By Erin Jennings
Finn O’Neill’s passport is chock-full of countries that would make a jetsetter swoon, especially considering his age hasn’t yet reached double digits. France twice. Denmark. Italy. Finland.
“We love to travel,” said Bethany O’Neill, mother of 9-year-old Finn. “But it became more and more difficult once we had children.” Hotels are cramped and don’t offer the flexible spaces a growing family needs. So when patriarch Shawn O’Neill read an article about a home exchange program, he felt he had discovered the solution to the family’s wanderlust. Instead of renting a small room, why not swap houses for vacation? It makes traveling with a family of six so much easier—Hugh (7), Gus (3½) and Lillie (1½) round out the family’s roster. The idea is simple. Homeowners post descriptions and photos of their residence on the home exchange website, listing where and when they are interested in traveling. Participants peruse the listings, look for a match and make an offer. “It’s a delicate dance and both parties try to feel each other out,” Shawn said. There is a lot of emailing back and forth, but in the end it’s a leap of faith to decide to open your home to someone you’ve never met.
The O’Neill family has participated in seven exchanges and all have been positive experiences. Most locations are off the tourist-beaten path, infusing them with a local flair that is often missing in more commercial settings. The family loves immersing themselves in the community and living in others’ shoes, so to speak. Neighbors bring over meals and offer up babysitting suggestions. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, strangers are experiencing life on Bainbridge Island and calling the O’Neills’ home “home.”
And, oh, what a home it is. Far from the typical Craftsman or Rambler you find on Bainbridge, the O’Neills’ home defies all traditional housing categories. In fact, when Bethany first saw the house, she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“When we pulled up,” Bethany said, “I remember thinking, ‘What is this place? Are these condo units?’” At the time, the O’Neills lived in West Hollywood, where houses are built close to each other and lot sizes are tiny. So of course she was confused to be looking at a single-family home that was 10,000 square feet and sat on more than seven acres. Located in the Fort Ward neighborhood, the 1941 structure is a renovated Naval Communications building built during World War II.
The couple returned to California but couldn’t get the unique house out of their minds. Pregnant with their first child, Bethany and Shawn realized that while the Hollywood Hills was a fun place to live, it wasn’t where they wanted to raise a family. Another visit to Bainbridge sealed the deal, and the O’Neills have enjoyed island life for the past 10 years.
The O’Neills aren’t sure what role—if any—their former Navy building played in cracking the Japanese code during World War II. (Down the street “Station S,” also now a private residence, is credited as the place where the code was cracked.) They can’t help but wonder what went on inside their home more than 70 years ago. They’ve researched the history but have found it difficult to get any answers. The old saying “loose lips sink ships” seems to prevail.
They do know the building was eventually decommissioned and sat vacant for many years. The abandoned property became a mecca for teenagers and the O’Neills have heard stories about wild parties, graffiti and other youthful antics.
Eventually the building was purchased in the 1980s, and the owner turned it into a private residence. The O’Neills are the third family to call the historic building home. And while most interior traces of the office building have been removed—the elevator was replaced by a staircase, and office space turned into bedrooms—the towering cement beams on the main floor give a nod to the era when The Andrews Sisters sang “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Over the years Bethany and Shawn have added extensive landscaping, painted, updated bathrooms and remodeled the basement. In a house this large, renovating can be a daunting task, so they take it room by room.
“We could be perpetually renovating,” Bethany said. “Once we finish, it will be time to start all over again.”
The O’Neills’ favorite part of the home varies from day to day. The couple enjoys hosting intimate dinner parties under the festive glittering chandeliers. As the phonograph plays in the background, you can almost picture a Humphrey Bogart-like character sipping a Manhattan, leaning up against the well-stocked art deco bar. But just as fun are family movie nights when all six hunker down in the large master bedroom for a flick.
The previous owners added an indoor pool, and during summer months the O’Neills open the doors to the veranda, sparking impromptu swim parties and barbeques. “Kids begin knocking on the door around 11 a.m. and they don’t stop until evening,” Shawn said.
The O’Neills aren’t sure where their next travel adventure will lead. They are entertaining an offer that recently came in from Hungarian homeowners.
No matter where they decide to go, they will travel knowing that another family is enjoying—and looking after—their home as much as they do. After each exchange, they’ve returned to a lovingly cared for home. They admit their travel style is unique and a lot of people wouldn’t be comfortable with having strangers vacation in an unattended home.
“The home exchange program requires a certain type of personality to participate in it,” Shawn said. “You need to be open minded and look at it like a friend is coming to stay.”
In the end, home-swapping provides travelers with friends and neighbors around the world—and the O’Neills have the passport stamps to prove it.