Leanne Ng and Erik Benson were riding to prom, dressed as a Victorian king and queen, in a school bus driven by a hippie. They met this hippie at a Grateful Dead concert. It had been Ng's idea to sell angel figurines for $5 at the concert, and not only were the angels a business success, they also surrounded the teenagers with the sort of good juju that bonded them to this aged hippie and her school bus. Wending through town in a messy old bus was a statement for Ng and Benson. This was Irvine, California, in 1994, where gated communities protected themselves from each other, neon signs were outlawed, and everyone was required to have the same mailbox. This was where Ng and Benson grew up, and where they're still escaping from, and it helps to know this when you visit their new project, McLeod Residence, the spooky, creaky house that could become a nice little arrhythmia in the corporate heart of Belltown.
"A lot of things about this place are surreal," says Ng, whose name is now legally Lele McLeod. Benson's name is now legally Buster Butterfield McLeod. (She wanted McLeod—"it can refer to clouds, it can refer to loud"—and he wanted Butterfield, so the two old friends tossed a coin for their symbolic rebirth. When his name was announced in court, the judge laughed, which Buster took as a good omen.) They want McLeod Residence to be a gathering place fueled by members interested in art, technology, and each other. It opens Friday, and already has 46 members who can officially wear "Hello My Name Is McLeod" nametags as they mingle in the gothic-wallpapered foyer with the turquoise chandeliers. (You become a member by paying $50 a year or doing something else agreed upon by you and the McLeods.)
The residence, built in 1910 and revamped with help from people like artist Zac Culler and art programmer Chris Weber, feels like the setting for Clue. Originally the building was four stories, but the top two were torn off sometime between 1937 and 1944, according to state archives (they don't say why). Blunt ends of cut-off pipes jut into the rooms. Legend has it that a man living here was murdered in his bathtub, for dating a daughter of the Chinese mafia.
Rooms are hidden behind six white doors onto the foyer. Behind each door is a radically different experience.
A smooth rectangle on one ceiling indicates where a sex swing once hung. Now the room is painted black and moonlit by seven light boxes. It's a gallery for photography and digital art; check out the glowing Holy Mother of God Tabernacle above the busty hookers in a photo-comic tribute to the disappearing bad urban neighborhoods of the 1970s by Salah Mason and Maceo McNeff. In the spring, after the liquor license arrives, you'll be able to order a drink in the next room.
Across the staircase from the light-box room, behind another door, is a century's step backward: realistic landscapes and portraits from the early 20th century, provided by Seattle dealer J. Franklin, in a maroon parlor outfitted with antique furniture. Each of his artists has some local connection. Alonzo Victor Lewis, painter of a 1916 portrait of a curmudgeon now dubbed Grandpa McLeod, fashioned the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial for the lawn of the state capitol in 1928. The Dutch postimpressionist Pieter van Veen landed in Tacoma late in his career. His portraits of French Gothic cathedrals won him the French Legion of Honor, and one of the portraits—a pearly-white vision of Chartres—hangs in the parlor.
Behind the next door is an installation room, where Paul Rucker's video of himself playing a cello can be altered by running your hand over a theremin-like box. In the next room is an unusual, ethereal abstract painting by William Ivey.
Lele wanted to open a gallery; Buster wanted to open a high-tech bar. She studied art and art history at the University of Washington and worked at William Traver and Foster/White galleries in Seattle before leaving to manage development and events at UrbanGlass in New York, and then to sell historic paintings for Ray Redfern in Laguna Beach, California.
Buster, a partner in Seattle's Robot Co-op, helps run the social networking site 43things.com. He envisioned "re-creating those kinds of online connections in real life: a lounge that is less of a place to get drunk and pick up dates, and more of an old- fashioned club where new and old friends can exchange ideas and conversation, in a place that feels like a second home."
A digital photo booth in a tiny corner closet automatically downloads to Flickr. Membership may come to include a scannable card so that the bar plays your song when you walk in and you drink on a monthly tab. The McLeods are full of ideas. Aerial-view exhibitions in alley land plots. Texted confessions scrolling above the bar. Sunday dinners. More to come.
Here are some other images from the McLeod house.