Living a Norwegian-American dream
A neo-Sveitserhus takes shape in Seattle
In my 20s and 30s, I spent a lot of time in Norway and Sweden, indulging my yearning for living in an earlier century through folk dancing and music, traditional crafts, and baking. If I could have time-traveled back to the 1800s and lived on a farm by a fjord, I would have fit right in, I imagined. I could have embroidered bunader (regional costumes), woven and spun wool and flax, made krumkaker at Christmas, and been so happy. And in my idealistic dreams, I lived in a beautiful Sveitserhus, or Swiss house, of the type that I saw everywhere I went in my travels in the north.
Do dreams of our early years ever truly go away? In my case, they didn’t. As the years went by, I added more sewing and craft skills, expanded my baking expertise, and through teaching, I was able to hone my folk dancing repertoire, while spreading the joy to students wherever I found myself. Marriage and children meant I had more people to bake for. The only thing missing was the house!
In 2013, I led a concert tour of folk harpers through southern Norway, and I talked my husband, Jack, into coming along. Being a “harp husband” isn’t always fun, but I thought he’d enjoy the scenery and the group, which included other non-harpers he could commiserate with.
As we floated on an antique ferryboat, the Victoria, down the Telemark Canal one afternoon, we huddled in the blankets the crew set out for us, as it was misty and unseasonably cool on the water. But as we rounded a corner, there, on either side of the canal, were beautiful houses. They were actually more like mansions or villas: tall and spacious, with steep roofs, mullioned windows, covered balconies, and ornate gables, not unlike Victorian-style houses we have in Seattle.
These homes were built in the late 1800s, in the style called Sveitserhus, or Swiss house. It was Norway’s idea of what a Swiss house would look like. The sight of these gracious homes was a surprise to me, although I had been seen such homes in Norway many times. It was the timing: Jack and I had just made the decision to completely redo our aging, problem-ridden home, and I was lobbying for a traditional Norwegian design. He was set on geometric and modern, something I call “dentist office.”
As we glided by those fairyland houses, I pointed them out to Jack: “That’s what I was thinking for our new house: a Sveitserhus.” I said. Oh well, I thought, I guess I can get used to living in a dentist office.
Months after that trip, Jack found an architect, Ross Chapin, whose work he liked, and a meeting was set. Ross’s partner, Karen De Lucas, came to our house, and right off she asked us what style we had in mind. I opened my mouth to say, “dentist office,” but before I could answer, Jack said, “We were in Norway and saw beautiful houses in the style called Sveitserhus. We’d like one of those.”
I stood with my jaw dropped, not sure I could believe what I heard. Karen peeked at me and asked carefully, “Do you two… talk with each other?”
What followed was a wonderful process of collaboration with Ross, Karen, and our builder, Peter Davis. Both Ross, steeped in traditional building and much informed by Nordic architecture, and Karen, now an architect and working on her own, brought creativity tempered with practicality to the mix. For many years, I had informally researched Sveitserhus style, by taking photos of houses I came across in my travels in Scandinavia and reading architectural magazines from Norway—simply because I was charmed by the style and traditions and was still hoping I’d live in one some day.
Ross and Karen skillfully corralled our ideas and focused them, as we drew and redrew our house-to-be. When it came to a builder, I knew exactly who that would be: Peter Davis Builders. Peter is married to a family friend, Kristianne Schoening, who is part Norwegian and, like me, has long been enchanted by Norwegian culture and language. Peter built their beautiful home in a Nordic style, and I knew he’d be perfect.
We have been living here now for three years and are still getting compliments from passers-by, some of whom watched the entire process from tear-down to completion. One young woman stood in front of our house with tears in her eyes and told me of her husband’s difficult and painful childhood, but how he had for one gloriously happy year lived with a relative in Norway. He spoke of the many Sveitserhus that he saw while he lived there and had shown her photos. I gave her an open invitation to bring him by for a tour, and we parted with tears in all of our eyes.
The house took a year to plan and two years to build and was completed in the fall of 2017. With its solid construction, good insulation, air filtration and heated floors it is one of the most comfortable and beautiful homes I’ve ever been in. My dream did come true!
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 9, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.