By Vicki Wilson
If things had gone as planned, Mike and Kathy Yates would be decades into living in a custom-designed, newly constructed home on Wing Point. Instead, in an unexpected turn of events, they make their home in a renovated log cabin whose origin can be traced back over a century ago to a log boom that never made it to its destination.
As far as Mike can tell, the logs that now cozily construct his family room were destined, sometime around 1903, for the Perfection Pile Preserving Company (later the Wyckoff Creosote Plant) on Bill Point. But the boom broke apart, and the Douglas fir logs were beached. They may have just rotted there, but Mike estimates that sometime around 1920, three cabins were constructed from the logs. By the time he and Kathy came to Bainbridge looking for waterfront property within biking distance from the ferry, this cabin was the only one left standing.
“A log cabin was the furthest thing from my mind,” Mike said, although, as an accomplished architect, renovating a property wasn’t a daunting proposition. In fact, the couple, who originally hail from Michigan, were already living in a Ballard bungalow that Mike had altered with some ambitious modifications.
For example, discovering that the Olympics and Cascades were visible from that bungalow’s roof, Mike was inspired to add a third story, complete with cupola, to capture the view. And while Kathy, a public health nurse, admits to not always seeing the architectural potential, she’s always been supportive when the walls start coming down. “I respect Mike for his art; I tell him ‘whatever you want to do,’” she said. “But I don’t have the vision that he does.”
That vision produced a beautiful end result, but it wasn’t waterfront, and the city wasn’t necessarily where they wanted to raise their kids. Since Mike’s parents were already living on Bainbridge back in 1987, it seemed a good choice for them and their then 3-year-old son, Adam. Four years later, daughter Michelle came along.
“We came over and the realtor wasn’t even going to show us this place. It had been on the market for a couple years,” Mike said. “In terms of location it was perfect, so we told our realtor to take us.”
Visionary or not, when Kathy saw the ferry go by from the dilapidated cabin, she thought, “This is it.” And even though he didn’t know at the time that he would preserve the building, Mike remembers that “the house had a magic in it, even though it was falling down.”
The option of “starting clean” was always there, but the cabin got into Mike’s bones. “The preservation thing emerged. It was the right thing to do. There are very few old houses on the waterfront. Houses become consumables to a certain class of people; I didn’t want to [be those people].”
Kathy’s ability to go with the flow in less-than-optimum conditions, all the while trusting things will work out, is rooted in her own upbringing. “I was one of eight kids. Our living room furniture didn’t match. We grew up in a house with a bath-and-a-half and three bedrooms; three girls in one bedroom, four in another and my brother in the sewing room. We didn’t care. We had food and each other.” Plus, she simply has the personality for chaos. Her stories are punctuated with raucous bursts of laughter and a good-humored nature that gets her through most anything—including a Thanksgiving on the back porch with no heat and a chilly high of 18 degrees. “We wore a lot of layers!” she joked.
Mike’s thoughtful, fastidious, “somewhat OCD” personality completes the picture. Once he starts a project, he’s all in, no matter how long it takes.
In the case of the cabin, the entire process took over two decades. “We moved in in 1987. We replaced much of the foundation, had the house re-leveled and added the exterior porch on three sides of the house in 1990,” Mike recalled. Then, in 2004, with the help of island carpenters Dan and Nick Taylor, they embarked on a down-to-dirt renovation that included the fireplace, restructuring of the first and second floors, a small addition to the living/dining room, renovations to the library, and the initial installation of an underfloor hydronic heating system. Finally, in 2012, with the help of carpenter Ben Kardong (who grew up down the road), they tackled the final phase which included a new kitchen and renovated bathroom, more foundation work, seismic stabilization, completion of the first floor’s hydronic heating and a central vacuum system. The project also included a complete teardown and reconstruction of the garage/workshop, where Mike went on to build his own kayak and wooden boat.
Ben Kardong (who grew up down the road), they tackled the final phase which included a new kitchen and renovated bathroom, more
foundation work, seismic stabilization, completion of the first floor’s hydronic heating and a central vacuum system. The project also included a complete teardown and reconstruction of the garage/workshop, where Mike went on to build his own kayak and wooden boat.
Even with all that construction, the house’s footprint has barely surpassed the original size. “We expanded it in a sensitive way,” Mike said. “To me, well-designed space is much more useful than a lot of space.”
Kathy agrees. “Big is not better,” she said. Except, perhaps, when it comes to ample cabinet and counter space, two features of the kitchen that she identifies as her favorites. “I love to cook, eat and feed a lot of people.”
The kitchen cabinets are representative of Mike’s painstaking attention to detail. Rather than simply design a door style with pulls mounted on a flat surface, he decided he wanted a recessed, thumbprint shape to nestle the knobs in. It’s a small, artful feature that
repeats itself with each pair of cabinet doors.
It’s not only Mike and Kathy who readily embrace challenge—the entire Yates family embodies an adventurous spirit. They count heli skiing, ocean kayaking and mountaineering among their favorite pastimes.
“One of our favorite trips involved carrying a tent up to the top of Mount Olympus,” Mike said. “We’re more comfortable sleeping outdoors than we are in a bed.” Further afield, destinations have included kayak trips on the west coast of Vancouver Island, four trips to the Andes and a trek in Peru.
The Yates children continue the rugged family tradition. Michelle did her junior and senior years at New River Academy, a high school for white water kayakers. Her studies had her paddling all over the world. Son Adam has worked as a dive instructor, pilot, skipper, EMT and volunteer firefighter.
One particular travel memory captures the couple perfectly. “Usually toward the end of the trip, Kathy will tell me, ‘If we get out of this alive, I’m going to kill you,’” Mike recalled. “We were in the Picket Range of the Cascades with four other guys. We were crossing a valley that was super steep and vertical on all sides. I looked at Kathy, and her eyes were as big as saucers.” When they got through the day, the group was divided—Mike and two of the guys were mapping out the next day, and Kathy and the other two were on their knees praying.
But, true to form, she bounced back. “She’s always the loudest one in the tavern,” Mike said. To Kathy, it just makes sense. “When it’s life and death, every night you’re still alive is a celebration.” And for this couple, there’s no better place to celebrate being alive than their own little cabin by the sound.