During the post-war era, residential development in the Puget Sound, following national trends, exhibited a distinctively anti-urban path. The low-density subdivisions that rapidly developed in some areas of Seattle and on the Eastside were often custom-designed and sited on wooded lots with rural appeal with carefully oriented mountain and cityscape views. The Hilltop Community, initially planned between 1947 and 1950, is not only exemplary of this siting and design approach, but was a successful progressive experiment in social community planning emphasizing space, form and detail in design to serve the ultimate goal of livability and efficiency.
Located southeast of downtown Bellevue, the houses are sited away from the street and surrounded by natural landscaping, causing them to disappear amongst the trees. To take full advantage of views, streets follow a curvilinear alignment along the natural topography and lots were carefully planned and divided individually for development. The sixty-acre subdivision was divided into forty individual lots of approximately three-quarters to one acre in size and privacy was enhanced in the design of the houses and the natural landscaping. A natural greenbelt was retained along the perimeter of the subdivision and, along with a central community green, serves as neighborhood parklands equaling seventeen acres.
The architecture, while typical in many ways of the ubiquitous “ranch” houses of the era, is distinctively Northwest Modern reflecting their “natural” settings. All houses were custom-designed by some of Seattle’s best known architects, including Perry B. Johanson (of NBBJ), John Morse, Fred Bassetti, Paul Hayden Kirk, Wendell Lovett, Lionel Pries, Tucker & Shields, John Van Horne & Edward Cushman, and Lee McRae, as well as prominent landscape architects including Rich Haag, Glen Hunt, Robert Chittock and the San Francisco firm of Eckbo, Royston and Dean.
Founding members of the community, including Johanson, Bassetti and Morse, were mostly artists, architects, builders, engineers and faculty members in the sciences and humanities at the University of Washington. All were interested in creating a co-operative community that valued modern planning and architectural design principles, the natural beauty of the landscape and a democratic process. All planning, including policy and design, was done by committee.
Contemporary residential architecture of the1950s was typically influenced by the “ranch” house type that had emerged in California. Such modern “ranch” houses in the Western tradition are characterized by their small size, informal spatial arrangement, low-pitched or broadly spreading gable, flat or shed roofs with wide overhangs supported by a wood frame, typically of post-and-beam structure. The exposed structure enhances the expression of the materials such as plywood combined with exotic woods, natural stone and extensive glass in window walls that open directly onto decks and patios. The patios and decks are always expressed as an extension of the adjacent interior spaces, a characteristic fusion of landscape and building in Modernist residential design.
Hilltop was published nationally in several journals, including the Journal of Housing and Progressive Architecture. In an article in the Architectural Record entitled “Houses that Typify Northwest Architecture,” a Hilltop house designed by Bassetti and Morse is featured, along with several other residences in Portland and the Seattle area. This article suggests that Northwest houses are typified by the cottage form, the use of wood timber, a willingness to experiment, adaptation of contemporary international style, and siting to take advantage of the natural topography, vegetation and views. All of the Hilltop houses conform to these ideals.