ” in local Native American dialect.) For one thing, almost no other mountain has Mount Rainier ‘s sheer mass. It rises as a huge mound, its profile from Seattle a perfect bell curve, an astonishing 14,410 feet tall. (A whimsically precise figure; the mountain’s snow-capped, after all.) Rainier is so high and so white that, from Seattle, it appears to float in the sky, its forested lower slopes atmospherically painted out in the sky’s own blue.
The Colorado Rockies, visible from Denver , include individual peaks taller than Mount Rainier , but they rise from a mile-high plateau and stand in serried ranks, unlike Mount Rainier, which rises in solitary splendor from sea level near the Cascade Mountains but not quite in them. Mount Whitney in California is taller, but what city’s skyline does it dominate? Mount Hood, the most prominent volcano in Portland ‘s view, resembles a sharp fang. Mount Rainier’s a graceful cone, and much larger, twenty miles in diameter, symmetrical as a Sumo version of Mount Fuji bulked up on Kobe beef and steroids. Mount McKinley, also called Denali (a Native word I suspect means “big two-named mountain”), is taller and visible from Anchorage, but achingly distant. Mount Rainier sometimes looks as if it could fall on Seattle – as bits of it have, in the past (and may again, volcanologists warn).
One might expect such a brooding omnipresence in the sky, particularly one capable of killing us, to inspire homage – if not, indeed, idolatry. That’s the curiosity. Except in the residential real estate market, Mount Rainier remains largely unsung, more or less taken for granted.
The name Rainier appears relatively rarely. You’d expect a Rainier Bank, but it was swallowed years ago. The Rainier Brewery, just south of downtown, has morphed into the roasting plant of Tully’s Coffee. This particular transformation, with yuppy symbols displacing those of the working class, seems to typify Seattle these days, and reinforces my Provocative Thesis. (Another example: Amazon taking over the former U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, which served merchant seamen, and later the poor.) In my youth, when first-generation Scandinavian immigrants were still profuse here, comedians made a staple of Ole and Arne jokes, in one of which Ole calls Aunt Lena from the Rainier Brewery with the sad news that Arne’s drowned in the main vat. “Did he suffer much?” Aunt Lena asks. “Yach, I’m afraid so,” Ole replies. “We had to drag him out five times.”
Where the Rainier name persists, it does not necessarily refer to the mountain, at least directly. At the Rainier Club in downtown Seattle , the featured portrait is not of the mountain but of Lord Peter Rainier, Admiral of the Blue, for whom Captain George Vancouver named it. The Rainier Valley is a Seattle locale celebrating concave topology, not convex, and most uses of Rainier refer to it. Rainier Beach, an adjacent neighborhood, celebrates a lake shore, another antithesis of a peak. Mount Rainier Drive is a Seattle street, but only a short one, and in a neighborhood named Mount Baker, nestled in among Cascadia Avenue, Mount Adams Way, and Mount St. Helens Place. (Carrying things too far, Mount Baker also boasts a school named Mount Virgin.)
But where it really matters – Seattle’s residential real estate market – Mount Rainier need not speak its name. A fancy advertisement might mention “stunning views of the Cascades” or “stunning views of the Olympics.” But if it says “stunning Mountain views,” it means only one thing: you have an opportunity to purchase, now for a fabulous sum, your very own piece of the particular anxiety Jim Quitslund identified long ago. Buy it today, and someone else will try to block it.
In theory, and to some extent in practice, a high percentage of Seattleites can see Mount Rainier from their homes. The mountain is some fifty miles southeast of Seattle. Like Rome (we were taught in school), Seattle is built on seven hills. From south- or east-facing slopes, or any level spot, Mount Rainier is readily visible. (North-facing slopes afford views of Mount Baker , a white volcano on the Canadian border, and western slopes face the Olympics.) Moreover, the hill count is arbitrary and understated: had Rome been built on twenty hills, we’d say Seattle is, too. There are many places from which to see the mountain.
Blocking someone else’s view of Mount Rainier takes two forms, only one of them new. Blocking the view with new construction, clearing a lot and then building the first house on it, is as old as Seattle itself. As a child, I lived on Bella Vista Avenue. The street name, a bit odd for Seattle, reflected that Bella Vista runs along a ridge-top that could afford sweeping views of Mount Rainier and the entire Cascade range to the East. All houses with Bella Vista addresses were on the west side of the street, however. Their only views were of houses on the east side of the street, with Cascadia Avenue addresses. From a bedroom in our attic, through a decorative quarter-moon window between chimney and sloping roof, our family could spy Mount Rainier floating in stately grandeur above the Cascadia Avenue rooftops. Completed in 1916, our house had enjoyed a better view for only a decade, until new houses were built across the street.
Fair enough, this view-blocking new residential construction. For the most part, and as a practical matter, the adverse impacts were inevitable. It would not have been reasonable to leave one side of every street unbuilt. Given our Northwest trees, plenty of views would still have been obscured. Besides, it’s ancient history: today, Seattle has few vacant lots.
In retrospect, what might have been done differently, and better, would have been to require larger lot sizes, allow each house less lot coverage, and demand bigger setbacks – things that occurred to the City only late in life. With such limits on scale and bulk, light and views can peek through what’s otherwise a wall across the street. Seattle is a city of single family dwellings, in which apartments and condominiums are comparatively recent arrivals (and regulated to protect views). But traditional Seattle homes stand on small lots, and cover them quite completely. The old houses are tightly packed – but not tall.
The dread form of view-blocking in Seattle is not construction on vacant lots, but rather the “tear-down:” the razing of existing houses by new owners and their replacement with inappropriately tall, big, blocky new ones. (In Denver , I’m told, a “tear-down” is known as a “scrape-off.”) Two variants are possible. In the straightforward approach, the owner admits the new house represents “new construction” for purposes of the Building Code. Even so, the owner can build a house that stuns the neighbors. Like many cities nationwide, Seattle simply hasn’t caught up with people’s willingness to deface a neighborhood by designing a house to cover every permissible square inch of a lot and extend that coverage upwards to the last inch of the Code’s height limit. Today’s lot sizes, height limits, lot coverage limits, and setback requirements were devised with an entirely different style of house in mind.
Worse is view-blocking through the pretense of “remodeling” an existing house. Foregoing the Code’s technical terms, realtors and architects tell prospective buyers how to create “pop-up” houses, or “telescope” homes. The scam – and that’s what it is – begins with buying an older, one or two story house, with which Seattle abounds (remember, this is a city with working class roots). Unfashionable now, such houses are comparatively inexpensive. But these older houses have more lot coverage, and smaller setbacks from lot lines, than the Code allows for new construction. Naturally, these pre-existing “nonconformities” of older houses are grandfathered into the Code, and lawful to maintain. Naturally, too, it’s also lawful to remodel a nonconforming house.
Here’s the form a typical “remodel” takes: with no warning to the neighbors (an important tactic of the buyer), a bulldozer arrives and, in an hour, completely demolishes the old house. Part of a wall, or perhaps the chimney, is left standing – this fig leaf signals “remodel” and not “new construction.” A new house is then built on the footprint of the old, which covers too much of the lot and has setbacks too small for new construction. Most important, the too-wide new house also “pops up” or “telescopes” and extends the pre-existing nonconformity vertically: one or more new stories are added, up to the City’s height limit of thirty-five feet for pitched roofs. The new house is to the old as Mt. Rainier is to a hill. (A final insult: the tidbit of wall or chimney initially left standing is often “remodeled” away some months later – perhaps embarrassed by such silliness, the City this year changed the Building Code to allow “remodels” of wholly demolished houses.)
Of this particular view-blocking abuse, many things can be said, but I will limit myself to a choice few. First, the City could stop the practice cold, simply by rejecting the Emperor’s-new-clothes notion that brand new houses are somehow remodels of the houses torn down. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” – what self-justification from our era, not related to sex, better symbolizes indefensible absurdity? It should be easy to recognize, and flatly state, that one does not demolish a house in order to remodel it. This is new construction, pure and simple, and nothing in existing law prevents the City from simply saying so. The City doesn’t because … well, that’s a different story, and partly a mystery.
Second, this is all about money, and primarily new money. Okay, it’s partly about traffic – in car-clogged Seattle, people value in-city neighborhoods more than suburbs – and partly about the shortage, in our city, of the really big houses that really big money has nowadays made possible, hence fashionable, coast-to-coast. But buying a house, tearing it down, and building a new one – whether “new construction” or a “remodel” — wouldn’t generally make sense, except for people with money to burn.
Let’s say the old house costs $450,000 (many cost much more). Leaving aside demolition expenses, new residential construction in Seattle these days runs about $200-$300 per square foot for well-to-do owners. The new house, built on the ghost of the old, is generally huge – 4000, 5000, or even 6000 square feet – although it shelters no larger a family than the old. In the end, something between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 is spent for a big bulky box with its own great view. This is done by people who want to live in the house, not by speculators. As an investment, it’s not entirely rational; the new house generally can’t be sold for what it cost. It is, in fact, a self-indulgent form of consumption. The only people who spend money this way are people with too much money to spend. In Seattle, that didn’t used to be a problem. A few years ago, it became one.
Third, this is an ugly thing to do to your neighbors. Substantively, it strips views, light, and property value (often hundreds of thousands of dollars per neighbor) from nearby homes. Procedurally, it depends on stealth, a lack of notice, the fait accompli of the old home demolished before anyone can protest, check the building plans, challenge the permits. (When demolition takes place before permits are granted, the City may shrug: “The owner will just claim the structure was unsafe,” one official said.) Precisely because this is done by people who want to live in the new house, the insensitivity involved, and the lack of neighborly solicitude, are all the more stunning – and un-Seattlelike.
For the past few years, chunky new construction and the demolition/remodel scam have played out weekly in every Seattle neighborhood with good views. Perhaps the economic slowdown, the plummeting of NASDAQ, will prove to have come just in time. Still, it’s sad to rely on a recession to slow what the City could halt at once, had it the will. It’s even sadder to depend on recessions or officials – or the courts, presumably the next and last resort – to restrain conduct that used to be restrained by manners alone.
Face it: we became a gold rush town, with gold rush sensibilities.
Two East Coast friends of mine worked in Washington State for Eugene McCarthy in 1968. One said, “ Seattle is a city where everyone waits for the light to change before crossing the street.” The other said, “ Seattle is a city where strangers converse in elevators.” I would have said, then and especially later, “Seattle is a city in which wealth is neither despised nor celebrated, a place where money simply doesn’t occupy much psychological space.”
I knew, at the time, that Seattle could absorb newcomers only so rapidly – that too-fast growth led to rude driving, for example. But “newcomer,” then, was a geographic concept – Easterners, New Yorkers, Californians – not an economic one. I would not have said that Seattle was a city in which no one would deliberately block another’s view of Mount Rainier – much less could I have blamed any change on sudden wealth, too much wealth, too much wealth in the hands of the still too-young, for none of that existed then. In the old days, to say “Seattle is a place where no one would deliberately block another’s view of Mount Rainier” would have been like saying “It rains here,” or “Boeing’s here:” it would have illuminated nothing about Seattle that people did not already know or expect.
Enough ringing assertion, I can hear my history teacher bellow; time for credible demonstration. I offer the following tales.
In 1976, as baby lawyers, my then-wife and I bought our first house, a modest (1900 square foot) brick home on Queen Anne Hill. The view of Mount Rainier, the harbor, the city lights – all of it was simply incredible. Bad weather in Seattle comes from the Southwest, up the long reach of Puget Sound ; we could see it approach, before it battered us like a giant fist. On crystal clear days we could spot, far south of Mount Rainier , a tiny white pinnacle. My father disputed that this was Mount St. Helens until, one day in 1980, it went up in smoke.
Unfortunately, in those days I wasn’t perfect, tending somewhat toward anxiety, and in buying that house, I had spent a lot of money to own a view of Mount Rainier, and (b) a lot of time mulling over Jim Quitslund’s words. Our beloved house stood perched on a south-facing slope. It had a house below it. That other house had only two stories, and an unattractive, flat, pea-graveled roof. In my fears, I saw those two stories and raised them one. Legally, the owner of the house was entitled to do it. She could have blocked our view.
We consulted an architect friend, Doug Zuberbuhler. He spent a long time looking down at that flat-roofed house from ours, and a long time on the street below it, looking up. “Structurally, I think she can do it,” Doug said. “She wouldn’t have to tear it down to add another story.” At the time, when people had less money and spent it sensibly, not having to tear down the existing house in order to add another story signified that adding that story would be economically feasible – and, in fact, a sensible investment.
So we began courting that neighbor, Mrs. Hyslop. We wanted to buy her air space, her upward development rights, pay her not to raise her house and block our view. We decided to ask her outright, offer her a deal. I shudder now to think of it.
Mrs. Hyslop could not have been more friendly, or colorful. A tall, aged, widow, in some pain from wasting illness, she wore a terrible wig and poured a stiff Jack Daniels for herself and every visitor. Using an aluminum walker, she’d inch her way forward from kitchen to living room with the drinks, lifting each glass and carrying it forward, then setting it down on a counter another foot ahead of her before taking her next step. She told dirty jokes, and laughed loudly. But she was not about to sell us any of her rights.
“Your house was already there when my husband and I built this house!” she insisted. “We designed it not to block the view! We didn’t add a third story not to block your view! We built it with a flat roof not to block your view – and when that darn roof leaks, I remember that! So don’t worry, you don’t have to pay me anything! I’m not going to block your view!”
We did not find this reassuring. We just didn’t get it, my wife and I. She was from the East, I’d been away those thirteen years; we weren’t socialized yet as Seattleites. We thought, “Great, but she’s really old, and she’s sick. One day she’ll die – then what?”
Mrs. Hyslop answered the unspoken question for us. “I’m leaving this house to my niece,” she promised. “She’s going to live here. I’ve told her about not adding another story, or raising the roof. She understands completely. You don’t have to worry, I tell you. No one is going to block your view.”
“Great again,” we thought. “Just great. How will we ever hold the niece to that?”
The unwelcome day arrived too soon. At the hospital, Mrs. Hyslop and Death circled one another quietly. “Can you hear me, Mrs. Hyslop?” the doctor said, leaning closer, thinking her gone. “Can you HEAR ME?” he said more loudly, leaning closer still. He put his ear down to her face, listening for her breath. “Come any closer, doctor,” Mrs. Hyslop whispered, “and I’ll kiss you.” This was a woman with a lot of character.
Her character may have had a genetic component. The niece, Margaret Dees, promptly moved to Seattle from Illinois. “Uh-oh,” we thought. “This is an outlander.” We decided to approach her at once.
Like many Midwesterners, Margaret seemed quiet, cautious; she was also in mourning. Like her aunt, she could not even begin to understand our concern, or why we’d raised it.
“Why should you pay me to forego a right I’ll never exercise?” she asked, a bit bewildered. “My aunt would never have raised this house. She told me never to raise it. It would not occur to me to raise it.
“Besides,” she added, “I’d rather have you as friends.”
That is the fundamental choice. Nowadays, of course, it’s resolved differently. But back then, anticipating a selfishness Seattle hadn’t yet seen, we managed to insult two very fine women and neighbors, one right after the other. That’s why the story makes me shudder: I’d taken Jim Quitslund’s words to heart, but a heart that still had much to learn.
However extraordinary the decisions of Mrs. Hyslop and her niece by today’s Seattle standards, they were common then: our friends told similar tales. And at least some members of earlier generations went even further. We knew this, because the record was right there, in the history and title report of our own house.
Our house had been built in 1906 as a wood frame structure with clapboard siding. At the time, it was three stories tall, and perched on a natural hillock, as old photos showed. Although near the summit of Queen Anne Hill, it was not at the summit, and there was room for another house above it. By 1911, someone had decided to build that house.
The record shows that the owners of the new house paid the owners of our house $200 to do three things: remove our house from its lot, grade the lot to reduce its elevation ten feet, and remove the third story from our house before returning it to the lot. All this was done not to protect the view from the new house, but to create it. That neighborly transaction – inconceivable today – explained why the house we bought in 1976 had two stories instead of three, and why the staircase to the attic seemed so incongruously grand.
The folks who made that 1911 deal had lawyers. The lawyers intended to create a height restriction on our house that would “run with the land” and bind all later owners. That’s why the information showed up in our title report nearly seven decades later. But creating covenants that run with the land can be tricky. As lawyers ourselves, we weren’t sure the earlier lawyers had succeeded. When our first child arrived, in 1982, we felt we needed more space, and took a hard look at creating it by “restoring” the original third floor. (I shudder again: we toyed with justifying this as “historic preservation.”)
We thought, legally, we could pull it off. The old agreement seemed unlikely to bind us, and our house wasn’t nearly as tall as the Code allowed. We knew the structure could support a third story – it had already done so. And the economics looked very, very favorable.
But we’d finally learned our lesson, if only barely, from the examples of Mrs. Hyslop and Margaret Dees. We had, as D.H. Lawrence put it in his poem The Snake, something to repent ourselves of: a pettiness. It was time for us to grow. We sold the house and moved to another, larger one, with a lovely view that just happened not to include Mount Rainier.
Not surprisingly, this story lacks a happy ending. I drove past our old Queen Anne house not long ago, and guess what? It’s been “remodeled.” Now it has a third story once again. The vertical addition happens to be amazingly ugly: historically, it’s inauthentic, and architecturally, it ruins the house. But that’s not the point. A long thread has been snipped: ninety years of solicitude for the neighbors has finally come to an end.
There’s little more to say. Once Western civilization starts to decline, there seems to be no stopping it. But there’s time for one last tale.
Twenty years after buying my first house with my first wife, I bought my first with my second. Heather called me when she toured it. “It’s lovely,” she said. “It’s got an incredible view of Mount Rainier. The only thing is, it looks down on a lot of rooftops.”
The rooftops were those of one-story houses, about ten of them. Could they be raised, we wondered? Our realtor thought not, as a practical matter. The houses were small but nice; it would be too expensive to buy them and tear down. And unlike Mrs. Hyslop’s house, their structures wouldn’t support additional stories.
We consulted Doug Zuberbuhler, our architect friend. We consulted the contractor who’d built, in 1991, the house we were considering. Both came over and took a look. “Naw,” the contractor said, “it wouldn’t make economic sense to buy those houses, tear them down, and build new ones. That’s what someone would have to do in order to raise them.”
We bought the house in August 1996 and were married there on November 2. During our one-week honeymoon, someone demolished a house in front of us, about ten feet to the left of our view of Mount Rainier. I walked over to meet the new owner on the site. The remarkable thing is this: I wasn’t anxious, both because I was newly married and happy with the world, and because I had not even begun to imagine what the owner might have in mind. I expected another tasteful, relatively small house on the relatively small site, something probably two stories tall but certainly no view-blocker.
“Building a new house, eh?” I asked in a friendly manner, signaling my willingness to share the enthusiasm of a neighbor I expected might become a friend. It was just a conversation starter. It was also an obvious comment: although the basement walls remained, above ground level not one bit of the old house still stood. This was a vacant lot with a deep, wide hole in it.
“No!” the owner, a total stranger, quickly snapped. “It’s not a new house! It’s a remodel!”
That first occasion on which we spoke promptly became the last.
Admittedly, once that owner decided to build an inappropriate new house, he could have demolished the old one and undertaken “new construction.” Seattle’s Building Code, as noted, hasn’t caught up with the bulky visions of today’s homebuilders. But by calling it a “remodel,” he signaled his intent to make it even bigger and chunkier and more view-blocking than the Code would otherwise allow. In other words, he wanted to harm his neighbors even more.
When that house “telescoped” in front of us – it became, literally, a giant cube – people were puzzled, and considered it a tasteless fluke.
“It still doesn’t make sense economically,” our contractor friend told us. “The only way this could happen was that someone with a lot of money and no taste wanted to build his dream house, and didn’t care about the economics – or the neighbors.”
That, it turns out, could be the epitaph for our once-distinctive city. Now other houses in our neighborhood have begun popping up, as if from a toaster. Typical is a planned “remodel” with a 33-foot pitched roof – although the house will have only two stories, each with 9-foot ceilings. We can still see Mount Rainier, but perhaps in the future we might see it only from our upper floor, over rooftops that are higher – many, like this one, gratuitously so. Some of our neighbors are already losing their views entirely.
Of course, the new owners of these houses are walking into a beehive of hostility, if not lawsuits. We’ve tried to warn them. “Don’t worry about the neighbors,” a realtor countered, trying to reassure one couple with “pop-up” drawings in their hands and stars in their eyes. “The neighbors will get over it.” Wrong: the neighbors have never gotten over the giant cube house. But also upsetting: how can any Seattleite offer such advice to other Seattleites?
We recounted all this to our peripatetic friend Deb Fallows, who recently spent eighteen months enjoying a view of Mount Rainier herself. “Can’t you talk to them?” she asked, referring to the newest owners of a nearby tear-down. “Can’t they see they are making a mistake?” Yes, I replied, we can talk to them, but no, they can’t see they are making a mistake. They are too young, and they have the money to do what they want; the combination seems to make people oblivious.
I remembered, of course, my youthful errors with Mrs. Hyslop, with Margaret Dees. In fifteen years, I predicted to Deb, the new owners will regret what they’ve done, but not now. It takes time to become wise enough to avoid such mistakes. In the old days, however, it also took time to earn enough money to make them. When today’s young millionaires mature, many may look back and say “Ooops.” That – or the stock market making them feel poor again — seems the most we can hope for.
And so, things have changed a lot since Jim Quitslund declared, thirty-six years ago, that in Seattle no one cares about anything except whether his view of Mount Rainier is blocked. Nowadays, it seems, in Seattle no one cares a thing about blocking someone else’s view of Mount Rainier. Jim would have liked to see Seattle transformed. But not this way.
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