I had never been to the Big House in Ballard–I had never even heard of it–until I was invited to see a few musicians play there earlier this month. Having been to plenty of house shows in my life I was expecting to find something familiar: show-goers huddled into the roomy basement of a rambler or the spacious den of an old Victorian to listen to friends play music.
What I found instead was something unusual: a big house of worship, its gothic windows framed with strings of orange lights, and rusted tricycles burrowed into a rock wall guarding the entrance over which the building’s bell-tower loomed.
Inside, up a stairwell populated with more than a dozen bowling balls, I found an expansive room filled with people, seated on pillows and blankets on the floor, drinking wine from plastic cups in a low-light that seemed inevitable for such a place. Collections cast shadows and inspired conversation. A pile of old globes over here, vials of tiny colored beads lining stacks of shelves over there, wrought iron frames of old chairs everywhere. In a window, a glass-cast rendering of a crow looked down on the crowd. On one wall hung a swing that was clearly meant to dangle from the center of the room’s 30-foot ceiling, but had been retired for the evening. On another wall, above the stage where an alter once stood I’m sure, was an old chipped sign: “Revival Meeting,” it read. “Evangelist L.A. Larson, Old Time Gospel Message WITH POWER … All welcome.”
Shortly before the show, I was introduced to David K. Chatt, an artist who uses those tiny colored beads to create his work and one of the Big House’s two owners. He told me the room we were standing in was the “Great Room.” He was ecstatic at the crowd that had gathered to hear Seattle singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen play his songs. “We’ve had a lot of events in the Great Room,” he said. “We’ve had recitals, weddings, memorials, birthday parties. But nothing like this. This is the greatest show we’ll ever have.”
I soon learned that Chatt was speaking with some certainty. After five years of living in the Big House and filling it with their innumerable artifacts, Chatt and his partner of 18 years will be putting the property on the market next month. Their partnership had dissolved and now too would their ownership over this big, unusual space.
Three weeks later we published the latest issue of City Arts with a large feature devoted to interesting interiors. I wish I would have discovered the Big House sooner so I could introduce readers to the space in the issue. Instead I settle for a farewell. I call up Chatt and ask for the full tour. Soon, photographer Nate Watters and I are standing in front of the Big House.
After greeting us outside, Chatt walks us through the Great Room, which has been rearranged back into a living space since my last visit, though the piles of globes are still there. “After that show, someone emailed us saying that they enjoyed the show, but that the lighting could have been better and that we should secure the globes because she saw one of them fall,” Chatt recalls. “Out of that whole amazing evening, that is what that person took away. Why don’t they just stay home and watch a video.”
He leads us past the stage, which is now home to an altar sitting beneath a glass cast that the artist created during a three-year residency at the Penland School of Crafts near Ashville, North Carolina. Then we walk past a bathroom the owners built using the plumbing of the baptismal font, and down a hall to Chatt’s workshop.
Chatt’s own meticulously crafted artwork shares the space with meticulousy scavanged furniture. Our host brings out an old magazine article that features the old Victorian house on Capitol Hill that he and his partner, Ron Cole, lived in before discovering this building. The photos are filled with color and life, the couple’s transformative sense of decor on full display. They had been happy at that house, Chatt says, but he was always looking for the most space for a low price. One day a friend pointed him to this big, drafty building that started its life as the Second Swedish Baptist Church. “I liked it because it’s a wood building, and I know how to work with wood,” he tells us. “Brick is so immovable. Wood you can put holes in. It’s so much more malleable.” Upstairs, Chatt informs us, is a separate apartment that he and Cole fixed up and rented out after buying the place. Downstairs, where we’re headed next, is where the residence is found.
“When we first moved in here, people came down into the basement, which was bare at the time, and said, ‘How in the world are you going to fill this,” Chatt recalls. “I’m always amazed that people don’t realize how to fill a space.” As he has done upstairs, Chatt has managed to fill the space downstairs with more collections. He shows us the bathroom, the first room he and Cole remodeled after moving in. Above the shower is one of Chatt’s early glass casts. “That one’s called ‘Peepng Tom,'” he says. As we head for the stairs and the bell tower, I ask about a model of a seemingly altered Big House sitting on the kitchen table. “That was my plan for changing this place,” he says. “Don’t look at it. It was crazy.”
On a clear night, the top of the bell tower offers views of the top of the Seattle skyline, as well as the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. “We have spent a lot of time up here,” he says. “It’s a great place to take in the sunset with a gin and tonic.”
Back in the Great Room, Chatt tells us the reason the crow adorns his windows. “I grew up in the Skagit Valley and there were always crows around,” he says. “I like them because they’re tool users, jokers, collectors.” Chatt then tells us he had planned to someday build a crows nest on top of the bell tower, made out of metal and glass. A few moments later, the artist breaks the silence of his Great Room. “This place is as much a work of art as anything I’ve made,” he says. “It’s hard to let it go unfinished.”
Mark Baumgarten’s At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. If you have something you think Mark should see, in the flesh, email email@example.com and tell him about it. You can also follow him on Twitter.