July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
When the author moved into a 1905 house on an island near Seattle, he found himself sharing it with the uncommon people who had lived there before him
Bainbridge Island, Washington, where I live, seemed to me amazingly unspoiled for a suburb of Seattle until one afternoon last spring,when I borrowed a neighbor’s kayak and for the first time pulled my way up Port Orchard Channel. I was top-heavy and a little ungainly with my dripping paddle, so I kept close enough to the beach to wade ashore in case I capsized. But the water was clear all the way down to the barnacled stones scattered along the bottom, and it was agreeable slipping north among the widgeons and pintails, cormorants and gulls.
The road that parallels the beach turns to gravel half a mile past my house and begins a treacherous climb back from the steep shoreline. So I always assumed that the houses had to leave off not much farther on and that from the end of Crystal Springs a mile or so to Fletcher Bay I would find nothing but woods.
As I paddled along, however, I discovered that no measure of ingenuity was being spared to build houses along the water, and the beach’s steep clay flanks were crisscrossed with wooden stairs. Some of the houses were a few decades old, and from the neatly stacked cordwood, the rusting swing sets, and peeling, overturned tender boats lying in weeds beyond the tide’s reach, I supposed that the occupants were probably venerable.
But among these old homes are brand-new houses making architectural statements, sometimes at the top of their voices. Looming expanses of tinted glass, and vertical-plank designer siding, and Wolmanized gazebos, and Japanesy pool enclosures have displaced the wooded shore of my wistful assumptions. Great stretches of beach had already been spoken for, and I could hear the whine of skill saws and the reports of nail guns and the heavy thud of pilings being driven in for yet another lofty deck.
The house I bought is eighty-five years old and seems sometimes to share my disdain for new construction. But in its time, which is to say turn of the century, it was no less an intrusion than the disportments of architectural whimsy now frolicking along the shore. In fact, my house was the first of its scale on the southwestern coast of Bainbridge Island to impose itself on what had been a sparse and informal smattering of Indian encampments, truck farms, summer cottages, and millworkers’ homes.
Some foggy mornings I pose on my deck like an explorer on a ship glimpsing a pristine, primordial world. But when the fog lifts, my view is punctuated by other houses, and my home testifies not to the island’s permanence but to the rangy flimflam and walleyed hubris of its history.
My house was built in 1905 by a real estate speculator and honorary Alabama colonel named Warren Lea Gazzam who dreamed of establishing a millionaire’s row along the Bainbridge side of Port Orchard Channel, which runs between the island and the Olympic Peninsula. In order to make his holdings accessible to commuters, he cofounded a ferry line called the Kitsap Transportation Company, and as its president he was the first man in America to equip a passenger vessel with a diesel engine.
Nicknamed the White Collar Line for both Gazzam’s highfalutin airs and the distinctive white stripe on its smokestacks, the K.T.C.’s mosquito fleet ferried passengers and produce up and down the sound for almost a quarter of a century. From Tacoma to Seattle the K.T.C. and its competitors vied for dominance like opposing navies. Warfare extended beyond routes and rates to lawsuits, fistfights, races, and rammings and provided Puget Sound not only with its primary form of transportation but with a glorious year-round spectator sport until the construction of a few strategic bridges, the advent of the automobile, and the ravages of the Great Depression brought the game to a close.
I’ve been trying to pin down a few facts about the Colonel and his business ventures, but they are hard to come by. His influence, not to say his generosity, seems to have compromised a lot of the local newspaper accounts of his enterprises. Their stories are full of those exchanges that occur only in fully paid-for Edwardian booster journalism, in which the poor outclassed oaf who presumes to compete with the Colonel compounds his greed with cursing and bad grammar, whereas our hero coolly disguises his rapacity in the flag, fair play, and the mantle of progress without dangling so much as a participle.
The son of a prominent but impecunious family in Mobile, Alabama, Warren Gazzam suffered from tuberculosis as a young man and was sent to recuperate in Arizona, where, as an Indian agent, he collected tribal artifacts and was witness to the surrender of Geronimo. The West seemed to suit his entrepreneurial bent, and he proceeded to Seattle, where he opened an art gallery on Second Avenue. With his aristocratic Southern flourish the Colonel insinuated himself into Seattle high society, and at a time when men in the Northwest outnumbered women ten to one, he summoned and successfully married off all three of his Alabama sisters to men of substance.
For his own spouse he chose Lizzie Lulu Yeaton, the daughter of a Baptist pioneer from New Hampshire and the first white female to be born in Spokane, Washington. The Colonel presumed she was well-to-do when he first spotted her arriving at his shop in a carriage, but she wasn’t, and though the marriage produced four children, it was not a success. On their wedding night the Colonel announced to his devout young bride that as a Southern gentlemen he could not be expected to be faithful, and indeed, he rose to this diminished expectation all his life and had the honor of being named a corespondent in a divorce when he was ninety-one years old.
From the start the Colonel proved an erratic provider, his speculations sometimes taking precedence over the exigencies of fatherhood. Even as he slapped the backs of his wealthy brethren at the Rainier Club in Seattle, the family was sometimes hard put to set food upon its table, whereupon the Colonel would breeze in and present his wife with a diamond necklace or announce he had purchased a steamboat company.
So when a local architect named William Alberts was commissioned in 1904 to design a summer house for the Gazzams on Bainbridge Island, he had to accommodate not only the Colonel’s pretensions but Mrs. Gazzam’s austerity and the local scarcity of master craftsmen.
The result was a large but simple house of niggardly construction: six thousand square feet enclosed in fir studs and cedar shakes and walls of native stone. What the Colonel dubbed Alabama, but what shall always be known as the Gazzam House, was to be the first of many mansions he envisioned dotting the shoreline, albeit at discreet distances from one another.
He assured his own privacy by the sheer dimensions of his surrounding estate: five hundred acres of beach and orchard, forest and lake, and freshly cleared meadowland. The house was so remote, in fact, that until Mrs. Gazzam opened a post office of her own in the back hall, she had to row a mile across the channel to Illahee every day to pick up the mail.
All but abandoned by her restless husband, Mrs. Gazzam turned for strength to Mary Baker Eddy, and Alabama became a gathering place for Mrs. Gazzam’s fellow Christian Scientists, who would arrive aboard the K.T.C.’s ferries at Crystal Springs Landing and climb the stone stairway to the house for colloquies and luncheons.
Under the tutelage of one of Gazzam’s sisters, who lived in an area of the island known as the Country Club, the Colonel’s three daughters were introduced to the rigors of what locally passed for high society, and the downstairs of the house, with its sixty feet of floor space from living-room hearth to dining-room window, became the island’s premier ballroom.
The Colonel rarely visited his own estate and took up residence, when he was not traveling, across the channel in Bremerton. But for Gazzam’s son and three daughters, and for many children in the vicinity, the place acquired an almost mystical significance. After gathering blackberries along its trails, harvesting plums and apples in its orchards, digging for clams on its beaches, fishing for lingcod and blackmouth salmon off its pier, and reading books on its window seats in the drizzling light of a winter afternoon, they would bear the abiding imprint of its landscape all the rest of their lives.
The Colonel’s ties to his family were never strong, and they were finally broken in the 1920s, when he blamed Lulu’s attachment to the mother church (and she, in turn, blamed his skepticism) for the death, from meningitis, of his youngest child and namesake: a brilliant, congenial boy who had constructed the island’s first radio while still in his teens.
But there had been other irregularities along the way. The Colonel’s household had once included a young woman named Madge, only five years his eldest daughter’s senior, whose medical education he generously financed even after Lulu finally evicted her out of a less than far-fetched suspicion that Madge was dallying with her husband.
After their divorce the Colonel gave Lulu the run of the Bainbridge Island house. Lea, the eldest daughter, was a dynamo, and Mary, the youngest, a great beauty, and the Colonel sent them both to college. But the second daughter, Ruth, had been so frail as a small child that she had not been expected to live, and fearing for her health and perhaps overextended by Madge’s tuition, the Colonel announced that he would not send Ruth to college but to New York for a year of refinement under the wing of another of his socialite sisters.
Eventually all three daughters—Lea, Ruth, and Mary—married and moved away. Ruth married Gilbert Pierce Haight, the son of a prominent and self-made Seattle lawyer who denied Gilbert an opportunity to teach history at a prep school and demanded that he become an attorney. Determined that he would become a gentleman for whom “work” was distasteful, Gilbert’s genteel mother did not prepare her son for the harsh exigencies of corporate law, and he primarily depended for his livelihood on income from his share of the family fortune. When Gilbert lost his home and most of his fortune to the Depression, Lulu invited Ruth and her family to live with her at Alabama, to which Ruth agreed only on condition that she earn her family’s keep running the house as a summer hotel.
And so in the late spring of 1934 the family moved into the barn and opened the Gazzam House, as it was now officially dubbed, to summer boarders seeking, according to the brochure, “a quiet, truly restful place to spend a vacation.” The grounds still included a lake, miles of trails, and, of course, the beach, which, the Northwestern climate being what it is, could offer only “a chance” for sunbathing.
The waitresses who tended to the summer guests at the huge table in the dining room were University of Washington students who lived in tents in a nearby meadow. But the major feature of a stay at the Gazzam House was evidently the cooking of “Black Bertha,” as the family called her, who, according to one of their brochures, won “the hearts of all at Gazzam house in the traditional southern manner.” The house owed its “adequate” heat to a series of men who lived in the cellar and stoked the furnace with cordwood cut from the surrounding estate.
Innkeeping did not suit Lulu Gazzam for long, and she eventually moved to the University of Washington, where she worked for the rest of her life as a sorority housemother. But Ruth proved a gifted hostess, and word spread quickly about the Gazzam House among Seattle’s travel agents. For the next five summers Ruth Haight filled every room with vacationers- mostly from Seattle, but a few from California, Minnesota, and even New York—lured by the low rates, good food, charming location, and rounds of bridge with the erudite and congenial Mr. Haight in the parlor.
On one of his birthdays the Colonel’s intermittently estranged family presented him with a confection in the shape of his property. But when he was asked to cut the first slice, he ordered the cake returned to the kitchen, declaring that he had never subdivided his holdings and wasn’t about to start now.
Nevertheless, when his speculations backfired during the Great Depression, the Colonel began to shed his property. Reduced by now to running a small hotel in Bremerton, he didn’t keep up his Alabama payments to the bank, and one day in 1938 Ruth’s children returned from school to find a foreclosure notice on the door. (It was Warren Gazzam’s lifelong ambition to die a millionaire, and when the Second World War filled his Bremerton hotel with visitors to the shipyard, he thought he might finally become one. But he held out too long before selling the place, and when he died, his assets seem to have amounted to only about four hundred thousand dollars. Nonetheless he got his wish, after a fashion, by bribing the editor of the local paper to headline his obituary BREMERTON MILLIONAIRE DIES .) Ruth Gazzam Haight and her family moved to a small house on a cliff overlooking Manitou Beach, from which she commuted to work for her father and here she and her family subsisted, for a time, on clams.
The bank subdivided the estate, clearing the way for an access road by tearing down the stone staircase that once led from the front porch to the orchards along the beach, and sold Alabama in 1939 to a bachelor florist named Charlie Sullivan. Sullivan studded the grounds with five thousand camellia bushes and installed a chromium kitchen that was a horror to his predecessors. After fifty years of motley ownership and sporadic occupation, the property shrank to a single acre, the orchard made way for a string of cottages, and all but a dozen of Sullivan’s camellias died in a freeze in the 1950s.
Those of us whose imaginations and savings have been caught up in the old Gazzam House have been, all in all, as hapless as the Colonel himself. Though its squandered estate is even now being nibbled up by other less romantic developers, its grandiosity remains contagious.
The house is shot through with visionary wiring concepts in varying states of incompletion, beginning with Gazzam’s own tangle of knob and tube, which he installed long before this end of the island had even been electrified. (He once attempted, without success, to generate power in the feeble trickle from a nearby spring.) Sometimes, as I fumble with the eight kitchen-light switches, it seems as though the house has been wired by the Marx Brothers. Three-prong wall sockets have been directly connected to the ungrounded wiring from the Colonel’s days, live bare sections of which, I soon discovered, jutted out into the birds’ nests under the attic eaves.
One owner decided on a Saturday morning to hike up the sag in the living-room floor. So, according to his son, he made his way into the crawl space with his car jack and happily began to pump away at a succession of joists, bracing them with cinder blocks. Everything seemed to be going great until he heard a toppling noise overhead and rushed up to find that all the downstairs plaster had fallen off the walls.
The original dark fir woodwork survived the renovations that followed, though it didn’t quite fit back in some places over the slightly thickened surface of the new Sheetrock walls. Most of the windows are still the rippled originals, and a couple of panes in the living room are even perforated by the BBs the neighborhood kids shot at the Gazzams’ ghosts during Alabama’s various phases of abandonment. The attic rafters bear the scorched traces of a fire, and the upstairs floorboards have the raised grain of wood once exposed to rain.
When I replaced the plaster in the master bedroom, I came upon widely separated one-by-four studs that do not reach the rafters, rafters that do not connect to wall plates, floating wall plates butted up against the ends of joists, as if perhaps halfway through the house’s construction the masonry cost more than the Colonel had expected or maybe he suffered one of his reversals and asked the boys with a nudge and a wink to go easy on the materials.
All these things give the house resonance, as though by possessing it I have come to share in its hapless ancestry. As I make my own minor alterations, I experience a nagging anxiety that the house will defeat me just as it seems to have defeated all my predecessors, that it is coaxing me ever closer to the edge of its own shifting precipice.
Alabama’s feet are clay, and some years before we arrived here, the front yard collapsed in a rainstorm, burying the little road that feeds the driveways below. So my immediate predecessor had to shave off the steepest angle of the ledge, jam road-grade material into its slope to hold it fast, and lay a curtain drain that now piddles rainwater all the way down to the channel. But the body of the island keeps trying to reject this monument to Gazzam’s transplanted aspirations, and new fissures are beginning to open up here and there that I must fill with sand.
The Gazzam House, in its apparent solidity, seems to evoke a continuity that eludes all of us who live here and reproaches us for our fecklessness. But like the newest structures rising along the shore, it’s an imposition on this primeval island that’s sustained only by the continual sinking of pipes and posts and footings. Viewed from a bird’s-eye vantage, Warren Lea Gazzam’s Alabama remains an artifice despite the stand of hundred-year-old firs and cedars that surround it on three sides; it is a detriment to the wilderness despite its native anatomy of fir and cedar and stone; it is an intrusion despite its flea-market claims to antiquity.
But its grip on the sensibilities of its owners seems everlasting. Time after time I will glance out one of its windows to see a car pausing in the driveway, its occupants gazing up with a yearning and regret that are unmistakably nostalgic. Sometimes I wave to them or call out to invite them in, but usually they decline and hurry off as if pained to see the house occupied by anyone but their own lingering ghosts.
One July morning in 1988 I got a call from the president of the local historical society, who said that a Gazzam descendant was visiting the island and would like to see the house. So I rushed around to clear the place of my family’s detritus and stepped out into the driveway to greet none other than Ruth Gazzam Haight herself, still thriving, thank you very much, at ninety-four years of age.
Had I been looking for a surrogate grandmother in the Great Northwest, Ruth Haight would have fitted the bill. Silver-haired and sprightly, she wore a blue floral dress and the requisite pearls and stood in the front yard with her niece Barbara and her sons, Warren and Gil, shielding her eyes from the sun and asking, Where had the orchard disappeared to? When had all these huge evergreens around the house sprung up? What had become of the rest of the deck?
And then before anyone could answer her, she caught sight of me, took my hand in both of hers, and declared how delighted she was that a family was living in her girlhood home again, that it was, as she presumed, a happy house.
She was surprised to see how close the water now appeared from the yard, for in the old days the orchard had blocked the view of the shore. Did I know, she wondered, that the house had been built from stones gathered along the beach? I had wondered about that, I told her, because it would explain why for a hundred yards north and south of the house there are still no large rocks left along the shore and why the thousands of otherwise smooth stones that protrude from the first-story walls like baked rolls from a muffin tin bear the floury traces of barnacles and periwinkles.
And did she know, I asked her, that she had acquired a leading role in my daughter’s imagination? Casey and her friends sometimes pretended to be the Gazzam girls as they explored the house and beach.
“But how could they ever have known about us?” she wondered.
So I led her around to the side of the house, where Casey had found Ruth’s and her siblings’ names scratched into the foundation’s cement. Ruth said she remembered the day they wrote their names; it had been a warm summer day, the foundation had just been poured, and she and her family were living in a little beach house down the road. Peering along the wall, she identified a mysterious W as the initial of Warren, Jr., her dead brother. She told me she had been, like Casey, nine years old when she moved into the house.
Her eyes teared up when she crossed the threshold; everything looked very much as it had when she and her family left the house fifty years before. The Arthurian table, chairs, and sideboard her father had commissioned for the house in 1905 still occupied the dining room, and for a moment one of her sons wondered if we hadn’t gotten hold of their old china as well.
“Remember,” Gil asked his brother, Warren, pointing up to a Quimper plate on the china shelf along the ceiling, “how insulted I used to be if I finished my soup and there was a lady on the bottom of my bowl?”
And then he paused and peered at me in astonishment. “But where did you get my grandfather’s china?”
It was actually my grandfather’s china, and this was only the first of a series of coincidences and affinities to emerge during Ruth’s visit. Puzzled by a display shelf along the hallway walls, my wife had decided to line it with Indian baskets (until she discovered what they cost). Ruth said that, in fact, her father had had one of the largest collections of Indian baskets in the Northwest and had displayed them not only on the hallway shelves but on the living-room settle as well. And the Japanese woodcuts that we had recently inherited and that now hung in our dining room turned out to be very much like the Japanese woodcuts that once adorned the dining-room walls in Mrs. Gazzam’s time.
Mrs. Gazzam’s woodcuts had come from a Japanese neighbor named Furuya, who, according to the xenophobic laws of the period, was not allowed as a first-generation Japanese immigrant to own land. The Colonel agreed to hold Furuya’s property for him in his name, and for this Mr. Furuya, a prosperous importer and later the Japanese consul in Seattle, lavished gifts upon the Gazzams: a suite of teak furniture for the library, grass paper for the downstairs walls (which peeled off the night after it was first applied), and an elaborate screen for the dining room that so offended Mrs. Gazzam’s taste that she had the reverse side papered over and would turn it face forward only when she heard the crunch of Mrs. Furuya’s wooden sandals approaching up the driveway.
Ruth was married in front of the living room’s stone fireplace, which the family festooned with flowers. An upright piano her grandmother Yeaton had brought by covered wagon from New Hampshire had stood where my grandfather’s piano now stood, and back in the thirties Ruth had hired Ivan Novikoff (or “Ivan Awful Cough,” as her husband called him), an eye-patched Russian dancing master, to teach the girls and boys of Bainbridge Island the fox trot, the box step, and the Lambeth Walk.
According to Ruth’s sons, the Japanese used to do a lot of fishing in front of the house, and out in the channel the boys had once caught a lingcod of such proportions that it took both of them to wrestle it up to the house. Young Warren’s portrait of its baleful stare haunted a hidden corner of the hall. I reported to them about the cutthroat trout I’d caught from my lawn, and everyone listened politely.
So not only had Ruth Gazzam Haight survived the Depression and the Colonel and the loss of her beloved Alabama, but she and her family had thrived. After his father died in the late 1940s, Gilbert Haight found his footing as the senior partner of his own law firm and before his death in 1967 seized the opportunity to teach history at the Bush School in Seattle, where Ruth, employing the administrative skills she developed as hostess of the Gazzam House, ran the residential program.
Escaping from Manitou Beach in 1939, her son Gil worked his way through Stanford University, acquired a Rhodes scholarship, and went on to a distinguished career as a professor of chemistry; his sister, Mary, a graduate of Smith, married a professor of history and is now one of the Bush School’s most celebrated teachers; and their brother, Warren, became a businessman of substance and consequence in Hawaii.
I don’t know if, like the snail, we transport our houses with us, if their atmospheres cling to us in layers like a shell. But my family haunts all its houses in its dreams. My grandfather died in the sprawling house he built from a little cottage in Ohio and inhabited for sixty years, and I think my father may choose to die in the drafts of the old mansard house he and my mother have occupied for twenty-five years, and maybe I, too, have found my resting place in Warren Lea Gazzam’s one enduring fancy.
“We would still be here, you know,” Ruth confided as we finally said goodbye. “If it hadn’t been for my father’s speculations, we would never have left this place.”
“ I know,” I said.
And then I told her about the first time I had toured the house the year before in the company of a Realtor.
“Well, Andy, I’ve got a few more houses to show you,” the agent said as I lingered in the hallway. “So maybe we’d better move along.”
“No,” I told him, sitting on the stair. “You don’t understand. I want this house. This is my house.”