On the first day of class, you might be expected to go to the chalkboard, write your name and introduce yourself. It's the kind of activity that one could imagine took place at the beginning of every school year back when Queen Anne High School was actually a school. If it did, it probably often happened inside what is now the 860-square-foot condo that Stephanie Heliker and Rob Caldwell call home. We can be pretty sure of this because the original slate chalkboard from when it was a classroom is still there.
"We’re one of the few units that has the original chalkboards intact," says Stephanie. "Not all the units do."
In a way, it's still being used for introductions. The names of places and cities are scribbled in the far corner next to the window and tell a TL;DR version of how Stephanie and Rob ended up in Seattle.
"I was born in California and Rob was born in Indiana," says Stephanie. "Then I went to school in San Diego and he went to school at The Naval Academy in Annapolis. He ended up being a Marine and was stationed near San Diego and that’s where we met. The 29 Palms/Joshua Tree area. He got into school at Columbia University and we moved to New York, so we lived in the Upper West Side for a while. And then he got a job out here at Amazon and we moved to Seattle."
Along the way they picked up pieces of each locale's style while also keeping an eye towards frugality and creativity. Oftentimes, according to Stephanie, they were influenced not by where they were but how they lived, which affected the way they approached finding the right home in Seattle.
"When we lived in New York we lived in a 450 square-foot apartment. So when we moved to Seattle, our priority was finding an apartment with space. Before we moved here, we lived in a cookie-cutter Seattle new apartment building. It was really beautiful but it just didn’t have the character, or the New York charm that we like. It didn’t have any personality."
Enter...Queen Anne High School. Built in 1908, the hulking structure was converted into apartments in 1986 and eventually into condos by 2006. Over a hundred years later it maintains not only some of the charms of an early 20th century school but literally some of the trophy cases and memorabilia as well. It was the exactly the kind of place that caught Stephanie's eye.
"We were thinking of moving because it was getting expensive living in Capitol Hill. I remembered seeing this high school and learning that it was a condo building. So when we were thinking of moving I went onto Craigslist and typed in "high school" and this listing popped up. It was the only one. So I emailed them and said we want to rent this place. They asked "Don't you want to see it first?" I said, "Yes! Can we see it tomorrow?"
The couple loves the idea of living inside a historic building, which is a bit of a dicey proposition these days in Seattle. Just living in a vintage building is one thing but the actual living space has to keep the romance of the experience alive long after the initial thrill dissipates. Stephanie and Rob have brought pieces of themselves and where they've been to ensure that's what happens.
Stephanie explains, "Living in Southern California I love color, so there’s a lot of elements of color. Living in New York we got a little bit of the industrial chic with our remaining pieces of furniture. And with Seattle, we’re bringing the outdoors in."
While she can be quite the bargain-hunter, Stephanie also has a knack for creating many of the stylish touches and accessories herself.
"All the photography is stuff that I’ve done for our travels...Those pillars are cool because when we lived in 29 Palms there was this furniture junkyard and everything was just baking out in the sun. So we ended up cutting off the legs of this old furniture and making little pillars out of it."
"All of the blankets and the pillows, I design them and have my mom sew for me. She created the pillows, all the quilts that are around the house. It’s a hobby for her."
One style choice that hadn't been explained up until this point...the dual rhino heads keeping a watchful eye on the living room. What's the motivation behind that?
"You know, that’s a good question. I like the trend of the animal heads on the wall and I saw the big rhino and bought it. And then I saw the gold rhino later, liked it better and decided this would become the rhino room."
The black & white image cabinets underneathth the chalkboard are another feature that catches the eye. They came with the place so it makes you wonder where they came from. Are they converted cubbies from the days of the classroom? Or did the owner simply add them in later on? Either way, they're a cool touch.
As for that aforementioned bargain-hunting ability, Stephanie is constantly scouting Overstock, Dot & Bo, and Craigslist for deals. West Elm, however, is clearly the source she loves most. Since that's not often within her budget, she's discovered a good strategy to find deals.
"If you appreciate places like West Elm or Pottery Barn, go during the big sales like Memorial Day or Labor Day and look for the floor sample pieces because they’ll already be on sale and then reduced by another 40 percent. And I don’t mind a couple nicks on a piece of furniture because we’re gonna do that to it anyway."
Stephanie and Rob were concerned when they moved to Queen Anne from Capitol Hill that they'd be leaving behind a certain quality of life. "Location was secondary to the building." However, upon discovering the surrounding area, they've realized that there's no shortage of ways to enjoy themselves.
"Totally walkable," say Rob on the neighborhood. "There’s really good restaurants in Queen Anne, from How To Cook a Wolf, all the way down to Betty, which is another favorite, and there’s lots of places in between."
Incidentally, as they showed us the northern view out their huge classroom windows, a woman just so happened to be walking her pig across the street. See, Capitol Hill, you can find plenty of quirk in Queen Anne, too.
Despite their roots and the long, windy road they took to get here, the couple is now proper modern Seattleites. Stephanie works by Pike Place Market while Rob works for a start-up in Pioneer Square. Their days take them to some of the most historic places in town and when it's over they meet back in one of the most unique living situations in the city. Whether or not they put down roots here or take a piece of the Pacific Northwest with them on the next stop, they seem to live by the same mantra that defines their style.
"We don’t really adhere to anything. If we like it we just get it and try to make it work."
Photos: Suzi Pratt