I live in a place called Hilltop Community (Bellevue WA), in a home designed by John Morse in 1951 for Victor and Beth Scheffer. Approximately 150 feet to the east is the home that Morse designed and built for his own family about a year earlier. The Scheffer and Morse houses sit on a piece of land at the top of a gentle hill. From both structures, views stretch out to the north and south through large panes of glass, while the spaces within rest upon platforms suspended between the opposing vistas. Like many other houses in the neighborhood, these are simple platforms in the landscape. There is an informal quality to the rooms that allows one to feel part of each site. The Scheffer house is small, but provides views to the garden and horizon from any point, thus pushing the perception of space out well beyond the actual enclosure. Although the idea of the Morse house is similar, it was also somewhat larger. He referred to his home as having a “barn like space” that was well suited to the many community meetings that were held there.
In 1993, a few months before my family moved into the Scheffer house, I had not heard of John Morse. I knew only of his one time partner, Fred Bassetti. However, I soon learned the story of how these two architects, along with other architects and educators at the University of Washington, had been the founders of this intriguing place called Hilltop Community. After living in the Scheffer home and participating in the community, I gradually realized that to understand the design of any house at Hilltop, one had to also gain an understanding for the community philosophy as a whole. I spoke with John about the houses he had designed at Hilltop and he always referred to them in modest terms; sometimes describing the structures as “Harvard boxes” or simply “boxes.” His enthusiasm and pride were most evident when he spoke of the idea and spirit of Hilltop and the unique character of the community that emerged. Here was a situation where clearly, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts
The general history of Hilltop Community is thoroughly covered in Victor Scheffer’s book Hilltop: A Collaborative Community (Bellevue Historical Society, 1994), however a brief description of its inception is necessary to provide some context. In 1946, the initial participants in Hilltop Community began looking for a place to build. As it turned out, Morse was the member who found the site in September of 1947. It was somewhat remote and difficult to access, but the numerous hikes and picnics to the hill confirmed to everyone involved that this was the place to pursue their dream. For months there were frequent meetings spent planning the community, determining financing and infrastructure, and establishing the rules by which they would function. One of the first concepts to take shape was an overall definition of building design called the site plan rules. An early version of these rules stated that houses were required to “...have a straightforward contemporary character...adapted to the site. Achievement of a harmonious relationship between individual houses is considered to be an important factor. It is felt that the traditional styles would not be compatible with the character of the development we seek.”
In 1997, when he was asked what was meant by “contemporary,” Morse replied with a characteristic dry wit: “Well that’s the safest word we could find which meant nothing. However we put it to use because one would-be-owner proposed a log cabin. We said no way and so he withdrew.” Having lived in a ‘contemporary’ Morse designed house for more than 40 years, Scheffer had this to say: “If I may speak for the founders, I suggest that ‘contemporary’ is functional, designed more for comfort, utility, and internal beauty than for display. As though to acknowledge humankind’s primal link to the planet, it favors the use of natural materials such as wood and stone, complemented by the lightness of space... It stands for honest construction... It expresses the richness of simplicity.”
A description by Morse about the early planning process for the community provides a sense of the site and the integral part it played in the design of the structures to come: “How do you physically plan and develop the hill? We had enough dreamers and enough engineers and enough architects and enough artists and enough environmentalists to make quite a team to plan that community... We had a topo survey made and we... designed the location and shape of the road… By hiking and looking we decided what were good sites for houses... Those sights were selected at about 150-foot spacings which gave plenty of privacy for everybody. After that, we drew the property lines, contrary to usual development, where you lay out a grid of lots and then sell them off. We got 40 sites on 63 acres and we left a space in the middle for a play field development and a border -- a green belt we called it -- around the community of about 60 feet or more in width... After we laid out the physical development, people chose their lots.”
Thus each site was established not as a piece of property, but as a specific place in the landscape. Each place had a floor elevation that had a precise relationship to the site. The first community plan drawing depicted each site as a rectangular platform with a number in feet above sea level. The physical manifestation of the Hilltop dwellings began as conceptual camping platforms where the early community members hiked and explored. This initial idea carried through to the design of many of the actual houses. Some are concrete slab-on-grade (left exposed) while others hover as slightly elevated wooden platforms.
John Morse was the principal architect for 8 of the 39 Hilltop houses. These structures represent a consistent dedication to the principles and spirit of the site and the community. The first two houses by Morse (Jones, 1949 and Isaacs, 1950) take advantage of a “head and tail” strategy where the living space is the primary volume and the bedrooms, bathrooms, and carport trail off as secondary elements. In the Isaacs house the tail components wrap to form a “U” that defines the primary dwelling platform as an outdoor courtyard.
Beginning with his own house in 1950, Morse designed a series of simpler structures to establish the dwelling platform while the site and views define the overall spatial parameters. In these houses the bedrooms and bathrooms are compacted into a service zone contained within the primary volume. The houses of Scheffer (1951), Birnbaum (1954), Lerchenmueller (1956), and Yang (1959) follow this theme. Each plan becomes progressively more simple and clear in its approach. These houses were built on modest budgets that were reflected in the size of the structures and level of detailing. Morse commented on this economy and simplicity: “...a lot of people called them boxes and they were… that seemed to be the simplest form and… the cheapest to build.” These structures also directly reflect the concept of platforms in the landscape as established in the original community site plan. They allow the outdoor room of each site to overlap and move through the enclosed space. The houses are spatially modern, yet due to their intimate scale and straightforward detailing, they avoid the expression of a self-conscious modernism. Details consist of simple juxtapositions of basic elements. Structural systems butt together or overlap without the use of custom fittings. Ceiling heights are relatively low, reinforcing the presence of floor and roof planes that frame the views to the landscape beyond.
The Hilltop houses of John Morse provide a simple place to dwell without overwhelming their sites with complex programs or elaborate architectural inventions. They rely on proportion and scale and the landscape around them to communicate their art. These houses offer a poetic simplicity that defers to the greater notion of site and a strong community fabric.
John Morse passed away on July 26, 2000
Charles Anderson is an architect in Seattle and lecturer at the University of Washington.