By Susie Mesure
Few American homes are known for their history in the same way as many of their European counterparts. But the solid white mansion hidden in a corner of Bainbridge Island, a ferry from Seattle, Washington, would challenge everywhere for an exciting backstory.
The property, which is now an elegant four-bedroom family home and is on the market for $ 7.6 million, was at the heart of the U.S. Navy’s intelligence operations during World War II. Then known as Building 39, it was built in 1941 as part of Naval Radio Station Bainbridge. The station was home to machines trying to decipher messages from the Imperial Japanese Navy, including those that preceded the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of that year, which prompted America to join the war.
“It was considered the ears and brain of the U.S. Navy Decryption Center,” said Shawn O’Neill, who moved with his wife, Bethany, who was pregnant at the time, from southern California. “Messages have been sent to Washington DC for final decoding.” Although it is suspected that no one lived on the property during the war, there would have been enough work space for 100 staff, Shawn adds.
The house, which is made of cast concrete, covers 12,000 square meters over three floors and covers an area of 10 hectares. It was abandoned for decades before being converted into a luxury family home in the 1980s. “It was a rough concrete structure. Many of the teenagers on the island came here and did whatever teenagers do, ”says Shawn.
The O’Neills, who paid $ 2.3 million for the property and are the third private owner, like the size of the building, which combines Art Deco-inspired features that the first owner added with symmetry and columns in Palladian style. ‘It felt like a European residence to me. I was amazed at that. It is a large, heavy structure, but it is open and sunny and feels very light, ”says Bethany.
The previous owners extended the original 10,000-square-foot footprint with an indoor pool and two separate garages for up to five cars, which allowed the O’Neills to focus on updating the interiors. They added wood floors and copper fittings, while the cabinets were removed in several rooms to reveal original concrete beams, which are now painted white. All five bathrooms and the kitchen have been refurbished.
‘There was a concrete cavity in the middle of the house that was once the navy’s vault. It is now exposed to concrete and forms one side of the bar, ”says Bethany. The O’Neills decided to respect the sober exterior of the building. “We struggled to add shutters or decoration to the front, but we felt that the ghost of the U.S. Navy would say, ‘No shutters; it is a military building. Let’s make sure this building is loud and proud and that it’s forever, ” says Shawn.
With two-foot-thick concrete walls — built to withstand a possible air strike — the biggest challenges were installing wiring and adding modern technology, says Shawn, who works in private customer banking services. He usually commutes to Seattle by the 35-minute ferry, which departs from downtown Bainbridge Island, a 15-minute drive away, but was home during the pandemic.
Outside, the home is surrounded by densely packed mature trees, including hawthorn, blossoms, cedars and Douglas firs. ‘I always say, I feel like I’m looking at a landscape painting by Turner. Each window frames the trees beautifully, ”says Bethany, whose favorite season is autumn here, partly because many deer roam the grounds.
After years of extensive fundraising for up to 200 people for various charities, the O’Neills, who have four children, want to downsize. “We’ve done our part of entertaining and are ready to pass the lead on to another family,” says Shawn. ‘But we stay on the island; we are not quite ready for an apartment. ”
Photo: Clarity Northwest / Christie’s International Real Estate