The Best Coast // A Special Place Brought the Lieblings Home to Bainbridge

By Vicki Wilson

In the summer of 2012, the Liebling family—Jon and Mara, along with their three children, Phoebe, Sam and Quinn—set out from their Cape Cod home for a cross-country adventure. That journey in an RV became the unwitting catalyst for the Lieblings’ move to Bainbridge Island. “We drove 11,000 miles across 22 states. We visited 12 national parks. When we were on the coast of Oregon, I told friends I was worried it would make Jon want to move back west.

Jon was standing far away on the beach looking out at the ocean. Just watching him, I knew we were going to move,” Mara recalled. Jon, a California native, put it a bit more wryly. “Nobody ever said, ‘Go east, young man.’” Packing up and moving their household was not new for the Lieblings. Jon and Mara met in California when Mara, a family physician, was just starting her practice. Their first move was to Vermont, to be closer to Mara’s elderly parents. “We lived in this idyllic New England town in a very traditional house.

I was the country doctor,” Mara said. Two of the three Liebling kids were born there, so it will always hold special nostalgia for the family. The next move took them further east. While living in Vermont, the family had vacationed on Cape Cod, and Jon fell in love with a particular house there that had enticing water views, even if not of the beaches of California. The proximity to the ocean sustained them on the Cape until that RV trip got them thinking about trading the Atlantic for the Pacific—or at least the Puget Sound.

They started looking at houses online—not the best way to find a house. In fact, the high-bank waterfront house they now call home wasn’t even one they agreed to see when they visited Bainbridge, a place that came recommended by both a medical-school classmate of Mara’s and an old California friend of Jon’s. “The house [originally designed by Stuart Silk] had been on the market for three years with no movement,” said architectural designer and general contractor Karen Lawson, who not only designed and built the Lieblings’ kitchen and master bath once they moved in, but also oversaw the major changes that the previous owners finally made—changes which certainly led to the sale.

Besides a kaleidoscopic color scheme and failing windows, the biggest deal breaker came in the form of a…lighthouse. And not some crumbling outbuilding on a rocky shore—this postmodern structure, styled to be reminiscent of a lighthouse, was set down right smack dab in the middle of the foyer. “It was a round structure, 12 feet in diameter and 25 feet tall, in the center of the stairs. It was held up by eight legs; you couldn’t figure out if you should go around it or through it,” Lawson said. Worst of all, it blocked the priceless view of the Sound and the Olympics.

The obvious solution was to remove it, but since the structure supported the stairs, doing that would be a challenge. “My idea was to float the stairs and support them by putting steel across the catwalk,” Lawson said. For Lawson, her work on the house was a labor of love. “When I first saw [the house], it reminded me of Santa Barbara. I simplified the interiors so the dynamic architecture and the view could be the focal points. It’s more serene now.” Lawson’s affinity for the reimagined house and its future is evident. “This beautiful house on this beautiful piece of property needed a steward. And it found one in the Liebling family.”

The harmony between the house and its surroundings are what Mara loves most. “It’s very much connected to the outdoors. With all the doors and windows, the house is really like a pass-through to the outside,” she said, adding that seeing the Olympics day after day, season after season, is like watching “a moving painting.” Speaking of moving, the family has their own unique way of getting down to the beach: they take a cable car, which makes the 180-foot journey a lot more fun. “It’s almost like our own state park down there,” Jon said. “We can bring the dog, kayak, even camp out on the beach. It’s definitely an ‘E-ticket’ ride.”

Not that they need more activities to fill their time. The three Liebling kids have quickly become entrenched in their new community. For 15-year-old BHS sophomore Phoebe, the move took place at a delicate time. Her dad said she was the most against the idea of relocating, but that she hit the ground running. “I was scared to break into a new group of people, but I realized I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t try,” Phoebe said. She also realized that when you come in as a freshman, like she did, everyone’s new.

These days, she spends her time with the Model United Nations group she helped start, running cross country, playing the cello and planning for Camp Siberia. Phoebe’s brother, 14-year-old Sam, is an eighth-grader at Woodward and he was actually pretty excited to move to Bainbridge. “I thought it would be fun—a cool change,” he said. There were a few bumps in the road that first semester, but things eventually smoothed out. In addition to his new longboarding habit, Sam plays piano and recently took up water polo. The real star of the family would have to be 11-year-old Quinn, a Sakai sixth-grader. His final performance as Gavroche in a local production of “Les Misérables” on Cape Cod took place the night he had to get on a plane to move here.

A dramatic departure, for sure. “I thought there wouldn’t be any good theater here,” Quinn said, “but there was a lot of good theater!” He has performed with Bainbridge Performing Arts and in the Ovation! production of “Evita.” That was where he met Marijane Milton, who encouraged him to audition for “A Christmas Story” at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. He was cast in the ensemble, making for a happy—and hectic—holiday season. Mom and Dad are equally engaged. Jon is an entrepreneur whose company, adplanet.com, makes “promotional products for people on earth,” including but not limited to gold ingots for a pen company and t-shirts compressed into milk cartons to promote soy milk.

Before that, he was in the film industry. Mara is now practicing medicine at the new Harrison Urgent Care facility on the island. Being close to home is incredibly convenient, but caring for patients far away is the most fulfilling work she does. Back in 2011, she volunteered with an organization that provides medical care to impoverished villagers in a remote part of Honduras, and she has continued to do so every year since. “I saw people regardless of their ability to pay. It was life changing for me. I knew I would always do that work—I get so much out of being there,” she said.

And she’s not the only Liebling making a contribution. Phoebe has accompanied her mother three times, and Sam has gone once. Just like they stepped up to the challenge of moving across the country, the two teens rose to the occasion in Honduras as well. “I was low on volunteers,” Mara said, “so Phoebe ran the pharmacy and Sam became the dental assistant.” After some training from two Boston University dental students, Sam managed to pull out 27 teeth! Jon stays closer to home and it’s easy to see why. “I enjoyed our 13 years in New England, but it’s good to be back on the Left Coast,” he said. “This house feels like our home, but also like a retreat. It has a resort quality to it. It’s 10 minutes to Winslow, but the only rooftops we see are across the water. It’s like a slice of heaven.”

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