Behind the first dormer is a bedroom with 18th-century European furniture. Behind the second is a TV den, with stained glass on the landing. Behind the third is a luxe walk-in shower. It’s an attic that sums up the Gray House, one of the homes on the upcoming Historic Homes Tour in Tacoma: a perfect marriage of architecture, antiques and artisan DIY.
“Obviously we like antiques, and this house has so much character,” says José Santiago-Cummings, one half of the married couple who have owned the Gray House since 2009. “This is a retreat for us, at least until we get too old to climb the stairs.”
I love the house. But it was a lot more house than I originally wanted. It’s a labor of love.
Jeff Sawyer, home-owner
“I love the house,” adds Jeff Sawyer, Santiago-Cummings’ husband. “But it was a lot more house than I originally wanted. It’s a labor of love.”
One of seven North Proctor/Stevens houses on the fundraising tour (along with Bethany Presbyterian Church), the Gray House is, in fact, anything but gray in the story it has to tell. It was built in 1908 by Albert Gray, a voice professor at Whitworth College — then located in Tacoma — and a graduate of Harvard and the University of Paris. Designed by Harry Bingham Spear, the house was modeled after Longfellow House in Massachusetts and included a living/concert room that ran the length of the house from front to back. After the Grays moved with Whitworth to Spokane, the house had a succession of interesting owners: Eugene White, manager of the Tacoma Smelter, and his wife, Nellie, an accomplished pianist; magician John Hreha and his wife, LaMoyne, restaurateur and performer.
Now, as Santiago-Cummings and Sawyer lead the way around the house, it’s clear that they’re no less interesting. Married since 2013 and together since 2001, the couple have lived all over the globe, thanks to their military careers (Sawyer is retired Air Force; Santiago-Cummings is an Army colonel stationed at Madigan Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord). Wherever they’ve lived — Germany, Honduras, Korea, Hawaii, Panama — they’ve collected beautiful objects.
But they’ve also made plenty themselves.
“This table, I made it out of railroad ties from the Panama Canal,” says Santiago-Cummings nonchalantly, gesturing to the enormous table in the center of the living room, once the setting for Nellie Gray’s concerts. “I was stationed in Honduras for six months, and I had to keep busy somehow.”
Expert scuba divers, the pair discovered old ties made of lignum vitae wood at the bottom of Gatun Lake, dammed in 1907 as part of the Panama Canal. They brought them up, and Santiago-Cummings inlaid them into a frame of dark Honduran mahogany, carving four legs with lion and snake emblems he’d found in books. Atop the table are candlesticks made of antlers found in Germany — more of Santiago-Cummings’ handiwork.
The table alone would be worth a ticket to the home tour. But it’s surrounded by 18th-century Belgian hutches and armoires, tall and heavy and baroquely carved, a German wedding trunk from 1743 with iron hinges and painted sides, and more antiques, plus the paneled windows, fireplace and sconces of the original music room — which was so insulated by the Grays that you can’t hear anything from the floor above.
The rest of the house has the same exotic, unexpected combination of the historic, the antique and the handmade. Beyond the wide front door with original leaded glass is the dining room, crammed with a neo-Renaissance dresser from 1870s France along with two matching shelves, 10 feet high. Original ceiling rosettes and a gilded hutch are offset by four small frames holding, yes, iridescent cockroaches.
“They’re glass, from when we visited Murano in Venice,” says Santiago-Cummings with a grin. “People always ask if they’re real.”
A refurbished butler’s pantry and kitchen combine modern fleur-de-lis floor tiles and pressed metal backsplash with antique European lamps, including two huge brass church chandeliers. Doing a lot of the renovation work themselves, Santiago-Cummings and Sawyer spared no details: an island topped with a blond maple slab they hand-sanded; two gold-and-green stained glass windows from Metz, France, which Sawyer learned how to repair and now rest in their own custom-built glass frames. There’s even a couple of beer taps that connect to a keg in the basement, backed by a mahogany plate carved by Santiago-Cummings.
12 Panes of stained glass in the Gray House
Everything in the house has a story, from the fridge space (an old servant stairwell discovered when they ripped up some carpet) to the lamp by the stairs. (“We just bought this piece, then that piece, then put it all together,” says Santiago-Cummings.)
But the sweetest story is the backsplash behind the La Cornue range: a black metal square with coat-of-arms (two lions rampant, crown and shield) and motto. Santiago-Cummings designed and carved it out of wood, sending it to a local firm to be cast in aluminum. For the shield he drew a double-S for their initials; for the motto he chose “Chaque Jour” (“every day”), a phrase the couple have always used to affirm their love.
The tour continues up to the second floor, where a remodeled guest bedroom — the couple’s first project in the house, with hunter green walls, polo sticks and archery bows — contrasts with a yet-to-be-renovated office. Here are more antiques: a secretary desk with lion-mouth drawer pulls, a massive 1800s carved oak bed. The original fir floors hold cast-iron heating grates, but a bathroom combines antique French lights with modern tiles and an Ikea shelf, all installed by the couple.
“We learn as we go,” Santiago-Cummings says. “You just Google (what you need to know).”
There’s more antique stained glass in the big bathroom and an enormous four-part window on the upper landing, roses entwined with gold and aqua ribbons. The couple had the original dormer expanded to fit it. Hung around it is a collection of antique swords, including ivory-handled knives and a 1600s Swiss halberd. An 1862 Belgian obituary painting, diamond-shaped, hangs above a coffin-sized trunk from 1777, complete with silver key — more European flea-market finds.
Then there’s the upper attic, formerly the maid’s quarters, which the couple have renovated into a complete apartment behind those three dormers visible from the street. Also visible outside are balconies, a separate apartment building with rooftop terrace and a double fountain the men installed in the backyard.
Even after eight years, the Gray House isn’t finished with its facelift. Much of the wiring remains the original knob-and-tube (including mother-of-pearl push-buttons by the front door). The terrace leaks in the rain. There’s the office still to do and the basement. But for both men, it’s something they love.
“Jeff is good with making things square and level, and I’m better with the decorative process,” says Santiago-Cummings. “It’s all pretty much self-learned.”
Tacoma Historic Homes Tour
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 6, 1-5 p.m. May 7.
Where: Seven North End homes with reception center at Bethany Presbyterian Church, 4420 N. 41st St., Tacoma. Other addresses provided with ticket purchase.
Tickets: $25 from Tacoma Historical Society Museum, 919 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; Pacific Northwest Shop; Stadium Thriftway and Columbia Bank branches (Pearl Street, Fircrest) and online.
Also: Complimentary food and drink at Bethany Presbyterian during tour. No food, drink or photography allowed in homes. Tour supports the Tacoma Historical Society. Wear walking shoes.