A retro condo gets a remarkable renovation

Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna

What's your idea of a good view? The lights of the city from downtown to the Hillside? The serenity of Sleeping Lady? The Alaska Range crowned by Denali on a clear day? The shining water of the inlet in summer, or the drama of its nature-made ice sculptures in winter? How about all of the above?

Daniel Seiser, AIA, Principle; and Nichelle Seely, Architect
General Contractor
Dave Northup, Northup Construction
Interior tile, paper, carpet designs
Melinda Wilson; Northup Construction; and Renee Houle of Curtis & Campbell
Interior color designs
Melinda Wilson; and Northup Construction
Lighting design
Pat Tomlinson, The Lighting Gallery
Cabinetry/furniture design
Kurt Echols, Cabinet Fever; Melinda Wilson; and Northup Construction
Plumbing design
Amanda Sutherland; and Melinda Wilson
Rino's Tile & Stone
Vanooy Electric
Heating and AC system, gas line work
Moore Heating
Plumbing installations
Circle Plumbing
Motorized blinds
Blind Factory
Window film treatment
Climate Control
Stainless steel columns
H&K Sheetmetal
Interior glass
Capitol Glass
Dean's Flooring
Paper Dolls
The Lighting Gallery
Spenard Builders Supply; and Allen & Petersen

Few people think of Anchorage as a residential high-rise kind of town. But one look at the staggering view from Melinda and Don Wilson's chic and sophisticated downtown condominium might very well change a few minds.

The Wilsons have a long history with the Peterson Tower at the edge of the inlet. Don was "the first commercial tenant in the building when it was new 33 years ago," explains Melinda. When the couple heard that one of the building's residential units was coming on the market, they acted quickly. "These places don't come up often," says Melinda. "They're little gems."

"We bought the view," says Melinda. "I looked out of the windows and immediately saw the possibilities." And though the residence, which had not been updated since it was built in the 1970s, was a veritable time machine of retro paneling, wallpaper, carpeting and design, Melinda was undaunted. "Nothing discouraged me," she says. "It was clearly a world-class piece of real estate."

And it was going to require a world-class remodel.

Starting from scratch

Luckily, the Wilsons knew who to call. Dave Northup of Northup Construction in Homer had worked with the couple on a previous residence and understood their design sensibility. "He's just a superb person to work with," says Melinda. "He cares as much about what is going on inside the walls as I do about the outside."

"We took everything out," says Dave. "It was a complete gut down to new wiring." The floor plan of every room in the two-bedroom home was altered in some way, he says, and every finished surface was replaced.

Because the building is primarily commercial, says Dave – all glass and steel metal-gage framing – they had complete creative freedom. "We didn't have to worry about the way the building was constructed," he says. "We didn't have to worry about load-bearing walls. We didn't have to ask, 'Can I change this?'"

Addition by subtraction

The first order of business was to create access to the spectacular panorama of inlet and mountains from as many parts of the home as possible. The unit's previous layout included a tunnel-like hallway that "funneled" visitors to the view, says Dave.

"You had to go down the hall and past the kitchen and living room wall before you even realized you had such a spectacular view," says Melinda.

The offending wall also hemmed in a cramped, galley-style kitchen that was cut off from everything else in the home.

Removing the wall was transformational. A spacious, open great room replaced the modest living area and dining room as well as the stingy kitchen. The view floods into the whole living area.

"When (Melinda) first walked into it," says Dave, "the project clearly centered around the view. She wanted to be able to see everything from everywhere."

Framing beauty – inside and out

Melinda, who designed the home's interior, opted for clean lines and smooth surfaces to create an uncluttered and sophisticated look – a contrast with the dynamic nature of the panoramic view.

"We wanted to have a first-class set of cabinetry to complement everything else," says Melinda. Kurt Echols of Cabinet Fever was able to provide them with exactly what they were looking for.

"Melinda wanted something different," says Kurt of her choice of Lyptus wood throughout the home. "It is not only beautiful, but a green product," he says." It is grown on FSC-certified plantations and is a renewable resource."

Kurt's son Seth built and installed the sleek but warm-toned, hardware-free cabinetry. Kurt designed and built special furniture pieces to fit specific demands the couple had: a television console that hides the 52-inch screen and reveals the view beyond when it's not in use, a desk for Melinda's office, and a ladder-like display case for Melinda's collection of antique baskets.

Showcasing art – nature's and man's

One of the most dramatic elements in the house are the spectacular granite countertops in the kitchen and on the buffet. Melinda picked the slabs out herself in Seattle bearing wood samples in order to find the perfect complement. "It's so unique," she says of the richly hued, multi-colored slabs. "It has these big squares set into it," she says, describing a dynamic pattern of pale squares that contrast with the rusts and gray-blues beneath. "I had never seen anything like it before," she says.

The one-of-a-kind granite informed the palette of the rest of the home, says Melinda.

But the simple elegance – what Melinda calls "warm contemporary" – and a soothing color palette of rich golds and subdued reds are also designed to highlight the couple's extensive collection of Alaskan art. And if you can tear yourself away from the windows, the home is a veritable gallery of lush landscapes and portraiture, Alaska Native craftwork, and dramatic sculpture in bronze and wood – the refined results of 30 years of serious collecting.

Accidental aesthetics

Though the project was completed on time and under budget, it wasn't without challenges. When Dave's team removed the living-room/kitchen wall they found that the fireplace chimney, the dryer vent, and the gas line from the unit below penetrated the floor and went up through the ceiling to the unit overhead.

These things needed to be preserved, but they also needed to be hidden from view. The answer was to encase these arterial necessities into two bold stainless steel columns that flank the kitchen's range and hood. Rather than looking like afterthoughts, the columns look like strong and purposeful design elements.

It was a worry, admits Dave. "We weren't sure what the overall effect would be," he says. But now, it's clear to him that the challenge became an aesthetic opportunity. "I would have designed it that way," he says.

Melinda agrees. "I can't imagine not having them now," she says. "It's interesting – people who do not know that they have a purpose think it's a stroke of genius."

Hidden in plain sight

From the street, it's hard to imagine the magic hidden behind the commercial façade. And it's hard to reconcile the urban location – near galleries and restaurants – with the sweeping beauty of the miles of wilderness framed by the panoramic windows. Says Kurt, "opening the door is like walking into another world."