Counting Down to Done

Restoring six bedrooms, four baths, and two living rooms has taken a Washington couple 12 glorious years—and they’re still not finished

Many travelers go in search of history. But Walt Gillette brought it home. He was so impressed by a visit to Colonial Williamsburg that he resolved to celebrate the history of his hometown, Everett, Wash., by helping to save its architectural heritage.

His adventure started when he learned that a vacant Victorian-era mansion was for sale. "This was a historic property and a great location," he says. "I wanted to restore it to its position of respect in the community and have it serve as an example to other people to undertake these types of projects."

Gillette has something in common with the man who built the house. Like Charles D. Fratt, he is an innovator, having spent 40 years as an engineer at Boeing’s Everett factory. Fratt served as the secretary and treasurer of Robinson Mill Co., a booming lumber mill in turn-of-the-century Everett.

Charles and Idalia Fratt built their impressive house on six lots in 1904—after persuading the city to extend utilities and preserve the land across the street for a park. But during the week they planned to move in, the house burned to the ground. (No cause was ever established.) It took almost two years for the Fratts to rebuild and finally take up residence, the beginning of 30 years at home on Grand Avenue. Seven owners followed, including U.S. Sen. Monrad Charles Wallgren, who reportedly invited fellow senator Harry S. Truman over for visits.

In 1997, a contractor made a bid to tear down the 6,710-square-foot mansion, but Gillette persuaded the owner to sell to him instead, promising to restore the house to its original state.

Tools of the Trade

During reconstruction Walt Gillette used several products he recommends without reservation:

Benite Wood Conditioner: "After you have the right color on the new wood, you seal the pores with Benite for the finish."

Sherwin-Williams paints: "We found a house in north Everett that had the exact colors we wanted, so we had Sherwin-Williams match them."

Seattle Building Salvage: "We got almost all of our light fixtures here. The owner salvages and reconditions historic fixtures, then finds them a brand-new home."

Klean-Strip Lacquer Thinner: Gillette found that "paint strippers wouldn't work on 100-year-old varnish, so we had to switch to lacquer thinner."

The three-story residence had every Victorian amenity imaginable: parlors, sitting rooms, a musicians’ nook, multiple bedrooms, servants’ quarters, a butler’s pantry, and two laundry chutes. "I needed a really big project," Gillette says.

A structural assessment revealed just how big the project would be: The plumbing, heating, and electrical systems were busted, exterior walls weren’t insulated, and the mortar in the brick foundation was crumbling. "A hundred years of families had worn this house out," Gillette says. The biggest revelation, however, was that the Douglas fir sills were not attached to the foundation. "In an earthquake, the house could have slid off," Gillette says. (It was a miracle that the house had, in fact, survived several earthquakes—including a 7.1 event in 1949 and a 6.5 in 1965.)

Neither the tenuous condition of the house nor Gillette’s ambitious restoration plans concerned Saundra Cope, who wed her Boeing colleague in 2000. (Cope soon learned she had married a man and a house that would joyfully consume the next 10 years.)

Taking an enormous Victorian residence back to 1906 is no easy task. The couple knew they’d have to replicate two balconies, strip away cedar shakes for lap siding, replace a garage with a carriage house, and restore true double-hungs in place of ’50s-era picture windows. And those were only the preliminaries. Gillette and Cope also wanted to restore the interiors with rich period details and family furnishings. "We intended to document and show the house as it was originally," Gillette says.

When crews got to work in 2000, they discovered unexpected surprises. While opening plaster walls to expose plumbing and electrical systems, they learned that the Fratts had incorporated gas lighting and wired the house for electricity—"just waiting for the technology," Gillette says. After demolishing the garage, workers also found the presumed location of the carriage house, a site Gillette and Cope confirmed when they unearthed a horse shoe and buggy tool beneath the foundation.

Other discoveries were more personal in nature: In the attic walls the homeowners found a child’s primer and faded letters written to family members, and Cope found some of Idalia Fratt’s Johnson Brothers blue china, broken in the burn pile. (She searched online and in antiques shops for dishes in the same pattern, and now displays them in a glass cabinet.)

In the basement, they identified what they’re sure is an original kitchen cabinet door and had new cabinets modeled after the design. And because only four original milk glass electric light fixtures survived, they acquired 64 authentic antique fixtures and 72 shades from a building salvage company.

Replicating damaged wood in the house was the most important task, however. On the second and third floors, 20- and 30-foot-long old-growth Douglas fir floorboards from Fratt’s sawmill survived, but on the first floor, ’70s-era parquet flooring stapled to the boards had destroyed the exposed surface. Building crews used comparable stock from Canada to re-lay the floors, which now boast new floorboards the same width as the originals. They also used the Canadian fir to replace interior trim and cabinetry—sanding, staining, and buffing in 15 steps to make it look aged. Where elements of vintage wainscoting remained (in the stairwell and the dining room), painters removed 11 coats of paint, including orange and mint green.

In the middle of the restoration, an earthquake shook the house and cracked the original brick foundation, convincing Gillette and Cope to finally implement their plans to bring the building up to seismic code. An engineer’s solution was to build a concrete wall around the brick foundation and attach it to the house. "When the wind blows hard, this old house doesn’t move a bit," Gillette says.

Although the couple moved into their now 7,510-square-foot mansion in 2002, the project is still not quite complete. "I’m insisting that it will be done this year," Cope says while a carpenter hammers in the background.

Despite the extended construction calendar, Cope emphasizes that she has enjoyed the process. "We both spent our careers in aerospace, working with leading-edge technology, always looking forward and trying to make breakthroughs for the future," she says. "This house was satisfying in that we could look over our shoulders and ask, ‘How do we honor the past and take it into the future?’"

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