Happy housewarming, Charlie Brown

A couple restores a Seattle home and honors the Austrian Jewish couple who once lived there.

  • Bryn Nelson's 1906 Seattle home.

    Bryn Nelson
  • Mimi and Martin Kraus, the Jewish Austrian couple who lived in the author's house for more than 50 years.

    Bryn Nelson

When I first stood on the threshold of a neglected 1906 bungalow on a Seattle hillside, breathing in the smell of cat pee and moldering carpets, I declared it was a house only Charlie Brown could love.

We had moved from New York, my partner, Geoff, and I, seeking a place to put down roots and garden and hike and grow. But on that dreary October afternoon, I couldn't imagine living with the cracked plaster walls, dank bedrooms and tangle of Himalayan blackberries choking the yard.

Or, as I put it: "Oh, hell no!"

The house wouldn't be dismissed, however. We glimpsed Mount Rainier from its front porch, and suspected that fir flooring lay beneath its battered linoleum. A photo from 1937 suggested that a more handsome home might be hidden beneath the grime. Geoff told me to stop calling it Charlie Brown, and give it a chance.

We became the house's nervous but hopeful owners on a New Year's Eve. And as we started to strip away its accumulated layers, the past emerged.

In the yard, we found 17 antique marbles, two rubber balls and a domino. Behind a false wall, hidden for more than 70 years, we discovered an empty closet and chest of drawers. In our sloping front yard, under one of the towering Douglas firs, we excavated an otolaryngologist's kit.

We uncovered newspapers placed between the floorboards as insulation and soundproofing during a January 1940 remodel: "Britain Bids Neutrals Join War!" and "Fascists Heckle Churchill" the headlines declare. Gone with the Wind is coming to the Fifth Avenue Theater, and a chic suit designed to protect Parisian women from mustard gas is on display at Best's Apparel.

Then our neighbors told us about Mimi and Martin Kraus, the Jewish Austrian couple who had lived in the house for more than 50 years. In 1939, just before a thrifty Seattleite lined our bathroom floor with newspapers, Hitler's Gestapo summoned Martin to the Vienna train station. Most likely, he would have been deported to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. But the trains were full that day, and instead of returning the next morning as instructed, Martin and Mimi fled to Italy.

He was a lawyer and she was a modern dancer. They were avid hikers and mountaineers; now, they were running for their lives. Among the few possessions they carried were two of Mimi's mother's silver candlesticks.

They eventually reached New York and then moved to Seattle, where the mountains reminded them of their beloved Alps. Martin found an engineering job with a bustling aerospace company named Boeing. Mimi worked as a physical education teacher and later as a physical therapist.

They bought the bungalow in 1951 and spent nearly every weekend hiking or skiing in the Cascades and the Olympics. They swam in Lake Washington, played tennis, made pitchers of gin and tonic and played cards on the slowly sagging white porch. They discussed politics and read Nietzsche and talked about life in Austria.

They adored their house, but it was never their primary focus. A simple plaque on a hollow concrete log at the edge of Lake Washington reveals their true priorities: "Mimi and Martin Kraus," it says. "Honoring their love of nature." A gift from the couple's estate funded the beachfront park renovation and three similar neighborhood projects.

Mimi and Martin never had any children; whenever anyone strayed too close to the painful topic in casual conversation, friends say, he rested his hand on her shoulder. But perhaps we are their heirs, in a way, repeating their westward migration from New York to Seattle more than a half-century later and becoming the guardians of their beloved home.

I like to think of the place that both Geoff and I now – affectionately – call "Charlie" as an archive of their stories, layered upon those that came before them and now intertwining with ours.

We show guests Mimi's old lidded pudding copper, which we use to make my mother's steamed cranberry pudding every Christmas Eve. Here is the claw-foot tub, once painted avocado green and all but hidden within a tiled box. There is Martin's sturdy handmade workbench, and the old medicine cabinet that smells so intensely of roses.

Here are the silver candlesticks that Mimi carried through Europe, slightly battered but lovely still. And there, in the front yard, is the star magnolia tree we planted this spring to commemorate the bris of a baby boy born to Jewish friends.

When it matures, the tree's pink blossoms will be visible from our newly painted front porch, just to the left of the framed view of Mount Rainier between the freshly pruned firs. I like to imagine Martin with his hand on Mimi's shoulder, taking it in. They're quietly sipping their gin and tonics, and smiling.

Bryn Nelson usually writes about science, medicine and the environment. He lives in Seattle.

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