Mercer Island’s Legacy of Mid-Century Modern Architecture

January 29, 2018 | by Erin Sirianni

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With our beautiful natural landscapes, views of mountains and Lake Washington, and our peaceful setting just removed from Seattle and Bellevue, it’s no wonder Mercer Island inspired the great mid-century modern architects, who were locally summoned during a postwar development and population boom.

When the Lacy V. Murrow floating bridge was constructed in 1940, Mercer Island’s population was approximately 1,200. With improved access, Mercer Island was one of many places across the nation to experience a rush of suburban development, which coincided with the “baby boom.” By 1950, the island’s population was 4,500 and grew to 12,000 by 1959.

Residential growth draws leading architects of the era

The Seattle Times, July 10, 1960

Mercer Island now has a population of about 25,000 and has over 7,000 single-family homes.  Hundreds of these homes are of the mid-century modern era. Of the mid-century built homes, many are modest, designed for function (“built fast, but well”), as part of tract neighborhoods throughout the island.

But among them are beautiful, custom-built homes designed by notable mid-century modern architects, including Ralph Anderson, Elizabeth Ayer, Fred Bassetti, Albert Bumgardner, Ira Cummings, James Greco, Paul Hayden Kirk, Wendell Lovett, Benjamin McAdoo, John Morse, Paul Thiry, Gene Zema, Bert Tucker, and Robert Shields.

In addition to residential work, several of these architects contributed to public and commercial projects as well. Fred Bassetti designed Lakeview Elementary School (1954) and Mercer Island High School (1958). Paul Thiry was the architect for the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church (1962).

Features of Mid-Century Modern Architecture

Mid-Century Modern is actually a broad term that encompasses many styles seen between 1940 to 1975, ranging from European Modernism to Pacific Northwest Contemporary.

A common theme appears as the harmonious relationship of the home architecture with the surrounding natural environment. A philosophy of some mid-century modern architects was that architecture could contribute to a healthy lifestyle, and therefore they created indoor-outdoor spaces with expansive windows to draw people out into nature.

The Seattle Times, April 26, 1957

Other common defining features include open floor plans, split-level spaces, and flat and low-profiles roof lines. The open, airy carport is also characteristic of mid-century design, a concept conceived during a time when people were eager to show off their cars as a symbol of wealth.

Mid-century modern homes were built with the heavy use of natural materials, including wood and stone. Warm, naturally finished wood floors, ceilings, and walls are highly characteristic of the era, and the dark and natural exterior finishes allow these homes to blend in with the natural surroundings.

But use of such materials also requires diligent care and maintenance, and without such maintenance, some of these homes, going on 60 and 70 years old, have fallen into disrepair and have been torn down and replaced with newer structures. However, many have been beautifully maintained, restored, and continue to be enjoyed by their homeowners today.

Learn more about Mid-Century Modern homes on Mercer Island

On September 21st, 2015, I attended a presentation on mid-century modern housing on Mercer Island, hosted by the Mercer Island Historical Society.

The presenters included Chris Moore, Executive Director with the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, Michael Houser, Architectural Historian with the state Department of Archaeology & Historic Preservation, and Todd Scott, Preservation Architect with the King County Historic Preservation Program.

A copy of Michael Houser’s presentation is available on the Mercer Island Historical Society website, as well as a handout of local mid-century houses of note.

We also recommend the book Mercer Island History: From Haunted Wilderness to Coveted Communitywhich includes a page dedicated to mid-century modern architecture along with the history of Mercer Island’s development throughout the decades.