Historic homes take the stage

The curtain rises on Tacoma’s Fitch House

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comApril 30, 2014 

Every few years the iconic American musical “West Side Story” undergoes a revival. Stagehands build sets, actors rehearse and a director sweats last-minute complications.

In Tacoma’s Stadium District, an 1889 Victorian called the Fitch House is undergoing a revival of its own. Workers are scraping paint, carpenters are repairing stairs and two directors are working on details.

“A home renovation is just like putting on a musical — it all comes together by show time,” said Jon Douglas Rake. He and Jeffrey Stvrtecky are the owners of Fitch House. They’re also the founders of Tacoma Musical Playhouse, the Northwest’s largest community theater, on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue.

Show time for the Fitch House is this weekend when it, along with four others, will be on the Historic Homes of Tacoma tour. The annual event is a fundraiser for the Tacoma Historical Society.

Rake and Stvrtecky bought the house in 1991 shortly after moving to Tacoma from Los Angeles.

But the Fitch House story begins long before that. In 1889, A. Norton and Helen W. Fitch built the 4,900 square feet home for $5,500. Its architect, Frederick A. Sexton, designed several houses and buildings in Tacoma including the Biltmore Apartments and the house just west of the Fitch House. The two homes are mirror images of each other.

In the 1930s the Fitch House was converted into apartments and began a slow decline from its elegant beginnings.

Rake and Stvrtecky bought it because they were looking for “the worst house on the best block,” Rake said. The men are blunt on the condition of the house in 1991. “Horrible,” Rake described it. “Uninhabitable,” Stvrtecky added.

The previous owner had turned the home into a warren of apartments. “I think he was trying for five,” Rake said. The home was carpeted with a “crunchy” olive green shag.

The home has now undergone a top-to-bottom restoration. Save for the foyer doors, a fireplace mantel and some impressive stained glass windows, little of the original interior finishing work was left when Rake and Stvrtecky purchased it. But that allowed the men to start with a clean slate.

They did have a guide — the next-door neighbor’s house had always stayed as a single-family dwelling. That created a living blueprint from which original plans and finishings could be studied. That home will also be included on this weekend’s tour.

Rake and Stvrtecky added an oak parquet floor with inlays. Doors were custom-made based on the two original doors that enclose either side of the foyer.

Two joined parlors that front the house and afford a clear view of Commencement Bay are particularly impressive. New clear fir moldings were re-created using the few remnants that remained. The walls were painted in a period robin egg’s blue and decorated with chinoiserie stenciling. Two period light fixtures, made by Quezal, were installed.

The stained-glass windows, with mysterious symbology of chains, planets and keyholes, were restored. The house next door contains identical windows.

The home’s dining room has red-painted walls above tall wainscoting. The Chinoiserie stenciling continues in that room.

Over the years the Fitch House’s kitchen has moved twice. Rake and Stvrtecky built an addition to the home to hold a new kitchen. The old one is now a butler’s pantry and the home’s first kitchen is now an office. The centerpiece of the new kitchen is an island built to mimic a grand piano. It has a black granite “lid” and a white marble “keyboard.”

Like many homes of its period, the house has two staircases — one for the family and one for the servants.

The second floor holds bedrooms and bathrooms while the third floor has been completely modified into a light-filled vacation rental apartment.

Stvrtecky even went Dumpster diving to find materials. Coming out of a chorus production on Division Avenue one day, he saw workers tossing out banisters from The Bavarian restaurant, which was being demolished. After rescuing and repairing them, Stvrtecky had missing parts re-created.

Both the back and front yards of the home have been heavily modified to create more entertaining areas. They’ve been the site of many TMP cast parties with more to come, including “West Side Story.” That musical will open at the theater in 2015.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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