Mad for media
By Stacee Sledge
Whatcom Magazine, April 2007

Prime time is a push button away in these technology-packed homes

The massive movie screen in the Bruce and Patricia MacCormack’s Sudden Valley home drops down from the ceiling. In Michael Hughes’ Bellingham place, it mounts to the wall in all its flat-screen, plasma glory. Though the ambience may differ, both spaces define “high-tech home theater” — and both will have you longing for one of your own.

Enter the theater room of Bellingham doctor Michael Hughes and you simultaneously walk into the past and the future. With a mix of old-school cinema touches and up-to-the-moment gadgetry, the space is both nostalgic and completely au courant in today’s media-saturated world.

Michael, 39, and his children Hannah, 13, and Nathan, 12, share the space — a first-floor master bedroom in the home’s original design — with high tech and retro toys galore. The top-of-the-line plasma television and Bose sound system mix with an old fashioned popcorn machine and 6-foot-tall arcade game.

Rich sand-colored walls are punctuated by vibrant movie posters, from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to "March of the Penguins." But the true star of the room is the 50-inch television.

Mounted on the wall above a dark wood console table housing all the electronics, the Philips television commands center stage. Its crisp high definition, when properly installed, stuns the uninitiated.

“You have to have the right cable and the proper cable box, but a lot of people don’t know that,” says Michael. “They learn it the hard way when they get it home and it doesn’t look as good as they think it’s going to.”

Cables and wires are key to a successful home cinema, but nary a cord is visible at the Hughes home. Everything is tucked away underneath the carpet, behind the moldings, and inside the walls.

No juggling multiple remotes here either. A Logitech Harmony universal remote clicks into a dock atop the console, replacing umpteen old remotes now packed away. “It’s even easy for the kids to use,” says Michael. “It’ll switch the receiver to the DVD, turn the DVD on, and turn the TV to the proper channel for the DVD, all with one button.”

Pick any seat in the room and sink into the butter-smooth leather finish on either of two chairs or the matching sofa held aloft behind them on a clever, carpeted riser. The couch seats three, but five adults have been known to squeeze onto it.

Creative touches liven the space, from the “exit” sign above the door to aisle lights that glow dimly when the overhead lights are lowered.

Burgundy velvet drapes can be drawn over wood blinds to completely darken the room. “For fun, we talk about also putting a curtain across the TV wall,” says Michael. “Nathan wants it to be electronic, so it can be moved aside.”

There’s even a row of glass canisters housing Raisinettes, Skittles and Junior Mints. What more could a kid — of any age — want?

“The kids also want a soda pop dispenser,” says Michael with a smile. “But I like the new carpet too much to get one.”

Sharing the room

The tantalizing media menu in Bruce and Patricia MacCormack’s Sudden Valley abode starts, appropriately enough, in the kitchen. A stack of electronic equipment hiding behind a cabinet lets the couple enjoy music throughout the home. They can dial in Billie Holiday in the sauna or Mozart on the deck,  James Taylor in the office or Eric Clapton in the garage.

“Music is on all the time,” says Patricia, as Bruce pulls out a Sony remote that resembles a miniscule laptop and sets it on the countertop. “We listen to NPR most of the time,” he says, pushing different buttons on the lighted screen, “but this can run CDs, digital music from Comcast, or FM stations.”

Originally from England, the couple has lived in Sudden Valley for 24 years. In their 60s, they are retired, though Bruce keeps busy on the board of the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, and is chair of the Bellingham Angel Group, among other community-centered projects. Their current 4,500-square-foot home, which Bruce calls “formal contemporary” style, was built in 1991 and enjoys lush views of Lake Whatcom and Lake Louise.

The 10-room and 2-deck speaker scheme was in place when he and Patricia bought the house four years ago, but the home’s true media epicenter was entirely Bruce’s invention.

It’s set in the hillside home’s lower level, which also features big windows flooded with verdant views.  Visitors head into a large, open room with a mirror-lined bar at the back. The sparkle from recessed lights hitting mirrors draws the eye, making it easy to miss the Hitachi front projector affixed to the ceiling above two leather couches and a roomy leather chair. Black-out blinds banish any bright light from outside. 

Grab one of five remotes at the ready and, with the push of a button, a massive screen, ten feet wide and five feet high, lowers from the ceiling to conceal the fireplace wall.

Five speakers and two subwoofers hidden in the ceiling and bulkhead complete the audio impact and visual spectacle of the setup, complete with high-definition capability and a SACD or super audio compact disc player. It makes broadcast performers sound as though they’re playing live in the room.

Super Bowl Sundays have seen as many as 20 people fit comfortably in the space, enjoying a game so life-like, it is as though they watched from the stands, minus the chill. But films are the main reason for this impressive cinematic setup.

“We watch a lot of movies,” says Bruce. Running through his DVDs, he lists a few titles: "The Candidate," "A Beautiful Mind," "Casablanca," "Three Days of the Condor," "Syriana" and a superbit version of "Lawrence of Arabia." His favorite is "Blade Runner."

Company often comes over to watch with the MacCormacks, sinking luxuriously into the eggplant-hued couches and chair set atop a bold area rug of purple, mauve and taupe. “We enjoy sharing the room with our friends,” says Bruce. “It isn’t just for us.”

Setting up the technology exactly the way Bruce envisioned it was a challenge. Beams in the ceiling run horizontal to the extensive cables’ path, necessitating an awkward process of weaving wires through an outer wall and feeding them back inside. “Installation was a very frustrating experience,” says the technophile. In addition, the state-of-the-art setup extends to a sophisticated security system.

Was it worth it in the end? “Judge for yourself,” Bruce says, pushing a button, as the screen — and the rest of the room — bursts into life.

Stacee Sledge is a Bellingham freelance writer.


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