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For more than 30 years, a sunny patch of Washington State offered a retreat for architect Robert Lemon and his late partner, the great designer Robert Ledingham.
Bob’s last words before I left for Istanbul were: “Don’t buy a carpet.” Then, on the penultimate day of a week at a heritage conference, having till then resisted all rug temptations, I was lured into a shop by a charming salesman, just to have some apple tea. I called Bob that night about the lovely 9-by-12 Turkoman Kandilli I had seen, to which he said, “Don’t buy the carpet.” Undeterred, I returned home with it neatly folded into one of my two pieces of luggage. Eventually, that rug ended up gracing the floor of the living room at our weekend house, Estergreen.
Such was the dynamic of two designers coexisting for over three decades. Me, the architect with an interest in historic preservation, and Bob—Robert Ledingham—the interior designer with a discerning modernist eye. Imagine Sir Edwin Lutyens living with Florence Knoll. Our divergent design paths did cross on occasion during collaborations on several houses, including our own art moderne heritage home in Vancouver (which appeared in Western Living back in January 1991), still freshly modern 25 years after its renewal. But it was at our rural retreat where we relaxed both our design differences and our souls.
My late partner and I had shared this beautiful patch of northern Whatcom County since we met in 1981. So close to the Canadian border that cell phones think they are in Abbotsford, our five-acre plot has a private and elevated position bordering a lake thick with wild birds (and, this year, an impressive eagle’s nest) and a neighbouring hazelnut plantation, and is surrounded by neat parallel rows of raspberry canes. Wild blackberries line the half-kilometre drive from the road. A distant view of Mount Baker and the Coast Range completes the bucolic setting, both rural and natural.
We called it Estergreen after the Scandinavian homesteaders who settled here in 1887 and built a log cabin on what would become a thriving dairy farm. Nicely, Estergreen comes from the term for east meadow in Swedish, and that is much of what it is now, a five-acre patch, part garden and part pasture, with a vestige of the original log house and two outbuildings. After three renovations in as many decades, the place’s cottage charm has evolved, reflecting our interests in Asian, Scandinavian and Canadiana culture.
Early this century, Bob and I expanded the kitchen, adding a covered porch—perfect for morning coffee—and wide bay windows in the living and dining rooms. Their large double-hung sashes, fitted with sash weights and screens, are thrown open on nice days. To replace the old ship’s ladder to the upper floor, I had Tim Ewert make a fir kaidan-dansu based on a traditional Japanese step cabinet, with larch treads capping its stacked chests—perfect for holding firewood and our large collection of vases. Rustic larch flooring was laid in most rooms, with travertine added to the hall and bathrooms. Finally warming to that Turkish carpet, Bob worked his magic on a colour scheme based on its rust and indigo tones: cream linen chenille on the sofa, indigo hemp denim slipcovers for the lounge chairs, ginger-painted walls and walnut-toned linen drapery. A bit of Scandinavia is found in the Hans Wegner chairs, which theme with the vintage Royal Copenhagen dishes—cobalt and white—reserved for our best guests. My Ontario heritage shows in some Clark McDougall paintings and a gothic mantel clock.
In the kitchen, an antique Japanese mizuya cabinet anchors one wall and a 16-foot-long stainless steel counter spans the southern side with views of the raspberry canes. John Bird made the central work table from salvaged teak and fir, and he took inspiration from the mizuya. Glazed doors open to the porch and sundeck. More French doors connect the octagonal dining room, lined with flaxen-coloured linen drapes, to the decks.
The main bedroom is the opposite of Bob’s modern aesthetic, but in a way reflects his Saskatchewan roots. During the first renovation, cedar planks and beams were discovered in what was the original Estergreen cabin. These were left exposed and now backstop an antique prairie bedstead (cleverly widened to queen-sized by Joe Edwards) that dominates the room. A prized Duncan Grant nude—a bit of Bloomsbury in the bedroom—seems right at home.
The garden had its first evolution through the hard work of the late Daryl McConnell, who shared Estergreen with us in the early years. A grand garden plan was devised by our friend Bill Reed, the late landscape architect, and much of it has been built. We had inherited more than the cabin from the old Estergreen farm: ancient apple, plum and pear trees, a gnarled wisteria, old lilacs and towering conifers. Slowly, Daryl and his weekend guests toiled to add peonies, lilies and a burgeoning vegetable garden. His contribution lives on in the spectacular spring showing of masses and masses of irises.
The garden has changed again, reflecting my architectural eye. The lawns are levelled with concrete retaining walls, defining hedges of box, ilex and Russian laurel and a handsome row of katsura trees. Fledgling quince and crabapple trees have been added to the orchard. The old wisteria now shades a pergola supported by hemlock columns, which I designed for the Canadian Craft Museum decades ago on a terrace of “carib brown” brick pavers (Bill Reed’s favourite) edged with salvaged rust-glazed terracotta blocks from Vancouver’s Georgia Medical Dental Building. Nearby, a large bronze basin, a souvenir of our trip to Jaipur, sits on the stump of an old mountain ash. That massive tree’s fate was the topic of debate in our household. I loved the filigreed shade; Bob hated cleaning up the mess it dropped on the deck. He won.
Stretches of high fencing and an arbour were built especially for the rambling heritage roses we got from Christine Allen’s collection at Free Spirit Nursery in Langley. While tulips were Bob’s favourite flower, we never did much to plant them in the fall, favouring drifts of daffodils, which spread themselves in a woodland garden, blooming in time for his March birthday. Lately, Daphne Frost has helped with her keen eye for plants and colour, grouping and editing things with great skill. Thanks to her, there is order to the peony border, a bed of persicaria among the laurel hedges, and the shapely, cloud-pruned boxwood surrounding the cream-glazed pot in the front yard.
Our weekends at Estergreen usually began with guests arriving late Saturday afternoon, in time for drinks and a walk in the garden. Then, everyone would gather in the kitchen around the teak work table while dinner preparations progressed. Our entertaining routine had Bob tending bar and the Ball-B-Q while I manned the gas range. With the dining room drapes closed, the space was a cozy venue for dinner, unless warm weather allowed an evening under the pergola, lit by Turkish lanterns. Music was from old vinyl, and we would listen to Songs of the Auvergne over and over and over.Evenings were spent by the fire in winter, reading or watching a well-worn DVD of Roman Holiday if it was just the two of us.
Then there would be lazy Sunday mornings, reading newspapers and drinking coffee. But not so lazy as to miss a bracing run on the country roads or a bike ride. Sometimes a long bike ride along the lower reaches of Mount Baker (even up to the top one time—a 160-kilometre round trip), with stops for coffee at the many espresso huts peppered throughout Whatcom County. Then lunch, preferably an alfresco meal under the pergola, which could last all afternoon. Other times, excursions would take us to Bellingham, or down to Christianson’s Nursery in Mount Vernon. And, on special occasions, out to Lummi Island for a foraged dinner at the Willows Inn.
This spring I spent a weekend alone at Estergreen writing this memoir with Bob’s favourite Four Last Songs playing in the background. While out picking early asparagus and rhubarb from the vegetable garden, I noticed the oddest thing under an old maple tree: a random cluster of seven tall, near-black tulips. I do not recall ever seeing them before, let alone planting them. I cut them and brought them home to Vancouver. In a plain crystal vase they stayed, ramrod straight, in their silent beauty until they finally faded, two years to the day after Bob died. I’ll plant more tulips this fall.