Edith Macefield’s tiny house will soon float to Orcas Island – but not by balloon.
The property owner – a bank that won’t disclose its identity – has gifted the legendary house to a nonprofit on Orcas Island. The nonprofit, in turn, promises to barge the house up Puget Sound to the island, where it will be hauled onto land and turned into a home for lower-income people.
It was a stroke of good luck for the small nonprofit, OPAL Community Land Trust.
They had been given a home in West Seattle in June, which they had planned to barge to Orcas. When they learned there was room on the barge for another house, their project manager started scouring demolition permits filed for Seattle properties.
“Some of those houses are tear-downs to people because they don’t know any better,” said Judy Whiting, outreach and publications manager for OPAL.
In her search, the project manager came across the Macefield house, a small property with good bones. Although built in 1900 and apparently trashed on the outside, “the inside is basically all new,” Whiting said.
People at OPAL got in touch with broker Paul Thomas, who calls himself “The No B.S. Broker.” They said that if the sale didn’t go through, they would happily take the house as a donation. Thomas told them not to hold their breath.
The Macefield house became notable in 2006, when the elderly woman refused to sell her Ballard farmhouse to developers. Developers had reportedly offered her $1 million, but she wasn't interested.
Around this time, the Pixar movie “Up” was released, and publicists tied colorful balloons to the roof of the house. The house then came to be known as the "Up" house.
When Macefield died in 2008 at age 86, she bequeathed her home to Barry Martin, the superintendent of the construction site. Theirs was a difficult relationship at first, but Martin didn’t give up on her.
Macefield softened toward Martin, telling him about her musical career and her cousin Benny Goodman. She had an autograph book with signatures from Charlie Chaplin, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. A note from Spencer Tracy suggested they were friendly.
She said she had been given an English castle during World War II to help the wounded.
Martin found three marriage certificates among her possessions. One was to a man named Macefield. His family had owned a fig plantation in Africa. Macefield recalled the giraffes sauntering over and eating the pies she had set out to cool.
“She would tell you a story for a few minutes, and then she didn’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said. He dug into her fascinating past and found that much of what she shared was true. (He has since written a book about their friendship, Under One Roof, published by St. Martin's Press.)
Martin took her to doctor appointments. When she was asked about her power of attorney, she turned to Martin and announced it would be him. That’s how he came to inherit her house.
Tour the Macefield house inside:
He sold it for $310,000 to a buyer who eventually had financial trouble. Martin put that money in a mutual fund, which saved him during the recession.
The monthly interest he received from the fund was $6 more than his mortgage payment. And when it was time, he spent the money as Macefield had asked – on his kids’ education.
Meantime, the Macefield house went through several hands. In March, it was put up at auction, but no one bought it. The house then returned to the bank.
The bank got in touch with Thomas, who normally sells small and mid-size commercial property. He became consumed by the task.
“My entire focus has been figuring out how to ensure the house won’t get torn down,” he said. “I think if I allowed that house to be torn down, I would probably get lynched. There is so much attachment to that house.”
But finding a buyer to take the house and the land – and not demolish the house – proved impossible. When OPAL submitted a moving proposal with their plans, promising a going-away party and a grand-arrival party for the Macefield house, Thomas pitched their idea to the bank. It agreed to give away the house.
Thomas, too, was moved during the four months he worked on the sale of the house. It hasn't been a lucrative project, not that he minds.
“The thing that has been a payback for me is watching little kids, watching their eyes get huge and say, ‘It’s the ‘Up’ house,’" he said. "Seeing that over and over – that is really heartwarming.”
He will now focus on selling the land, a small parcel that is roughly 1,500 square feet. He said several developers have expressed strong interest, likely because the site is so well-known.
OPAL, founded in 1989, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $205,000 to finish the house, barge it over and pay for land on Orcas. Whiting said that’s cheaper than building a house from scratch.
“We recycle them,” Whiting said. “It’s a very economical way to put a family in a house more rapidly than if we were building a new project.”
OPAL aims to house the working and middle-class people who live on the increasingly pricey island. Those are teachers and small business owners who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live there, Whiting said. The income cap for a family of four to be eligible for an OPAL house is $52,950.
Whiting said that Martin, the former site superintendent, is delighted the house will be helping a family on Orcas. “We’re a feisty group, kind of like Edith was a feisty person,” she said.