The Ferry Idea // Creating a Home for Aging in Place

By Alli Schuchman

“I wonder what’s over there?”

Even though Joan Pearson had grown up in the Queen Anne Hill neighborhood, standing there years later, looking out over the familiar water, the Seattle native didn’t know how to answer her husband’s question as to where the distant green and white ferryboats were off to. The year was 1987. Pearson, along with her husband, Karl Petersen, whom she’d met and married while in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, had made a visit back to her hometown after she was offered a job with a consulting firm that had an office in the city. Though they liked the idea of moving to the Pacific Northwest—“somewhere where the weather is much gentler than in Minnesota,” said Pearson—they wanted to choose a place to live where they were starting out on the same footing, where they could put down roots together. After determining the ferryboats’ destination—a small island just nine short miles west across the sound—the pair was intrigued enough to make their first visit to Bainbridge. It was a small town, it was by the water and it was close to Seattle. The island was a different sort of place than either had known growing up, yet it had things that made it feel familiar too. It felt just right.

Pearson accepted the Seattle job and the couple made the move to the island. They chose a house—an Alex Kimball-designed contemporary—near Fay Bainbridge Park, where they lived comfortably for many years. “As we approached our 70s, though, we thought, well, maybe we better get out of a four level house,” said Petersen. “Maybe it was time to think about moving. The yard was on a hill and everything was hard to get to.” As Pearson and Petersen considered what their next chapter would look like—a plan that Pearson said has unfolded slowly over the years—both were deliberate in their choices. “Part of preparing to be older was choosing a place that when we can’t drive anymore, we can walk,” said Pearson. “People who live in homes can have a tumble and suddenly they can’t live there anymore. I’ve seen that happen with older people, I saw it with my mother, and I knew this would be a step we could take when we were young enough to make our lives simpler—to create an aging-in-place design.”

As a potential example of where to create that age-in-place home, a friend who lived at Eagle Harbor condominiums by the waterfront in Winslow showed them around his home. “We got a little interested,” said Petersen, “and within a few years we decided to buy.” The couple settled on a ground-level condo in the complex. “It’s a wonderful location,” said Pearson, who said it was the view that ultimately sold her. “We’re a block from T&C, from the park, the ferry. And we’re right at the mouth of the harbor. We see the rowing crews, the sailboat lessons, the tugs coming and going, the ferry boatyard. If you like looking at the water and looking at boats, I can’t imagine a better place.” But the condominium was dated, plus it lacked the flexibility they needed as they entered their later years.

The pair hired Smallwood Construction, enlisting designer and contractor Rob Smallwood to transform the home into a residence that would accommodate their changing lives. The two-year renovation process began by taking the space down to the studs. The plan called for widened walkways that could potentially accommodate a wheelchair. Non-load-bearing walls were removed between the kitchen and living room, which drastically opened up the space, creating sightlines to the water from nearly everywhere in the home. Foresight meant nixing the bathroom’s tub and replacing it with a generous shower with a bench. “One of the things about moving from a house to a condo is that you make a lot of transitions,” said Pearson. The main thing she said that they had to consider is that every inch of the design counts. “The space has to be as thoughtfully planned out as possible.”

For instance, Pearson’s 60-square-foot office—her favorite space because of its view to the harbor—has two floor-to-ceiling file cabinets, two bookshelves and a desk. “And it all fits!” she said. “We spent hours on the design so it still has a spacious feel.” Petersen’s favorite room is the kitchen—a space he said went through 42 configurations before he was satisfied with the design. It has no upper cabinetry, which both lends itself to the openness of the design and keeps everything within reach as the couple ages. All the undercounter shelves pull out.

Though Petersen came up with the kitchen’s basic layout, it was cabinetry designer Scott McGraw who brought his vision to life. “It was something I was imagining but hadn’t seen until I walked into his shop,” said Petersen. “It’s all gorgeous fir. Very simple lines that are so consistent with what Rob was doing for the place. There are no curvy lines, no curlicues, just simple lines cut in the face of cabinets. A simple idea but elegant too.” It’s a good thing that Petersen is happy with the kitchen as he does most of the cooking, which, unsurprisingly, is akin to the kitchen’s clean and sophisticated design. “I’ll cook something simple like beans—black beans, navy, pinto,” he said. “I like to think like a chef. It’s simple but I will work with a bean recipe to make it exquisitely good.”

Also important to the couple were spaces to display their Native American art. “One of the things Rob does is create a special background for art,” explained Petersen. “He uses a blackened steel that covers a wall or a niche. We used it over the fireplace and in a nook with a large bentwood box that rotates.” Pearson recalled moments of “tough love” from Smallwood too. “He said, ‘You need to hire an interior decorator. You need to make some decisions and you need someone to help,’” she said. “I said I didn’t want a decorator, but I did it anyhow because when Rob said I had to do something, it was usually the right thing.” Per Smallwood’s direction, they hired local designer Kim McCall who helped pick their fixtures and finishes.

“It was the right thing,” said Pearson. Although Pearson and Petersen’s condo project is completed, the Eagle Harbor condominiums’ exteriors are now undergoing a major renovation. The new design, which was conceived by Coates Design Architects, calls for the removal of all the stucco, insulation, windows and wood. The goal is twofold—to give the homes a major facelift and to create an envelope for the building to protect it from its southeast exposure to winddriven rain.

Life has been good since the pair made the big move to the condo six years ago. They take walks, two per day, mostly driven by their Shetland sheepdog, Daisy. “We go out about an hour and a half per day along the waterfront park and back through Winslow. Sometimes through the Moritani Preserve,” said Pearson. “It’s a very dog-centered town. If you like dogs this is a great place to live.” With the condominiums’ exterior renovation within sight, Pearson and Petersen—and Daisy—can get back to enjoying life on the waterfront, just as planned. Now all that’s left to do is enjoy the next 30 years.