Simply sensational
By Stacee Sledge
Whatcom Magazine, October 2007

Condo living uncomplicates entertaining and travel

Increasingly, downsizing to a condo is a tempting solution for retirees who are revving up for the golden years. After years of tending gardens, paying costly home repairs, and being tied down to high-maintenance property, these Whatcom County couples decided to ditch home ownership responsibilities and move to where the living is easier.

‘It’s so convenient’

Gordon and Pat Pierson have lived across the globe: Paris, Bangkok, Tunis, Manila, Jordan, Khartoum and more. The couple met at the University of Washington where Pat studied sociology and Gordon received a doctorate in economics. Gordon later taught at the University of New Mexico and the University of Washington before joining the State Department as an economist. Daughter Andria was born abroad in 1966.

Globe-trotting aside, Western Washington has always been home. So when Gordon retired 20 years ago, after 25 years in the Foreign Service, the couple claimed Birch Bay Village as their new perch, in a 2,600 square foot cliff-side home overlooking water and mountains.

In 2005, the couple, in their mid-seventies, decided to downsize. Home is now a 1,900-square foot, two bedroom condo amidst Fairhaven's foot traffic-friendly amenities.

The space is filled with furniture and artwork purchased from the different places they’ve lived. Pat calls their style “eclectic.” Two red chairs in the living room pop cheerfully against otherwise neutral furnishings and walls. Full bookshelves decorate the study and one wall of the living room.

In contrast to the cream and taupe tones of the living areas, the bathrooms burst with color. A Tiffany-blue powder room near the condo’s entry shares the same unique, mottled granite countertop as the guest bathroom, in a perky pink hue.

Unlike most quickly proliferating condos in the area volleying for water views, the Piersons' place overlooks Padden Creek, the interurban trail, and a forest of trees. "You can just go down below and walk to the water or over to Fairhaven Park," says Pat.

"The view is nice," says Gordon. "But we moved from where we had 180-degree views of Mount Baker and the Sound. I dearly miss that." Every time he drives down State Street and sees the water, he’s hit by a touch of wistfulness.

For Pat, the positives of condo living outweigh the change in view. "I got tired of the yard work," she says.

The couple also found they weren't doing as many things as they used to. "At our ages, we thought: It's time. We'll move before somebody has to move us," Pat says, laughing.

Shopping, the post office, bookstores, movies, the library, and numerous restaurants are just a stone’s throw away now. “I don’t drive for days,” Gordon says.

"Gordon walks to the grocery store several times a day,” says Pat. “He's taken up cooking and he's very precise about his list."

Gordon laughs. "They must think: Poor lost soul, doesn't have any friends, has to come in here for social activity."

The Piersons also like being closer to Seattle. The drive-time difference between Birch Bay and south Bellingham is noticeable enough to make trips to the symphony or Huskies football games much more manageable.

And though they’re days of intense travel are behind them, the couple still likes the freedom condo living supplies for simply taking off.

We don’t travel as much as we did,” says Gordon. “But we still do. In a condo, it’s so convenient to just walk away.”

‘A change of attitude’
When asked if there’s anything she misses about the larger homes she and husband Terry lived in before moving to their Cordata condominium in 2004, Carolyn Blocher gives an emphatic “no,” and then laughs.

“They were so much work, compared to this,” she says, looking around the 1,700 square foot space. “The rooms you had to clean and dust and furnish. This is so easy to care for.”

Terry, 63, retired five years ago from 7-Eleven, Inc., where he and Carolyn, 69, met working in the corporate offices. Two years later he went to work for a Canadian drugstore chain. His second (and, according to a smiling Carolyn, final) retirement kicked in last March.

“Now it’s boat time,” she says.

In fact, the couple’s 36-foot Grand Banks trawler in Squalicum Harbor does double-duty as extra sleeping space for visitors.

“If guests are boat-smart, they can stay on the boat,” Carolyn says. “If not, they stay here and we stay on the boat.”

Terry and Carolyn have learned an important lesson from their boat and its two small staterooms, which serves them well in their scaled-down condo surroundings: “You only need the space that you’re taking up,” says Carolyn. “It’s really just a change of attitude.”

Their detached condo is snuggled amidst 21 others, yet the charming structure, overlooking a tree-lined runoff stream and surrounding protected area, feels very private inside.

The home was built with two bedrooms and a small office, but the couple converted the second bedroom into a TV room for Terry. A flat-screen television is built into a wall of bookshelves and cabinetry.

Carolyn spends most of her time in a sunroom addition completed last year. The light-filled space adds 200 square feet to the home. Carolyn uses it for reading, writing, and enjoying java made in the kitchen’s sleek built-in espresso machine.

Downsizing can be tricky, but the Blochers made an easy transition. “When we moved we had two storage units,” says Carolyn. “We put all the extra stuff there, and then gave it to the kids. Now we go visit our furniture.”

As opposed to larger homes with formal spaces that often go unused, the couple lives in every room now. “We love that,” Carolyn says. “I also love having the kitchen, dining room and living room all as one.”

Having everything on one floor is another feature new to this couple who have owned many homes over the years. “There isn’t a single step in the house,” says Carolyn. The home was built for seniors, so there are extra wide hallways and levers instead of doorknobs. “And I like the idea of a wider hallway. It’s just more comfortable that way.”

A special touch appears above tall shelving in the dining room. Hand-painted onto the wall is a quote Marilyn saw 11 year ago in a magazine; she clipped the photo and held onto it, waiting for just the right spot.

“If you accept an invitation to dinner, you have a moral obligation to be amusing,” the quote reads, attributed to The Duchess of Windsor. It’s a fitting site, as Marilyn and Terry like to throw dinner parties – but only small ones. “I like to have no more than 6 guests,” says Carolyn, “because it makes the conversation better.”

‘Just completely different’
For John and Marilyn Mulhern, downsizing to a condo actually meant upping the square footage from their previous home in Woodinville. It also meant eliminating all outdoor chores, freedom to travel with their Airstream trailer at a moment’s notice, and a breathtaking view of Puget Sound.

This is a big house at 4,700 square feet,” says Marilyn, 67. “But essentially, we just have the two bedrooms, so we had to get creative.” The guest bedroom boasts a Murphy bed and the downstairs office used by John, 69, doubles as extra sleeping space.

The couple retired in 1999 and moved here after an extensive search for just the right property. John had been president of AT&T Wireless Network,  while Marilyn was marketing director for a Bellevue financial planning firm.

Originally from the east coast, the couple moved to Washington state in 1982 when John was transferred. “We never looked back,” says Marilyn. “This is a great place to live and we love everything about it.”

Their Woodinville home was 3,800 square feet, surrounded by trees. “And because we were there for 20 years, we had to re-point the brick and put on a new roof,” says Marilyn.

One of her favorite things about condo living? Washing her hands of all yard work and outdoor maintenance. "We took care of the yard ourselves," she says. "That can be a back-breaking occupation, especially if it's not your passion."

The condominium's astounding water view was a huge selling point. "It's the most astonishing thing, to have that big of an expanse," Marilyn says. "We came from a fabulous house, right in the middle of a growth of huge firs. It was fantastic, but I personally like the open. This is just completely different."

The condo’s interior was also a big draw. Marilyn loves the layout. “It’s probably the best I've ever seen. It feels really open,” she says. “I think this has a lot of star quality.”

Marilyn makes all the decorating calls in the home. "I don't like anything overly decorated-looking, so I prefer to do it myself," she says.

As far as color, she keeps it mostly neutral, with splashes of rich color in the kitchen and master bath. "I didn't want to have any competition with the view — it's why we bought the place," she says. She was a touch nervous about the deep red walls in the master bath: "I wasn't sure I'd like it, but then I thought, So what? I can always paint over it."

Relaxing in the kitchen's cozy seating area, a popular spot for sipping coffee or wine, Marilyn looks around and smiles. "It's all about ease and convenience. It's a totally different feel from anyplace we've ever been." Many of the couple's friends have second homes, but the idea doesn’t appeal to the couple. “It would be hard for anything to top this.”  

Stacee Sledge is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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